Book Review: The Politics of Victimhood in Post-conflict Societies: Comparative and Analytical Perspectives

Vincent Drulilolle and Roddy Brett, eds. The Politics of Victimhood in Post-conflict Societies: Comparative and Analytical Perspectives. Palgrave, 2018.

This volume seeks to build on what its editors call the ‘victims turn’ (2) in approaches to the addressing of histories of violence by understanding how victimhood is defined, negotiated and contested, socially and politically, and ultimately how it is politically deployed. The admirable goal of the book is to take critical and ethnographic approaches that challenge the legalism of the field, dominated by the lens of transitional justice, and understand how victims can become the political actors that the now dominant language of ‘victim-centered’ process promises. The book is divided into three sections that map onto the research agenda that the volume seeks to articulate. These are: 1. The definition of victimhood; 2. Victims in the political arena; and 3. Victims, democratization and peace processes. Most of the content is in these first two categories, with the divide between these two sections blurred by the obvious fact, made clear in the book, that identifying victims as such is itself an act of politics. The two dominant lines of inquiry that chapters follow are the interlinked areas of the politics of victimhood – how victimhood is defined, perceived and responded to – and victims as political actors, that is the extent to which victims are agents of change in post-conflict transition. Many contributions note the tension between the victim, characterized as passive and vulnerable, and a political actor with power to drive change. Indeed, much of the potential practical utility of this volume is to address that apparent dilemma.

The book begins with an introduction that highlights the ever-present demarcation of ‘good and ‘bad’ victims, most often through the creation of a hierarchy where victims are labelled on the basis of conflict-linked identities. Intersecting hierarchies of victimhood also emerge from understandings that ‘good’ victims are innocent, and not engaged in the conflict, and that victims’ claims are framed and constrained by ideas of legitimacy: while truth, justice and reparation are typically considered legitimate demands, addressing issues of social justice and economic redistribution are not. The two dominant themes throughout the volume are thus various hierarchies of victimhood and the idea of ‘competitive victimhood’ that drives many of them. Despite such observations, the volume largely articulates a narrow vision of who is a victim, representing the acceptance of a definition of victim that reflects, rather than challenges, the dominant idea in contemporary practice that victims are victims of the violence of conflict and not of broader structural processes that harm them.  

The one chapter that does challenge this narrow understanding is Druliolle’s fascinating contribution on the ‘stolen’ children of Spain. Both chapters on Spain very precisely demonstrate the issues raised by defining victims in ways that are necessarily exclusive. Alija-Fernández and Martin-Ortega discuss the decay in recent decades of the ‘pact of silence’ that followed Franco’s fall that was accelerated by families “searching for their dead” (61-62). Exhuming those bodies represents a reclaimed victimhood to (and by) those families, both as individuals and as a political movement seeking to redefine how the dictatorship is understood. Druliolle’s chapter offers perhaps the book’s most innovative and incisive contribution. It demonstrates that similar violations – the taking of babies from mothers at birth – can generate a hierarchy of victimhood, driven by the politics around them. Those children taken from detained dissidents under Franco represent a clear example of violence with a political goal and have been acknowledged as such. In contrast, the taking of children from mothers because they were unmarried or otherwise socially, rather than politically, unacceptable, has not been acknowledged as creating victims. Over decades, continuing up to the 1990s, mothers considered ‘inappropriate’ were told their babies had died so that they could be sold in a conspiracy involving doctors, nurses and the Catholic Church, with Druliolle quoting estimates of up to 300,000 cases. Despite both the scale and horror of this phenomenon, the apparent absence of a victim has largely prevented legal investigation, and those affected, both mothers and children, remain largely denied the social, legal or political acknowledgement of their suffering. This exploration demonstrates how victimhood goes far beyond the narrow limits of the transitional justice imaginary, which in Spain excludes such cases even where the state and powers such as the Church are direct perpetrators.

De Waardt, Hronešová and Smyth all explore hierarchies of victimhood: de Waardt in Peru’s victims’ organizations, Hronešová by comparing the campaigns of Bosnian victims of sexual violence and torture respectively and Smyth more conceptually. Whilst grassroots victims’ associations often start as mutual support groups, they ultimately seek to be political instruments for their members, typically in ways that are competitive between victims with divergent identities. Hronešová identifies three factors that drive political success for organized victims: moral authority, resource mobilization and international salience. She explains the relative success of the claims-making of Bosnian victims of sexual violence in terms of support from the clergy and resonance with international agendas, while many torture victims were ex-combatants who remained close to political parties and so lacked moral authority. Smyth explores these hierarchies of victimhood in terms of “the political uses to which suffering is put” (211). She describes how victims are defined in terms of their legitimacy, independent of the pain that defines their victimhood, and often linked to perceived innocence. Collective identities seek to make claims for a group, making individual pain iconic but abstracted from the one who feels it.

Burkhardt-Vetter’s chapter represents the book moving from understanding how victimhood is constructed and used to make claims on behalf of victims, to how victimhood can be transformed as a part of peacebuilding. She discusses how “dialogical remembering” enabled through dialogues between individual victims from across the divide of a conflict can challenge competitive victimhood. Using the example of Parent Circles in Israel-Palestine, where victims from both sides can come together, she seeks to show how participants can come to share a “superordinate identity” (242) which transcends their differences. The final part of the book takes this further, looking at cases where victims as an identified constituency can support and impact transitions from violence to peace. By far the most interesting is a case study by Brett of the role and impact of ‘victims’ delegations’ in Colombia’s peace process. A set of 60 representative victims of the conflict attended, in groups of 12, the peace talks between the authorities and the guerillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). While the meaning of victim participation in transitional justice has been much discussed, this represents a concrete example of participation in peace negotiations that can drive such a justice process. It reveals the unique political subjectivity of the victim and how the victim delegation formalized victims’ role in peacebuilding, gave them visibility in the media and ultimately made the agenda of the process more responsive to their suffering. While the presence of victims did not and could not change the power relations between them and perpetrators, it did impose a “moral framework” (289) on the negotiations. Brett outlines evidence that not only were victims able to challenge perpetrators’ denials through a visible history of suffering, but to change the perspectives of the individuals negotiating by humanizing the impact of their violence, leading to positive change from those negotiating the terms of the peace.

This volume represents one of few explicit engagements with victims as political actors and the broader politics of victimhood and does take understanding forward. However, whilst several contributions articulate an awareness of the narrowness of how ‘victim’ is understood in global scholarship and practice, rather few chapters work beyond that constrained frame. Unusually for a volume on post-conflict justice, none of the contexts discussed are in Africa or the Middle East or suffer from ongoing and chronic violence (with the exception of Israel-Palestine). One driver of this context selection may be an explicit thread through much of the volume that this work can only be done once conflict ends, and of course it is much easier to do research once peace has broken out. It would however seem highly relevant to seek to work in ongoing conflict and to study the process of victim definition and identification and its politics as something that emerges from, and that serves to drive, existing conflict, not least since violence is often sustained by the politics of victimhood.

Simon Robins
University of York