Vernacular Silences: Testimony and the right to the truth in reparation of conflict-related sexual and reproductive violence
Conflict-related sexual and reproductive violence (CRSRV) against women and girls is a persistent and pervasive form of warfare. It is applied in diverse forms in different contexts. But its perpetration depends, invariably, on similar practices of silencing – by force, threat, coercion, or any other means – prior to, at the time of, or consequential to the violation itself, in order to prevent the victim or witness from speaking out, seeking, and obtaining justice. This thesis examines the recording of, and responses to, CRSRV in the literature and in law to make the case for application of the right to the truth therein, as both a reparative and preventative measure. The right to the truth, and in particular acts of testimony, hold profound potential to inform and sustain processes of redress, and to displace the silences involved.
To this effect, the truth represents a number of interrelated objectives, including but not limited to setting down a historical record of past violence, disruption of cultures of impunity through prosecution of perpetrators, and redress for victims. This research locates the subject of CRSRV within a rights-based approach to development, but views the discourses of WID and WAD as insufficient in light of CRSRV, and calls for inclusion of the right to the truth within this framework in order to uphold a victim-centred perspective. The methodology is oriented in a narrative view of history, in protection of a victim-centred perspective, and relies on testimonies of victims, as well as witness accounts, within Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, or other forms of documentation. Practices of CRSRV are contextualised within three case studies, regarding Peru, El Salvador, and Iraq. Reference to different conflict settings furthermore demonstrates with absolute clarity a common practice of silencing underlying all forms of CRSRV. But regardless of the common application of this method of silencing, the silences of victims are not identical. Testimonies of victims reveal their experiences in the vernacular. This thesis, in response, sets out two complementary proposals. First, a reconsideration of the term “conflict-related sexual violence,” proposing its extension to “conflict-related sexual and reproductive violence”. This extension would, first, better reflect the extent of harm experienced by victims as evidenced in their testimonies and, second, encourage more appropriate forms of reparation in light of their right to the truth. But protection of the right to the truth of victims is, in turn, dependent on a second extension, which proposes that the truth, in this vein, should be extended from its original conception of the right to know, to the right to testify, to actively contribute to the construction of the truth surrounding rights violations.