The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Done at Last, Done at Last, Thank God Almighty…

June 12, 2008

I have just finished the final chapter of my new sole-authored book manuscript, tentatively entitled Constructing Rights and Wrongs: How the Human Rights Movement Forgot Bosnia’s Children Born of War.

This is the culmination of nine years of research, writing and frequent but generally ineffective interactions with global policymakers. DANG!

Tomorrow, in between jetting to Boston to attend the Harvard Networks in Political Science Conference, I will paginate it properly, zip up the chapters, and send it off to Columbia University Press. For now, I’ll be settling down to a big glass of wine and something non-war-crimes related to read.

For those interested, the introductory paragraphs are below the fold.

“After the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, an uncounted number of children, conceived as a result of wartime rape, were born to traumatized mothers who did not want them. Children of refugee mothers in neighboring Croatia were initially denied citizenship and education rights. Local and international actors contested the babies’ ethnic identities and citizenship rights. Inside Bosnia, there were reports of ostracization and abandonment; some were killed.

At the time I began to gather research for this book, almost nothing was known outside of the former Yugoslavia about what had become of these babies, how to protect their human rights, or how issues around their security and identity were being constructed and reconstructed in post-war Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and within the various diasporic communities spawned by the conflict. More interestingly to me, no one outside Bosnia seemed to be asking. What I learned upon arriving in the region in early 2004 was that few people inside Bosnia were asking either. These children occupied a category invisible to the children’s rights network, overlooked by the government, and articulated by women’s rights and nationalist organizations in particular ways not necessarily conducive to securing much-needed attention to their human rights as many of them entered puberty.

This book explores why children born of wartime rape have received so little systematic attention from those international actors charged with the protection and promotion of children’s human rights in conflict situations, both in Bosnia and in similar contexts globally; and it uses this single case as a jumping off point for asking bigger questions about the human rights regime. Aside from being of arguable normative importance for human rights scholars and practitioners, this policy and advocacy gap represents a fascinating puzzle theoretically for international relations (IR) scholars. The literature on transnational advocacy networks suggests that issue networks are most likely to mobilize around precisely populations such as these: where bodily harm or discrimination affects individuals traditionally seen as vulnerable or innocent; where the harms fall easily within existing human rights law or are easily grafted onto existing advocacy space; where the media and the political economy of short-term donor contracts exert agenda-setting effects; and where issue “entrepreneurs” push for the development of a robust response.

If theory suggests that “war babies” should be an obvious subject of human rights concern and they have not, this begs the question of what additional factors account for the shape of the children’s human rights agenda in international society and why certain categories fall through the cracks. In turn, this can tell us something about advocacy networks in world affairs more broadly, and about the social construction of “children’s human rights” as it relates to conceptions of international order and justice.

In the following pages, I draw attention to what both local and international human rights advocates in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the broader transnational children’s rights network repeatedly refer to as “the problematique” of addressing “war babies” as a focus of human rights concern. I explain which political purposes are served by specific representations of such children in film, literature, the media and political discourse across different sectors of post-conflict society – humanitarian, feminist, nationalist, indigenous and international. I then trace the effects of such representations on their invisibility in international criminal law, humanitarian programming, post-war society, and the broader children’s human rights movement. All the chapters aim to expose the inadequacy of current narrow conceptualizations of “child rights” in international discourse, while highlighting different approaches to advocacy that have succeeded to a greater or lesser degree at the local level.

My overall argument is that the concept of international child rights is and will remain problematic insofar as it is grounded in the discourse of sovereign statehood, in which children function largely as vessels through which to reproduce social and political identities. Within such a context, the regime established to protect and promote children’s human rights will run into limits when dealing with children whose socio-biological identities fit uneasily with the prevailing constructions of ethnicity, territory, and history. Children born of wartime rape and exploitation constitute one (though not the only) such category. The kinds of conceptual changes to world order that would secure their fundamental human rights are so far not on the international agenda at all, and despite the presence of certain norm “entrepreneurs” in this regard, many human rights practitioners in powerful “gatekeeping” organizations consider such changes unrealistic or utopian.

What this means for IR scholars more generally, particularly those optimistic about the role played by networks of normatively-motivated policy practitioners in transnational civil society, is that the discourse of human rights is not a panacea for vulnerable populations. The case here confirms the findings of emerging scholarship in suggesting that the construction of specific categories of rights claims in international society hardly follows a rational, linear process in which the most vulnerable populations will receive attention on the basis of need and merit. Rather, attention to issues by human rights advocates is conditioned by myriad political, organizational, cultural, structural, coalitional and economic factors; and some combination of these factors may mitigate against attention to certain individuals regardless of the merits of their case. At the turn of the 21st century, children born of wartime rape and exploitation constituted one such case. I conclude by suggesting that IR constructivists can learn much about the role of human rights norms in world affairs by studying what does not get attention from human rights practitioners.”

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.