Lessons Learned from Female Perpetrators in International Criminal Law
International Criminal Law Lunch featuring Sheri Labenski, PhD candidate, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
International criminal law reinforces a narrative that overlooks the greater range of women’s involvement in armed conflict. International criminal law accepts that both female and male perpetrators can be equally culpable for international crimes and therefore, female perpetrators have the potential to be tried under international criminal law. However, this is not evident in the jurisprudence of international criminal courts and tribunals, or in the mainstream narratives from the conflict itself. Currently, female perpetrators have been slowly garnering more attention in the literature and in the media around armed conflict; however, such discussions need to move beyond their current biased and heavily gendered state. It is essential to engage with female perpetrators, in order to dissect the ways in which gender, race, class, ethnicity, masculinity, femininity, the media, Western feminist interventions and international law play a part and, in many ways, limit the construction of the female’s role in armed conflict. In order for international criminal law to be its most effective, it needs to take part in providing an actuate history of an armed conflict, one that acknowledges the wider range of women and men’s experiences. If international law strives to create a system of complementarity with states, then it must also work in reverse. Domestic courts and transitional justice mechanisms that recognize female perpetrators or rather identify the more nuanced and complex ways both men and women engage in armed conflict, need to be able to feed back to the international level. What currently occurs in international criminal law is a continual reproduction of binaries and stereotypes around men and women’s roles, which prevent the overall growth of the legal system.
One of the points of intervention into this discussion around international criminal law’s reproduction of strict binaries is to analyse the way women have been primarily identified as victims of sexual violence. Within the hyper-visibility of women as victims of sexual violence during the wars in the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the media, Western feminist intervention, and international courts, the understanding that women were also capable of perpetrating crimes was seemingly removed from focus. Yet, domestic courts tried many women involved in both conflicts. Another area of intervention is to look at the case of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and how she identified more closely with her ethnicity, rather than her gender. Exploring women as perpetrators disrupts the lines between gender norms in times of armed conflict and dispels the notion that women are the default victims of violence, dispensed by men. The continual reliance on predominately stereotypical narratives around femininity and masculinity create limitations that more broadly effect the general public, beyond international criminal law. It is here where female perpetrators provide a site of analysis for understanding and reimagining the discipline, though engaging in conversations that question the assumptions of the international criminal legal system.