Srebrenica memorial

Constructing victims: Suffering and status in modern world order

This article was written by Alex Vandermaas-Peeler, Jelena Subotic and Michael Barnett
This article was published on

Alex Vandermaas-Peeler, Jelena Subotic and Michael Barnett discuss the key arguments from their new Review of International Studies (RIS) article. If you'd like to know more you can read the full article here - Constructing victims: Suffering and status in modern world order.

What is the basis of status in world order? While conventional wisdom assumes that status comes from strength, we instead argue that it can also come from perceived weakness – from being recognised as a ‘victim.’  We illustrate our argument with three features of victim status in modern international politics: the changing desirability of victim status in Israel; the gendered construction of ideal victim in the Congo, and the hierarchy of victimhood in Bosnia.

Victim as status

There is broad interdisciplinary consensus that the discourse of humanity that emerged in the 18th century stressed the importance of compassion to all humans. Prior to this shift, suffering was a natural state of affairs and there was little that humans could do about it. With the emerging belief that humans could control nature in ways that minimised suffering and improved welfare, suffering became something that humans could mitigate.

But there is a hierarchy of suffering and at the top of the hierarchy sits the victim. In the current global culture, someone who suffers is more likely to be recognised as a victim if she is deemed to possess the following criteria. They must be viewed as part of humanity. If they are relegated to a lower status category – ‘illegal’ migrants, prisoners, the homeless - then their suffering will become either deserved, a matter of indifference, or even celebrated because they are viewed as a threat to the community. In addition to being human, the suffering must be grave. Yet what counts as serious is itself culturally determined. For centuries domestic violence and gendered-based violence were considered mundane, but in many contemporary societies they are now considered serious and those who experience this violence are labeled victims.

Victims are also expected to be weak, vulnerable, and passive. Gender often plays an important role here. Victims are often expected to suffer silently, and they do not necessarily claim to be a victim; this is a designation conferred by others. The more of these qualities sufferers possess, the more likely they will be seen as an ‘ideal’ victim.

Because ‘victim’ can be a status category, it will generate dynamics commonly associated with status: status-seeking, status competition, status inconsistency, and status conflict. For example, some communities can feel status inconsistency, where the world does not see them as the victim that they see themselves to be. There is status competition, with communities competing with each other to make the case that they have a higher status or that their rival cannot be considered a victim, potentially leading to a ‘suffering Olympics.’ Former UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali demonstrated a lack of diplomacy when he told the Bosnian people that while they have suffered, he could point to other people who had suffered more, with the insinuation that they should stop their whining. In general, the possibility that status might be linked to suffering implies a global culture with many kinds of actors and with a much richer tapestry than most international relations scholarship allows.

Having outlined the conditions of possibility of victim as status category, we now turn to some of its effects. Consider these cases as profiles in victimhood.

Israel and the global construction of victim status

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, while the world may have perceived the Jews as victims, the newly born Israeli state was initially not ready to accept this recognition. Zionist attitudes toward the Jewish diaspora permeated the elite, including its conflicting treatment of Holocaust survivors. On the one hand, they were despised and stigmatized. On the other, Israel and the Holocaust were intertwined. The Holocaust was simultaneously the Jewish people’s greatest tragedy, the closing argument in favor of a Jewish state, and the symbol of the redemption and hope of the Jewish people.   

The 1961 Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem dramatically softened Zionist attitudes toward Holocaust survivors and the Holocaust, but the breakthrough occurred in 1967, as both the Holocaust and Israel’s self-understanding as a victim became more fully developed. The 1967 war began as a replay of every nightmare of Jewish isolation and vulnerability and ended in a Jewish fantasy. For Israel and Jews around the world Holocaust analogies were immediate – the world was abandoning Israel at the very moment that Arab states were vowing to throw the Jews into the sea. Israel, however, refused to play victim or act like how Zionist ideology claimed the Jews of Europe did, and instead struck decisively and victoriously against its enemies.

The second development was the ‘discovery’ of the Holocaust and its growing centrality to Israeli identity. The destruction of the European Jews did not become the ‘Holocaust’ – a sacralised event that became part of global memory – until the 1970s. Holocaust-related events began to populate calendars among Jews and non-Jews alike, there was an explosion of Holocaust museums and memorials, Holocaust-related books, films, TV shows, and plays, university courses, and so on. The reservations that Israel once had to the Holocaust disappeared, and in its place rose a deep, emotional connection. Whereas once Israel used the ghetto fighter and partisans as the primary representation of the Holocaust, it now included victims and survivors. Once ridiculed, Holocaust survivors became the walking sacred. 

Israel became much more comfortable with the idea of being a victim at precisely the moment when it ceased to look, act, or sound like the victim from the vantage point of many international observers. It was the region’s major military power with a nuclear monopoly and the world’s superpower in its corner. In fact, it became increasingly common for international actors to comment how the victims had now become the victimisers, and the Palestinians were now the Jews of the Middle East.  At best, Israel was a complex victim, simultaneously victim and perpetrator.

Ideal victimhood and sexual violence in the DRC

In the two major wars in the DRC between 1996 and 2003, approximately six million died.  Sexual violence was rampant, with regular occurrences of mass rape, gang rape and sexual mutilation. A 2002 Human Rights Watch report, followed by the award-winning documentary, helped catalyse activism among international human rights groups. Major donors began providing more funds for GBV programming. Journalists reporting on GBV without much readership now found that their stories on rape were the most read. Activists, celebrities, UN officials, and major state officials, such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, began making pilgrimages to the clinics and treatment centres and speaking with the victims. Everywhere they went the cameras followed, drumming up greater concern. By the end of the decade, the DRC was crowned the ‘rape capital of the world,’ and the ‘most dangerous place on earth to be a woman.’

But the reporting, images, and discourses surrounding sexual violence in the DRC contained and contributed to racist narratives of Africa and the Congo. The use of highly persuasive but not terribly reliable statistics about astronomical rates of sexual violence in the DRC further perpetuated a colonial view of the DRC in the mind of international policymakers, activists, but also scholars.

Reports often highlighted the graphic violence and the physical injuries and emotional trauma that resulted. The intensified international gaze on these victims presented Congolese women as ready-made victims, while Congolese men as ready-made, presumed perpetrators. As ideal victims, these women achieved a status that ranked them ahead of other victims in the Congo and increased their share of international assistance. There was twice as much funding for sexual violence-related projects than for security sector reforms or support for internally displaced persons. Humanitarian and human rights organisations began to shift their activities to GBV, which became a buzzword inserted into project proposals to increase their chances of receiving funding. Some donors explicitly conditioned any funds with the requirement that mobile clinics they supported served only GBV victims. There was money for medical treatment for injuries caused by sexual violence during war, but not for the same injuries caused by sexual violence outside of conflict or other factors, such as prolonged child labor. Consequently, clinics and hospitals would list rape as the cause of ailment in order to cover treatment, which could inflate the overall rape numbers.

These frames also reinforced a discourse of Africa as a place of anarchy and unfettered violence, and African men as uncivilised beasts. As the UN and others began to systematise their response to GBV, they developed a ‘checklist’ to determine whether GBV in a particular country constituted a threat to international security and what should the appropriate response be. The ideal victim status, then, became fully securitised and integrated into international military responses.

Victim hierarchy in Bosnia

The Bosnian war (1992-1995) was fought in large part over attribution and memories of historical victimhood of Bosnia’s diverse ethnic groups – Bosniacs, Serbs, and Croats. The massacre in Srebrenica in July 1995, however, created a new category of victim – the victim of genocide. The construction of this category is significant because, past its specific legal meaning and codification in international law, the language of genocide exhibits its own powerful social force. It is the sacred status of genocide victims that catapults them to the top of the hierarchy of suffering and provides them with moral capital to seek amends.

That what happened in Srebrenica was different in kind and scale than elsewhere in Bosnia was then further determined by two international courts – the ICTY in 2001, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2007. Since the 2001 ruling, several other cases have been brought to the ICTY that alleged genocide elsewhere in Bosnia, but each time the ICTY decided that there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate genocidal intent.

These international legal cases helped construct and sustain the victims’ own understanding of their suffering as victims of genocide, and this is how they presented themselves locally, nationally, and internationally. These rulings, however, created a disconnect between, on the one hand, legal determinations and findings, and, on the other, the lived experience of many victims of the Bosnian war, who maintained that Srebrenica was the culmination of the ethnic cleansing and genocide that began in eastern Bosnia already in 1992. The legal determination that classified Srebrenica as genocide and other atrocities in Bosnia as war crimes or crimes against humanity then led to outsized attention paid to Srebrenica - compared to other locations of mass atrocity in Bosnia - by the international media, donors, civil society organisations, and politicians.

By separating Srebrenica and the crime of genocide from the experience of other victims of war crimes, the victims of genocide acquired a higher status than the victims of these other, ‘lesser’ crimes. This hierarchy of victimhood produced group identity based on the shared experience of suffering but also on the external identification of the group as a specific kind of victim.  This hierarchy of victimhood then led to some very tangible material results as in, for example, different patterns of restitution payments, international aid, and memorialisation. This hierarchy of suffering then positioned those with the higher victim status with more advantages and opportunities to attract resources and seek redress. 

Concluding thoughts

Some suffering matters more than others and some who suffer are deemed to be deserving and others undeserving. It is worth pointing out something of an irony. Victims are routinely described as passive and weak, rendered voiceless. Yet being recognised as a victim provides a social capacity not available to those who are suffering but denied the victim label. The paradox is that the victim category provides agency. In a world in which suffering can become a status category, the more incentive groups will have to portray themselves as victims. However, compassion fatigue can set in with more individuals demanding attention to their suffering, which can in turn lead to further resentment and backlash. Being labeled a victim might not always be a source of status, and the more victim status becomes overused the less potency it will have. Perhaps there should be more attention to vulnerability and less to victims.

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Image by Michael Büker licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 International license via Wikimedia Commons.