Perpetrators – Reactions and Responses

9 – 10 September 2011, Centro de Estudos Sociais, University of Coimbra, Portugal

Public awareness of the prevalence of sexual violence in armed conflicts has risen significantly during the past years. The documentation of different forms and functions of sexual violence as well as debates on rape as military strategy, cultural norms of gender and violence or societal reactions towards the victims are presently on the international agenda. A more detailed look at the perpetrators, however, often seems to be missing. Indeed, when perpetrators of sexual violence are getting into the focus of the public, they are regularly represented in cliches. In the European media representation of the conflict in Congo, for instance, the combatants who committed sexual violence – be they state soldiers or members of rebel groups – are generally represented as primitive and archaic warriors. In our workshop, we want to discuss how images and ideas about perpetrators of sexual violence come into existence – on the local as well as the national and international level, and historically as well as in present-day conflict zones.

During our workshop in Hamburg in June 2010, we discussed a variety of sources documenting sexual violence – testimonies by victims, witnesses and perpetrators, photographs, judicial documentation and so on. At that time, we felt the need to differentiate spheres of representing and communicating wartime sexual violence, and, furthermore, to ask about the practices of silence. With the upcoming workshop, we would like to take up this thread about the persistence of silence, and unravel the process of breaking these silences, specifically in relation to perpetrators. Who gets to decide who is defined as a perpetrator, and what is perceived to be an appropriate response?

I. Identification of the Perpetrators

Until today, there is no wider social agreement that sexual violence in conflict zones is a crime, even though national and international judicial mechanisms to condemn the acts and convict the perpetrators have long existed and are being expanded rapidly in the present. Sometimes, the victims know their attackers personally; in other cases they can identify which (armed; ethnic; political) group the perpetrators belong to; in again other cases the offenders remain completely unidentified. At any rate, crimes of sexual violence impose feelings of shame, loss of dignity and stigmatization upon the victims, who as a consequence often remain silent. Especially in cases when the perpetrators are known, for instance when they live in the neighborhood or have ties to the community, victims and witnesses may feel disciplined and threatened far beyond the immediate attack. From various empirical case studies, we also know that the possibility of voyeurism can serve as an excuse for not confronting the crime of sexual violence and its perpetrators. In general, these practices of silence need to be investigated more thoroughly.

  • How can we describe them/ their functions more accurately?
  • How/what do these silences communicate? Are there (culturally specific) codes of silence?

In contrast, during an armed conflict or in the aftermath rape-stories are often circulated, however, without giving much details about the situation of the perpetrators – often these stories are more rumors or propaganda. Since this public discussion of sexual violence and its perpetrators is not a normal (re)action to these crimes, it seems to be all the more important to clarify who does talk about them.

  • Who identifies the perpetrators in a given conflict (locally, nationally and internationally): the victims themselves, witnesses, NGOs, governmental agencies?
  • In which context do stories about perpetrators get public?
  • How do people learn about the perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict zones?
  • Is this connected to the time of the conflict and the historical context?
  • What are the – political, economic, cultural – interests at stake?

As various studies have demonstrated, the perpetration of sexual violence is often prescribed to a specific group of perpetrators while others who committed similar crimes remain outside of the picture. We thus need to ask:

  • Who is/ which groups are identified as perpetrators?
  • And when/why are other perpetrators of sexual violence silenced (soldiers of state militaries, armed groups, insurgent groups etc)?

II. Characterization of the Perpetrators

Wartime sexual violence is often portrayed as inevitable. There is a tendency to either downplay the harm caused by the perpetrators or to depict them as specifically brutal, sadistic or abnormal (indeed, the dehumanization of perpetrators of sexual violence can provide a mechanism to protect oneself from the intimate reality of the crime and its harm). However, recent research has demonstrated that perpetrators of sexual violence come from every social and political spectrum.
And while the ethnicity of the perpetrators may play a role in a given conflict, the perpetration of rape cannot simply be ascribed to the »ethnically other«. Furthermore, it has become clear that some women commit sexual violence, too, when they are in the position to do so. The question thus is how different actors (victims, witnesses, NGOs, state organizations, national/international media, judicial institutions) view and depict perpetrators of sexual violence – as individuals and/ or as a group.

  • How are the offenders characterized in terms of class, ethnicity, gender, age etc?
  • Are there certain, repetitive patterns?
  • Are these culturally specific or can we make out transcultural images? How are perpetrators located within the spectrum of organized violence and their social situation?
  • Do questions of military rank and file or political position play a role?
  • How is the role of military commanders assessed? Does the characterization of perpetrators depend on the form of the crime (torture, rape, gang rape, sexual enslavement)?
  • Or is it connected to the characteristics of the victims, for instance does it differ depending on the age, the gender or the ethnicity of the victims? 

Different characterization of the perpetrators of sexual violence may exist beside each other or in conflict. For instance, certain groups may portray the perpetrators as masculine aggressors, while others depict them as casualties/victims of war themselves. Certain images may also change in the course of time or in different communicative spheres. How can we assess the degree of discrimination/indiscrimination? Are there differences between the perpetrators image in the countries where the conflict took place, where the perpetrators or/and the victims came from, and the international depiction?

III. Reactions towards the Perpetrators

As we have seen during our first workshop in September 2008 workshop, military commanders assess the risks as well as the advantages of sexual violence committed by their soldiers. On the side of the risks they evaluate the spread of sexually transmitted disease, the lack of discipline or the reaction of the local population, on the side of the advantages the discussion centers around the combat-effectiveness, for instance the physical and psychological well-being of the individual combatants or the effects of the »conquest« of the enemy-women as territorial and symbolic landmark. As a consequence, military actors react to the perpetrators of sexual violence in accordance to their goals. During the workshop in Coimbra, we would now like to discuss what non-military actors perceive as appropriate reactions towards the perpetrators.
As we have debated on various occasions, wartime sexual abuse is not congruent with sexual violence in peacetime, still, it is not something completely different either. Indeed the act of sexual violence is disconcertingly familiar to most people in different societies.

  • Does this everyday familiarity influence what is considered to be an appropriate response to the crime of wartime violence and the perpetrators?
  • And does this perceived appropriate response differ from the reaction towards the perpetrators of other crimes, for instance in cases of torture or massacre?

Acts of sexual violence are perpetrated during interstate wars, civil wars, ethnic confrontations, border clashes etc.

  • Do the nature of a conflict or the type of a military/an armed group have an influence on what is considered to be appropriate?
  • How do forms of sexual violence, the patterns and dynamics of their perpetration, affect the reactions and responses towards the perpetrators?
  • How do reactions differ regarding the specific circumstances of the crime and perpetrator?
  • Does the gender constellation or the question whether the crime is perpetrated by an individual or a group influence what is thought to be appropriate?

IV. Mechanisms of Recognition and Judgment

Perpetrators of wartime sexual violence have attracted attention throughout history – in law as well as in diplomatic relations. However, they were mainly perceived as perpetrators who had violated the honor, not primarily of the (female) victim, but of her (male) relatives and the nation. Only since the 1990s, different (national and international, state and informal) actors demanded, developed and implemented the recognition of sexual violence as a war crime, a crime against humanity and a crime of genocide in international and internationalized law.

Indeed, questions about the punishment of the perpetrators or the chain of command are presently subject of a fierce debate. At the workshop we would like to discuss different forms of recognition and institutionalized ways to deal with the perpetrators, historically and until today.
What mechanisms are perceived appropriate for dealing with sexual violence in conflict zones?

  • Do they address individual perpetrators or specific groups? Who takes part in a process like this, formal and informal (individuals, NGOs, social movements, state actors, military actors)?
  • What are the goals (punishment, reeducation, deterrence, reconciliation, (military) education for the future)?
  • Does the situation and affiliatedness of the perpetrator (state military, armed group civil occupation, war) have an effect concerning the social mechanisms of recognition and judgement?


Friday, 9. September

Julia Garraio & Tatiana Moura

Regina Mühlhäuser & Gaby Zipfel

Introductory Roundtable 
What do the conditions of your work on sexual violence look like? 
How is your research/ involvement supported at your institution? 
Which term do you use to name perpetrators of sexual violence?

Session 1: Identification of the Perpetrators
Short Input: Louise du Toit 
Moderation: Regina Mühlhäuser

Screening of Documentary Film Clips
from »Winter Soldier« (Vietnam Veterans Against the War; USA 1972) and »Standard Operation Procedure« (Errol Morris; USA 2008)
Short Input: Gaby Zipfel

Session 2: Characterization of the Perpetrators
Short Input: Miranda Alison
Moderation: Pascale Bos

Session 3: Reactions towards the Perpetrators
Short Input: Lisa Gabriel
Moderation: Gabi Mischkowski

Saturday, 10. September

Screening of Movie Clips
from »Come and See« (Elem Klimov; 1985) and »Stalingrad« (Joseph Vilsmaier; 1993) 
Short Input: Julia Garraio

Session 4: Mechanisms of Recognition and Judgement
Short Input: Kirsten Campbell
Moderation: Tatiana Moura

Final Discussion
Central Results Topics and Perspectives for further Research


  • Miranda Alison, Associate Professor, Department of Politics & International Studies, University of Warwick, UK
  • Gary Barker, International Director, Promundo-US, Washington D.C., USA
  • Pascale Bos, Associate Professor, Center for European Studies, University of Texas, USA
  • Kirsten Campbell, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
  • Lisa Gabriel, Military Studies, University of Potsdam, Germany
  • Julia Garraio, Researcher, Centro de Estudos Sociais, Coimbra, Portugal
  • Anna Hedlund, Researcher, Department of Social Anthropology, Lund University, Sweden
  • Gabriela Mischkowski, Program Advisor for Gender Justice, Medica Mondiale, Cologne, Germany
  • Tatiana Moura, Researcher, Centro de Estudos Sociais, Coimbra, Portugal
  • Regina Mühlhäuser, Hamburg Institute for Social Research
  • Amandine Regamey, Researcher CERCEC, Université Paris, Panthéon-Sorbonne
  • Antonio Sousa Riberio, Professor at the Instituto de Estudos Alemaes, Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra, Portugal
  • Louise du Toit, Senior Lecturer, Department of Philosophy, Universiteit van Stellenbosch, South Africa
  • Anna von Gall, Program Director »Gender and Human Rights«, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Berlin, Germany
  • Hyunah Yang, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Seoul National University, South Korea
  • Gaby Zipfel, Editor of the Magazine Mittelweg 36, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany

This workshop was kindly supported by the Hamburg Foundation for the Advancement of Research and Culture, the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, and the Centro de Estudos Sociais, University of Coimbra.