WMC Women Under Siege

Can tracking rape in conflict prevent genocide?

Just as rape and other forms of sexualized violence have historically been viewed as a “natural” part of war, they have often been recognized as occurring in genocide but not necessarily as an act of genocide in itself.

That changed in 1998, with the verdict of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu—who was found to have facilitated and encouraged acts of sexualized violence, mutilation, and rape during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The ICTR determined that these acts, in and of themselves, constituted genocide under Article 2 of the Genocide Convention: “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”

But the Convention’s definition of the term genocide, with its emphasis on perpetrator intent, makes it virtually impossible to be certain whether particular acts of violence amount to genocide until they’ve come to an end and been investigated, not to mention tried in a court of law. In other words, when it’s too late to prevent them.

Photos of Jewish victims at the Birkenau death camp. (Adam Jones)

Genocide typically involves a range of violations against members of a targeted group even before killing—or without any killing at all—and many of these can be identified in time to halt the process. One of the basic tenets for preventing genocide, after all, is the understanding that it is a process, not an event.

Today, genocide scholars, activists, and policymakers around the world recognize the need not only to end impunity and bring perpetrators to trial but, more important, to prevent these horrible acts from occurring in the first place. Still, this is more easily said than done.


In 2004, the UN established the office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, and tasked it with creating and refining a Framework of Analysis for UN member states and agencies to assess risk of genocide and take measures to prevent it. Policymakers aren’t the only ones who have been thinking about prevention, though. Scholars, too, are concerned with it, and a few of them have some useful ideas.

One scholar whose work may have enormous potential in identifying risk of genocide is Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, visiting assistant professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey. In a 2010 article for the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention, titled “The Devil in the Details: ‘Life Force Atrocities’ and the Assault on the Family in Times of Conflict,” von Joeden-Forgey observed that a certain type of violence, which she calls “life force atrocities,” was common in every one of the most widely recognized 20th-century cases of genocide.

A life force atrocity, von Joeden-Forgey writes, is “a ritualized pattern of violence that targets the life force of a group by destroying both the physical symbols of its life force as well as its most basic institutions of reproduction, especially the family unit.” This demonstrates the perpetrators’ intent not only to kill, but “to inflict maximum damage to the spiritual core of those generative and foundational units we call families,” she argues.

In Rwanda in 1994, for example, Tutsi women were often raped with objects such as sharpened sticks, destroying their internal organs so they couldn’t bear any more children. This assault on bodily and reproductive functions, on a group’s life force, reveals the perpetrators’ aim of destroying the group as a whole.

Von Joeden-Forgey explains that, typically, life force atrocities involve two types of rituals. The first, inversion rituals, “seek to reverse proper hierarchies and relationships within families and thereby irrevocably to break sacred bonds.” These include “forcing family members to watch the rape, torture, and murder of their loved ones and forcing them to participate in the perpetration of such crimes.”

The second, she says, is “the ritual mutilation and desecration of symbols of group reproduction, including male and female reproductive organs, women’s breasts as the sites of lactation, pregnant women as the loci of generative powers, and infants and small children as the sacred symbols of the group’s future.”

It’s important to emphasize that while rape and sexualized violence, as defined by von Joeden-Forgey, may be part of life force atrocities, the terms are not synonymous. But, crucially, if observers can track these kinds of atrocities when they occur together with sexualized violence, it may help advocates and policymakers to spot genocide earlier than would be possible by tracking rape alone or other genocidal acts directed at individuals based on their nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion.

Australian political scientist Alex Bellamy, an expert in international peace and security, has argued that policymakers should view conflict situations through an “atrocity prevention lens” to distinguish the specific risk of genocide and other mass atrocities within and apart from armed conflict.

In a similar way, Von Joeden-Forgey’s work suggests a “family lens”—focusing early warning and risk assessment on life force atrocities—may be useful. She cites examples of genocides (Armenians in Turkey, Jews in Europe, and ethnic groups in Darfur), as well as of conflicts not formally recognized as genocide (Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo), to illustrate what she calls the “family theater of genocidal violence.”

Looking through this lens, we may recognize genocide, or the risk of it, in a number of conflicts around the world that most observers have yet to consider “genocidal.”

  • Burma: In the middle of a government-led campaign against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Arakan that Human Rights Watch has already described as involving crimes against humanity, reports have emerged of Muslim women having their breasts hacked off and their genitals mutilated with sharpened bamboo by Buddhists on a rampage. Other atrocities have also been documented there, including mass rape by state security forces.
  • Sri Lanka: Although armed conflict between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in 2009—a conflict that saw many instances of state security forces raping Tamil women in reprisal for rebel attacks—Human Rights Watch has reported that “politically motivated sexual violence by the military and police continues to the present.” Here, too, in addition to systematic rape of Tamil men and women in custody by members of the army, police, and pro-government paramilitary groups, life force atrocities have occurred.
  • A Tamil man, whose account was corroborated by medical evidence, told HRW: “Two officials held my arms back [while] a third official held my penis and inserted a metal rod inside. They inserted small metal balls inside my penis. These had to be surgically removed after I escaped from the country.”
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: Life force atrocities in DRC, which has been undergoing armed conflict since 1996, have become commonplace. A recent example involved groups of soldiers from the rebel group M23 in eastern DRC gang-raping women in front of their husbands and children—an “inversion ritual” under von Joeden-Forgey’s scheme.

The occurrence of life force atrocities in these conflicts suggests that the perpetrators’ intent may go beyond the reasons typically cited—to humiliate, to retaliate, to intimidate, to control, or even to express anger or frustration. They may intend to destroy the victims as a group (in whole or in part).

One of the reasons why people hesitate to use the word genocide in these situations is because they can’t “fit” the victims into one of the Genocide Convention’s protected groups: national, ethnic, racial, and religious. But von Joeden-Forgey addresses this stumbling block as well. As she writes:

When killers begin to incorporate life force atrocities into their repertoire of killing techniques, we can be on the alert for a genocide-in-the-works, even in cases where the victims appear from the outside to constitute a political or social group, or an economic class. If the perpetrators, by engaging in inversion rituals and ritual desecrations, demonstrate that they are targeting victims’ generative forces, I think we can be fairly safe in assuming that they have developed, at some level of their organizational hierarchy, a concept of the victim group as an ‘‘organic collectivity,’’ to use Scott Straus’s very useful formulation.

Von Joeden-Forgey’s concept can lead us to reinterpret the conflicts we see around us right now. How could it have helped to prevent a genocide in the making?


Let’s look at Syria, which WMC’s Women Under Siege has written about extensively.

In January 2011, protests erupted in Damascus in support of demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo. By mid-March, the demonstrations had turned violent, with police firing live ammunition and killing protesters. The first atrocity reported in the country was the detention and torture of 15 boys between the ages of 10 and 15 for painting anti-government graffiti in the border town of Dara’a on March 6, 2011. As Al-Jazeera wrote, “The children were beaten and bloodied, burned, and had their fingernails pulled out by grown men” working for state security forces.

This didn’t happen in other countries undergoing the Arab Spring.

A UN Human Rights Council report on Syria in November 2011 documented the torture of children, rape of boys in front of their fathers, electric shocks, and cigarette burns to the anus—again, examples of life force atrocities. Nobody was using the word genocide at that point, and very few are using it now. But the evidence appears to be mounting.

Apart from the ongoing risk of a reprisal genocide against Alawites who have supported Assad, government attacks in which “children were forced to watch the torture or killing of parents” and multiple cases of rape of wives in front of their husbands, and daughters in front of their mothers, have been documented in recent months.

International observers saw the situation in Syria initially as an uprising, then as a civil war, despite the fact that life force atrocities occurred early on in the conflict, suggesting a risk of genocide.

Had experts and policymakers viewed the first reports of atrocities through von Joeden-Forgey’s “family lens,” the risk of genocide—and perhaps the need to engage immediately to bring the violence to an end—would have been evident much sooner.

Again, this is keeping in mind that the group being targeted need not fall into one of the categories (national, ethnical, racial, or religious) defined in the Genocide Convention. Not only for the reason given by von Joeden-Forgey but because, actually, in every genocide, it is the perpetrators who define the victim group in their minds, not some “objective” quality about the targeted people themselves. Even in the classic case of the Holocaust, for instance, the Nazis went to great lengths to define who was and who was not a Jew—and even then, the Germans were sometimes forced to make exceptions.


Preventing genocide is difficult business. While public awareness of genocide has grown immensely, the question of what to do about it remains as thorny as ever.

Looking ahead to how the concept of life force atrocities may be put to use for prevention, von Joeden-Forgey wrote in a follow-up article last year that data and maps “for those specific types of atrocity that have a high correlation with the crime of genocide” may be important tools for an early warning system against genocide.

For instance, WMC’s Syria crowdmap of sexualized violence, with its detailed reporting form, could be further adapted for this purpose by adding reports of family-based and life force atrocities.

The cause of ending sexualized violence and rape in conflict offers a way to prevent genocide as well. WMC’s Women Under Siege has taken the first step. Elisa von Joeden-Forgey’s work suggests a way to keep moving forward. Advocates and policymakers, it’s your turn now.

More articles by Category: International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Rape, War, Genocide, Sexualized violence



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