Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond

Author: Charli Carpenter

Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond. By R. Charli Carpenter. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 273 pages. No price listed on book but website gives price as $37. Review by J. Steven Svoboda.

R. Charli Carpenter, assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has done that rarest of things. She has written a book, “Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond” that is so outstanding that ultimately it comes to shed light far beyond its focused topic. Full disclosure: Carpenter has extensively interviewed me in preparation for her next book, which analyzes several political movements including intactivism.

First of all, it has to be said that Carpenter is nothing less than an astoundingly lucid and fluid writer, a pure pleasure to read. Words fairly flow from her pen (or more likely, computer) in a way that for me almost recalls a bygone era when greater attention was paid to craft and to the perfection of every detail of a creative effort. Truly, her facility with the written word is nothing short of breathtaking.

Even the book’s preface is exceptional. Carpenter weaves a web combining numerous acknowledgements, fascinating glimpses into segments of her research path, and surprisingly personal revelations about her own career path and integration of motherhood with research.

Carpenter’s book addresses the failure of the human rights community to effectively address the needs of children born of war, i.e., offspring of wartime rapes. At first, this lack of attention might seem surprising, even odd, but as the author teases apart the issue, patiently filling us in on the various relevant human rights and government mechanisms, it comes to almost seem inevitable.

Certainly—as Carpenter would be the first to agree–the human rights of these particular children have not been neglected due to any sort of conspiracy to exclude them from protection. Even for a longtime toiler in the human rights field like myself, I had never really brought the conscious attention that the author lavishes on detailing the highly political processes by which human rights resources get allocated.

Carpenter points out that not only is the assistance these children need not forthcoming, but until she started work on her book, no one outside Bosnia was even asking the questions about these children’s outcomes, and about how to best protect their human rights.

The relevance of Carpenter’s book to issues far beyond its literal scope becomes evident even in the opening pages, when she notes that:

the construction of specific categories of rights claims in international society does not follow a rational, linear process in which the most vulnerable populations 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 draw attention away from certain individuals regardless of the merits of their case.

A bit later, the author notes, “[H]uman rights discourse and practice are constructed according to racist, sexist, and ageist assumptions.”

The relevance of this analysis to intactivism is clear: The right to genital autonomy or genital integrity is currently a neglected right, parallel in that sense to the plight of children of war rapes and neglected for presumably similar reasons that probably also combine aspects of the “political, organizational, cultural, structural, coalitional, and economic…” Certainly various opponents of female genital cutting (FGC) have forthrightly admitted that they have not made common cause with intactivists for conscious coalitional and political reasons. Clearly, then, sexism can cut in both directions, as Carpenter has herself previously acknowledged in different contexts.

Another passage with relevance to intactivism comes a bit later, when Carpenter laments that “rarely were children born as a result of rape imagined as subjects of human rights concern within these narratives. Instead, they functioned as symbols. Their identities and descriptions of their fate were manipulated and constructed so as to serve the interests of actors with very different agendas.” Intactivists sometimes find their issue so completely neglected that the infant boys are not even manipulated and constructed to serve other agendas, but in any event, the failure she describes to see these children as people rather than as symbols is compelling.

Carpenter is right that one explanation of differential treatment of different classes of victims is that “some issues can be framed more easily than others so as to resonate with policymakers and publics,” or phrased somewhat differently, there is tension between protecting some groups and protecting others.”

And surely she is equally correct that, “By the same token, some issues resonate more easily with potential political entrepreneurs within advocacy organizations.” In yet another piece of trenchant analysis with high relevance to intactivism, she shows how complex issues that don’t cozily fit into existing boxes and analytical frames may not even be considered as attention is focused on more easily solved problems.

Another principle that is also applicable to intactivism is that problems that can be assigned to intentional actions by identifiable persons are easier to get action on than “problems whose causes are irredeemably structural.” Still another is Carpenter’s signal conclusion that “what distinguishes successful from unsuccessful international issues is not the actual nature of an issue but rather advocates’ perceptions of the political and normative costs of advocacy. This in turn is a function of the way in which an issue is perceived to fit within an existing set of narratives about human rights.”

The author shows how the pervasive assumption that the child’s interests are aligned with the mother’s is repeatedly disproven yet without much institutional willingness to consider the child’s interests for their own worth. Along similar lines, all too often the children—when they are discussed at all–are primarily or exclusively discussed as symbols rather than as living human beings with their own needs and rights.

Later, in a truly enthralling section that reads like a primer in political analysis of human rights protections, she shows that progress in providing justice to women suffering wartime rape was accompanied by a lack of attention to secondary harms of such rape, including the plight of children born as offspring of such rapes. A brilliant piece of analysis shows a bit later that the apparent puzzle of a number of feminist scholars accepting the rejection of children born as a result of genocidal rape becomes more understandable “given the gendered structure of international law itself.” She demonstrates that surprisingly, all too often “feminist articulations of war rape dovetail… conspicuously with the frames of religious conservatives…”

Carpenter shows that it is hard to get traction for culturally sensitive issues and moreover that advocates’ concern with their own “personal career trajectories” may reduce their likelihood to “publicly support emergent issues,” particularly those that may be controversial. Incredibly, some practitioners have gone so far as to argue for the acceptability-at least under certain circumstances–of infanticide.

Near the end of her remarkable book, the author launches into a discussion of the difficulties and pitfalls that may arise in attempting to raise a new issue with the United Nations’ human rights apparatus. Children, she shows, are disadvantaged by the relative ease of dismissing claims brought by “champions” rather than the rights claimants themselves. Also, “existing narratives about who is the victim” color the reception that may be received. Moreover, “the way in which a particular problem is constructed early on and linked to other human rights problems can exert a powerful effect on the decisions of leading advocacy organizations as to whether to publicly discuss the issue.” Thus UN attention to male circumcision may be limited by the history already created by anti-FGC organizations.

Carpenter’s tone is admirably judicious and free of blame, focusing on the facts. Her success at almost uniformly resisting the impulse to privilege one’s own issue is yet another aspect of this book worthy of admiration. She writes incisively, logically, without being visible swayed by the impulse toward political correctness or alignment with reigning paradigms.

There are almost no nits to pick in this virtually perfect book. I did find it a bit curious that she mentions in her preface the enshrinement of children’s rights in international law with the 1976 entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), without noting that as an American, she hails from one of the three countries in the world (the others being Southern Sudan and Somalia) that has not yet ratified the CRC.

Don’t miss this true gem of a book. Despite being published by one of the top academic presses, it is both priced and written so as to richly deserve general attention and acclaim. Three cheers!