Natasha Fricker – Imagining Gender-Just Worlds
In recent years there have been many highly publicised demonstrations against pervasive sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) within long-standing western liberal democracies like the United Kingdom and the United States. When it comes to eliminating SGBV within so-called consolidated democracies (where the institutions, rules, and culture of democracy are “the only game in town” (Linz and Stepan 1996, 15)), criminal justice mechanisms do not appear to be working. My research seeks new ways of tackling the entrenched problem of SGBV within such consolidated democracies, asking if we can learn anything from transitional justice (TJ).
TJ traditionally refers to methods of dealing with past abuses in states transitioning from conflict or authoritarianism towards democracy, including official apologies, memorialisation, truth commissions, criminal tribunals, reparations, and social reform. Prominent examples include the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa and the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Yet consolidated democracies often have their own histories of systemic abuses and experience the ongoing legacies of violence. Increasingly, the language, principles, and mechanisms of TJ are being used or suggested as ways of addressing violence within consolidated democracies, in particular that resulting from histories of colonialism and racial oppression.
My work considers whether consolidated democracies can or should use TJ to confront SGBV and their far from peaceful histories with gender; histories which often intersect with the violent histories of colonialism, race, and class. In doing so, I build on feminist scholarship that questions a rigid distinction between conflict-related and ‘peacetime’ SGBV. In the case of conflict-related SGBV, suggesting such violence is purely a product of a particular conflict or political regime isolates it from wider histories and contexts of SGBV. This ignores the role of embedded gender norms, gendered discourse, and heteronormative patriarchal structures in determining the form violence takes during exceptional political events. One example is the reported mass rape and forced pregnancy of Bosnian Muslim women by Bosnian Serb soldiers during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Victims testified that perpetrators told them any resulting child would bear the perpetrator’s ethnicity (United Nations Security Council 1994). Implicit in this threat is a gendered understanding of ethnic descent and the harnessing of gendered violence to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the Bosnian identity.
The normalisation of gendered practices and discourses within peaceful societies can explain why brutal acts of SGBV are conceivable, and often strategic, in exceptional political situations. Can SGBV then be situated across a continuum encompassing both wartime and ‘peacetime’ SGBV? If so, why is TJ only considered appropriate for addressing conflict-related SGBV? What ‘justice’ is TJ delivering, and (how) is it different from domestic criminal justice?
Over the years, different actors and institutions have promoted different visions of what TJ should aim to do and how. The contours of TJ are therefore contested and revolve broadly around different understandings of ‘transition’, ‘violence’, and ‘justice’. In my thesis, I argue that this process of contestation has resulted in three different visions of TJ: as legal justice; as restorative justice; and as transformative justice. I plan to map these different visions of TJ using the concept of an ‘imaginary’, which draws from Charles Taylor’s work on ‘social imaginaries’. By ‘imaginary’, I mean the values and practices that have evolved to constitute and embed different understandings of TJ as legal justice, restorative justice, or transformative justice. How is justice imagined by the relevant actors and why?
The first part of my project will draw from historical examples to plot an intellectual and institutional genealogy of how these three different TJ imaginaries – legal, restorative, transformative – have addressed conflict-related SGBV. I focus on conflict-related SGBV as this is the primary arena in which TJ confronts issues of gender violence. I will then ask whether these visions of TJ offer insights into addressing SGBV in ‘peacetime’, using as a case study the most comprehensive example of a consolidated western liberal democracy using principles and processes traditionally associated with TJ to undertake a gender reckoning: the 2019 Canadian National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
With my research I want to contribute to ongoing conversations about gender justice and the place of TJ within supposedly peaceful consolidated democracies. How we frame certain problems necessarily affects what solutions we envisage. My hope is that considering ‘peacetime’ SGBV within the frame of TJ will offer new insights into understanding and addressing this persistent violence.
Linz, Juan J., and Alfred C. Stepan. 1996. ‘Toward Consolidated Democracies’. Journal of Democracy 7 (2): 14–33. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.1996.0031.
United Nations Security Council. 1994. ‘Final Report of the United Nations Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780 (1992), Addendum 2 (Volume V), Annex IX: Rape and Sexual Assault’. S/1994/674/Annex IX. Paragraphs 10, 15, 18(e), 123, 226 (28 December 1994). https://www.siracusainstitute.org/app/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Final-report-of-the-Commission-of-Experts-on-former-Yugoslavia-1993-94.pdf.
This blog post is inspired by a poster I presented at genderED’s Annual Research Showcase on 30 May 2022.
Natasha Fricker is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Edinburgh, funded by the Chrystal Macmillan PhD Studentship. Her work brings transitional justice scholarship into conversation with that of feminist scholars writing on gender violence and justice. She holds an MSc in the Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice from SOAS and a BA in Law from the University of Cambridge.