Framing the Issue: Vulnerability or Structural Violence?

Ellen SpannagelBy Ellen Spannagel

In my role supporting Forum for Human Rights, a Central European legal non-governmental organization focusing on international human rights litigation and advocacy in Central Europe, my research centered on the rights to water and sanitation. Specifically, we were looking at how the state has failed to provide Roma communities with adequate drinking water and sanitation in Slovakia.

In doing research and writing on these issues, a reoccurring point of discussion was whether to frame issues of lack of access to water and sanitation as one of precarity/vulnerability, or one of structural violence, and which point of reference would be more strategic. Here, precarity refers to a “politically induced condition of vulnerability which exposes such populations to arbitrary state violence and to other forms of aggression enacted by non-state actors, without any protection,” as defined by Judith Butler. [1] Structural violence can be understood as an “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs or, to put it in more general terms, the impairment of human life, which lowers the actual degree to which someone is able to meet their needs below that which would otherwise be possible.”[2] So much scholarly work has been written about this, but in my own words, the angle of precarity/vulnerability focuses on the actual group that has been made vulnerable and their characteristics, whereas structural violence focuses on the multiple dimensions of societal processes/relations resulting in social inequalities.

So which route do you choose? I had many discussions with colleagues about this. I noticed that many people preferred discussing legal issues facing marginalized groups in the context of structural violence, as it points to larger systemic roots in racism and other forms of discrimination and implies a greater accountability on behalf of all of society. It can help reveal the accountability of the state regardless of the complexity of domestic arrangements and can also help identify remedies that are of a collective and structural nature. However, while the preference for the lens of structural violence was true almost across the board, almost all the people I spoke to agreed that framing these issues in the context of vulnerability or precarity would be more effective. That is, regional and international bodies would respond more readily and positively to a framing of vulnerability as opposed to structural violence.

Carolina Yoko Furusho writes that human rights courts “abide by modes of relationality whereby certain kinds of vulnerability become more salient than others.”[3] Furusho adds, “applicants labelled as vulnerable are selectively recognised, engendering an uneven politics of inclusion which raises social justice and equality concerns.”[4] This can be seen in the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, which has recognized time and time again that Roma constitute “vulnerable” populations, without giving as much weight to other social groups, such as the rights of trans people, migrants, and others.  The focus is on the status of the group as “vulnerable,” and less so on the multiple and intersecting forms of oppression giving rise to such situations.

However, Furusho also writes “legal practitioners do not simply create categories of ‘vulnerable groups’, but they engage in relational processes whereby vulnerability is produced and mobilised in between and across bodies.”[5]  This really hit home for me. By choosing to participate in the selective framing of “vulnerability,” playing to status quo understandings of major courts, are jurists reproducing the existing vulnerabilities that they themselves are seeking to combat?

Language is powerful, and legal practitioners and courts should think very carefully about how they can center the agency of those seeking justice, by placing the spotlight on actors perpetuating exclusion, rather than focusing on the vulnerability of certain groups and whether or not that are “vulnerable” enough.

[1] Judith Butler. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2009. p 25.

[2] J, Galtung. Violence, Peace, Peace Research. (1969) Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3. p. 167.

[3] Carolina Yoko Furusho, “The Selective Framing of ‘Vulnerability’ in the European and the Inter-American Human Rights Courts : A Socio-Legal Analysis of Juridical Praxis,” ethos.bl.uk, 2020, https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.815316.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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