Combining the Concrete and Theoretical

by Beth Connors-Manke

“I graduated, saw news about the war, but I was very far from it.”

This is how Assistant Professor of Philosophy Natalie Nenadic describes the beginning of her involvement in the groundbreaking lawsuit Kadic v. Karadzic, which gained recognition for sexual atrocities as acts of genocide.

The war Nenadic had seen in the news was the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in which Serbian forces carried out “ethnic cleansing” through a system of concentration camps for torture, mass killings, and mutilations. This campaign included mass rapes and murder of women.  

Nenadic had recently received her B.A. from Stanford University when she was contacted by ethnologist and philosopher Asja Armanda, whom she had met during a prior trip abroad. Armanda, who was also a Croatian-Jewish women’s rights advocate, had been hearing from survivors about a system of mass rapes and killing of women in the Serbian-occupied territories of Croatia.

When international human rights groups and European women’s organizations did little to investigate or intervene in the atrocity, Armanda went to Nenadic.

And then Nenadic went to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“I went there, and she [Armanda] took me to all these refugee centers, and I ended up talking and working with survivors. And then I was in the dilemma she was in — we were in it together — how do you make this visible to the world so that it could be stopped?”

The problem Nenadic and Armanda faced was partially conceptual and partially political. Serbian forces were carrying out a sexual atrocity different from the then-common notion of rape as a crime of war, which assumes that rape is an expected part of war that is perpetrated by all sides. The torture, rapes and murders — sometimes even of elderly or pregnant women — were part of the genocidal policy that was euphemistically being called “ethnic cleansing.” While the world had come to conceptually understand genocide as distinct from traditional war many years after the Holocaust, it had yet to recognize how sexual atrocities were part of genocidal campaigns.

“With regard to the Holocaust,” Nenadic said, “initially people didn’t see it as a distinct crime within all the atrocities that were happening during World War II. They saw the mass destruction of war. But this was a particular type of ‘war’ within a war. It wasn’t something being carried out by all sides to the conflict; it was a concerted policy committed by one side only, a policy to destroy a particular ethnic group. That needed to be made visible.”

In order to make genocide visible after World War II, the international community needed a formal process to set legal precedent. The first attempt came with the Nuremberg Trials shortly after World War II; however, the Nuremberg Trials shied away from fully recognizing genocide as a distinctive, and particularly horrific, method of war. When Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann stood trial in Jerusalem in 1961 (after being kidnapped from Argentina by Israeli agents), genocide became more clearly recognized.

This difficult process — both legal and philosophic — laid the groundwork for Kadic v. Karadzic, in which Radovan Karadzic, the head of the Bosnian Serbs and an architect of the genocide, was tried in a civil lawsuit in New York City for genocidal sexual atrocities.

“Making it [sexual atrocities as acts of genocide] visible is a difficult, evolving process. In our case, we had the ‘benefit’ of the term ‘genocide,’ which had barely been coined around the time of World War II, so we had that kind of conceptual framework to talk about what was happening in Bosnia,” Nenadic said.

The challenge was that “there wasn’t yet a framework to grasp the sexual atrocity dimension of genocidal war.”

However, with a feminist and philosophical background, Nenadic did have the necessary analytic tools with her when she went to meet Armanda and survivors of the Serbian violence.  

While Nenadic had not worked directly with trauma before, she “had done a lot of work in feminist issues, read a lot of the literature on sexual violence, rape, domestic violence. I was up on that literature, but I hadn’t had direct experience working at a trauma center. I did have enough experience to recognize with Armanda this dimension of the genocide, though.”

If two of the challenges of bringing to light the sexual atrocities in the former Yugoslavia were conceptual and political, a third was social. Armanda, and later Nenadic, initially had a hard time getting women to talk about the sexual violations because of their fear of being disbelieved: “that peacetime hesitation of talking about it [rape and sexual assault] translated into the wartime situation.”

The Kadic v. Karadzic lawsuit ran from March 1993 to August 2000; during the same seven-year span, Nenadic studied at the University of Michigan Law School as a Research Scholar and then pursued her Doctorate in Philosophy at Yale.

At Michigan, Nenadic worked with Catharine MacKinnon, whom Nenadic calls “the leading American legal authority on issues of sexual violence.” Seeing the scale and import of the situation, Nenadic asked MacKinnon to join the project.

The court case continued throughout her doctoral work, during which Nenadic says she was “trying to juggle many different worlds: I’d try to do my work on the Ph.D. and then suddenly the judge in New York would issue a court date. I’d have to drop everything and go to New York, be in court, or go to Europe and work with survivors to prepare a motion to submit to the court.”

Nenadic sees her work on Kadic v. Karadzic as vital philosophic work that combines the concrete and the theoretical. However, she has encountered resistance along the way: “There are schools of thought in philosophy that don’t think ethics has to emanate from concrete issues — it’s  theoretical in a way that’s disconnected from the world. I had people in ethics tell me this is not directly relevant to philosophical ethics.”

UK has been a welcome change for the assistant professor: “Here at UK it’s a completely different case. I have the best departmental support to integrate the two — and when you’re able to do that, your work can really shine.”


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