The Grip of Sexual Violence in Conflict
Feminist Interventions in International Law
Karen Engle



THIS BOOK IS ABOUT THE GRIP OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE on legal and political discourse about gender and conflict. It explains how and why sexual violence in conflict emerged and persists as a dominant concern for many feminists engaged with international law and many international lawyers engaged with feminism. It therefore concentrates on those who advocate for, design, and implement legal and political responses to sexual violence in conflict, and on their understandings of why, where, how, to whom, and by whom such violence occurs. It considers the effects of their work on both feminism and law.

International institutional attention to what is now referred to as “sexual violence in conflict” or “conflict-related sexual violence” dates to the early 1990s, when the world began to learn of rapes taking place during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Feminists inside and outside the region were among the first to bring attention to the rapes, but they were assisted by nongovernmental and intergovernmental inquiries, as well as by journalists and policy-makers. A confluence of factors—from concerted organizing of women’s human rights advocates around violence against women (VAW) to Security Council–sanctioned collective action partly made possible by the end of the Cold War—meant that the treatment of rape would play an important role in the post–Cold War development of feminist advocacy as well as of international law and politics. Indeed, I contend, it has played too large a role in each.

As feminists from around the world, especially through the women’s human rights movement, began to pay an enormous amount of attention to wartime rape and what they would eventually construct as a broader category of sexual violence in conflict, they often did so at the cost of attention to other issues with which they had previously been concerned. In particular, the convergence of their efforts on sexual violence in conflict displaced much of the anti-militarism of the women’s peace movement, the sex-positive positions of many feminists involved in debates about sex work and pornography, and Third World feminist critiques of economic maldistribution, imperialism, and cultural essentialism. This book offers a detailed examination of how these feminist commitments were not merely deprioritized, but often undermined, by efforts to address the issue of sexual violence in conflict.

Sexual violence in conflict emerged as an important issue in a post–Cold War moment that was critical for the future of both international human rights advocates and internationally engaged feminists. Together, the two groups reached a general and enthusiastic consensus around the need to combat sexual violence in conflict. But they did little to indicate that the topic would eventually occupy as much feminist energy as it did, or that its treatment would result in the ascendance of one feminist approach at the expense of others.

My concern is not only that anti-militarist, sex-positive, and Third World feminist critiques took a backseat as eyes turned toward sexual violence in conflict. In ways both overt and stealthy, prevalent understandings of the nature of sexual violence, and the proper responses to it, came to be shaped by a particular form of what I term “structural-bias feminism.” This approach largely emerged from the work of feminists in the global North, and characteristically held that male sexual domination and female sexual subordination constitute the greatest structural impediment to women’s emancipation. I contend that the success of this perspective has had negative effects on international law and politics as well as on feminism. Its influence helped to consolidate the components of an international, mostly institutional, “common sense” about sexual violence that relies upon and reinforces negative images of sex and sexuality, and problematic understandings of gender, ethnicity, and war and peace.

That common sense includes the following propositions: rape and sexual violence are the worst crimes committed during conflict; much of their harm is due to the shame they inflict on individuals and communities; they are perpetrated by individual male monsters; they are committed against innocent women, girls, men, and boys, though they are primarily aimed at women and girls; and investigation, prosecution, and punishment of individual perpetrators offer the best recourse, not only for ending sexual violence in conflict but also for promoting peace.

I trace the development of this common sense to the success of a certain form of feminism, but also to its interaction with particular approaches to international human rights, humanitarian, and criminal law. I am critical of the ways in which, together, they have brought a hyper-attention to sexual harm, and often have pursued extraordinary measures to respond to it. When some feminists began to call for military and criminal intervention to respond to rape and sexual violence, they drew upon and strengthened relatively new approaches to human rights and humanitarian law that rely upon force and courts for enforcement.

Human rights advocates and scholars today continue to debate whether and when to use military force in the name of human rights. Yet they widely agree that criminal law, including international criminal law, should constitute the principal response to certain violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including sexual violence in conflict. This near consensus around criminal accountability has reinforced an individualized approach to human rights and humanitarian law violations, losing much of the context of conflicts, including the roles of bystanders and beneficiaries.1 Relatedly, it has also provided a new avenue for the human rights movement to strengthen its condemnation of certain conduct during wars, rather than condemning the fact or causes of the wars themselves.2 Although this individualization and decontextualization might appear to run counter to the structural-bias emphasis of the feminism that eventually prevailed in legal and political discourse about sexual violence in conflict, some of the strongest supporters of criminalization have also been loyal adherents to, and even pioneers of, that feminism.

Through an account of feminist engagement with international law over the past twenty-five years, I aim to show that sexual violence in conflict was not as obvious a focus as it may now appear to be. Further, I argue that once sexual violence became central, it was not inevitable that feminists would encourage or acquiesce to mainstream representations concerning the harm of rape or the deployment of militarism and criminal law to address it. I am thus as interested in what has been lost or displaced by this emphasis on and approach to sexual violence in conflict as I am in what has been gained. As I detail in Chapter One, the development of the common sense around sexual violence in conflict had the effect of suppressing earlier productive disagreements among feminists over a variety of issues. I revisit those debates with the hope of contesting that common sense and its embeddedness in the institutional spaces that the remainder of the book explores.

I. The Common Sense: An Illustration

Let me begin with a vivid illustration of the common sense, by describing and contextualizing in some detail a 2014 video released by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The video was meant to set the stage for the Global Summit on Sexual Violence in Conflict, hosted by William Hague, who was then UK Foreign Secretary, and Angelina Jolie, who—in addition to (or perhaps as a part of) being a celebrity—serves as Special Envoy of the UN High Commission on Refugees. The summit was the culmination of work that Hague and Jolie had done together, in coordination with Zainab Bangura, who was then the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. That work began in 2012, when Hague and Jolie announced their Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI). It picked up steam in 2013, under the UK’s presidency of the Group of Eight (G8). In April of that year, following the G8 Foreign Ministers’ annual meeting, Hague shared the stage with Jolie and Bangura for a press conference. Although the ministers had considered a wide range of issues during their meeting, Hague announced that he had succeeded in achieving his personal priority, which was the G8 Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict signed by all G8 Foreign Ministers.3

Calling sexual violence in conflict “the slave trade of our generation,” Hague stated: “We know that this violence inflicts unimaginable suffering, destroys families and communities, and fuels conflict.” For Jolie, sexual violence victims are the “forgotten victims of war: responsible for none of the harm, but bearing the worst of the pain.” Hague presented the G8 Declaration as “historic” in its statement that rape and sexual violence constitute war crimes and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Although the G8’s response to sexual violence in conflict was multipronged, the press conference largely focused on criminal sanctions. Hague noted in particular the responsibility of states to bring to trial or extradite those accused of such crimes and to refuse to include amnesty for sexual violence in peace agreements. He emphasized that the G8 agreed to develop a protocol for criminal prosecutions and to “help build up the judicial, investigative and legal capacity of other countries in the area.” Bangura acknowledged the health, legal, psychological, and social needs of survivors of sexual violence, but noted that “we now also throw a more concerted spotlight on the perpetrators.” For them, “there can be no hiding place, no amnesty, no safe harbor.”4

Shortly after the passage of the G8 Declaration, Hague, Jolie, and Bangura successfully advocated for a new UN Security Council resolution on sexual violence in conflict, which recognized the G8 Declaration.5 Six months later, at the General Assembly, Hague and Bangura launched the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which at least 156 UN member states eventually signed.6 In June 2014, Hague and Jolie cohosted their Global Summit in London, where they officially introduced the PSVI.

Days before the Global Summit, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office posted on its website a short (just over one minute) animated video titled “Don’t believe the thumbnail, this video is the stuff of nightmares.”7 The animation is two-dimensional, resembling the work of a child. It portrays a wartime rape. The voice of a girl narrates the story, although a caption appearing in the opening seconds of the video announces that it “may not be suitable for under-16s.” Even as it is framed as a child’s view of sexual violence in conflict, the video includes common language from international legal and political discourse on the subject.

The animation opens with an apparently nuclear family—father, mother, boy, girl, and dog—in front of a house surrounded by green trees and blooming flowers (see Figure I.1). On one side of the screen, the father grills on a barbecue. On the other side, the rest of the family plays. Birds chirp and the dog makes frisky noises. The sun is shining, and the sky is blue. This image is the thumbnail that the line from of the video instructs its viewers not to believe.8

By the third second of the video, the scene changes dramatically. As the narrator declares, “There is a weapon that doesn’t just leave physical wounds, it leaves emotional wounds,” the blue sky disappears, and black clouds move in, followed by military helicopters. The family members, except for the dog, run into the house, as military ground vehicles arrive. Male soldiers exit the vehicles. One shoots the dog. The soldiers enter the house, and the narrator continues: “A weapon of power, violence, and control.”

The animation then shows the perspective from inside the house, before the soldiers have entered. The male head of household escorts his wife and children inside. Behind a kitchen table sits a shelf with art objects. Above it hangs a framed painting of the family outside the house—the same image with which the video began (the thumbnail). After moving his family into the room, the man stands in front of the door, attempting to bar it with his body. But his chivalrous efforts are outdone. The narrator says: “A weapon that is just as scary as bombs and bullets, but invisible—rape.” At the moment the narrator says “rape,” the armed soldiers enter the house and one hits the man on the head with his gun. They begin to fire their guns into the air. Someone screams. The narrator explains that “rape and sexual violence are used against women, girls, men, and boys.” The perpetrators surround the kitchen table, visually obscuring the rape that begins to take place. There are sounds of clothing being ripped and of evil laughter. Through the gaps between the soldiers, one can see that the person being raped is wearing blue, just like the mother, and only the mother, in the earlier scenes, leaving little doubt that she is the victim.


1. See Douglas, The Memory of Judgment; Koskenniemi, “Between Impunity and Show Trials”; Mamdani, “Beyond Nuremberg”; Meister, After Evil.

2. For a comparison of international law–based challenges to U.S. atrocities committed during the Vietnam War and those committed during the war on terror, the former based on jus ad bellum (contesting the legality of U.S. involvement in the war itself) and the latter on jus in bello (contesting human rights violations committed during the war), see Moyn, “From Antiwar Politics to Antitorture Politics.” Of course, at the same time that human rights advocates were turning their attention to condemning human rights and humanitarian law violations during war, as we see in Chapter Two, some were using those violations to call for military intervention. For David Kennedy, both approaches are part of the modern law of force that “now permits humanitarians, military professionals, and statesmen to speak about decisions to go to war and the conduct of war in the same—humanitarian—terms.” Kennedy, The Dark Sides of Virtue, 267.

3. G8, “Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict,” Apr. 11, 2013, Foreign and Commonwealth Office,

4. All quotations from the press conference can be found at Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “News Story: G8 Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict,” Apr. 11, 2013,

5. UN Security Council, Resolution 2106, preambular para. 3. For a summary of the proceedings and of the roles that each of the trio played, see UN News Center, “Security Council Strengthens Efforts to End Impunity for Conflict-Related Sexual Violence,” June 24, 2013, This resolution is discussed in detail in Chapter Five.

6. The declaration remained open for signature, and 156 states had signed it as of July 2016. For the declaration, see UN General Assembly, Letter Dated 26 November 2013 from the Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General, Appendix: Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, UN Doc. A/68/633, Dec. 3, 2013. For the number of signatories as of 2016, see UN Secretary-General, Status of the Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Armed Conflicts: Report of the Secretary-General, UN Doc. A/71/183, July 22, 2016, 43.

7. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Don’t believe the thumbnail, this video is the stuff of nightmares,” June 2, 2014,

8. The designer of the video, London-based marketing agency Don’t Panic, uses this opening scene in its online magazine as the thumbnail of the video. Don’t Panic magazine, “Don’t Believe the Thumbnail, This Video Is the Stuff of Nightmares,” June 3, 2014, The UK government announced the video with a different thumbnail, which shows a monster baring his teeth (taken from the 0:34 mark of the video). Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Animation Launched for Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict,” June 4, 2014,