Gaining victim status under international law is a fickle privilege – as easily granted as it is taken away. Libya’s refugees and migrants who are escaping the country’s economic collapse and violence are a testament to the use and abuse of the victim label under international law. Within the space of a few years, they have gone from being labelled victims of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal regime to being labelled illegal immigrants and part of a ‘swarm’.
Following the death of Norwegian sociologist and criminologist Nils Christie on 27 May this year, several tributes were paid emphasising his huge influence on the disciplines of Criminology and Criminal Law. His work has been, with a few exceptions, far less influential in international law. Yet, there is much international lawyers can learn from his ground-breaking work, particularly that relating to ‘ideal victimhood’.
In his seminal piece from 1986, Christie introduces the figure of the ‘ideal victim’. The ideal victim is ‘a person or category of individuals, who, when hit by crime, most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim’. In other words, there are some individuals who are considered more deserving of victim status than others. As Basia Spalek points out, it is the ideal victim in whose name victim services are justified. This is important for international law given the frequent reference to victims of conflict and victims of international crime to justify various forms of interventionism.
Victimhood has huge rhetorical currency in the international sphere: Military intervention is considered legitimate if the plight of the victims has been documented; an international arrest warrant for a warlord is justified if there are large numbers of victims who have suffered. From Christie we learn that this invocation of victimhood comes with certain socially constructed notions of who qualifies as a deserving victim. For Christie, the ideal victim in his home country is ‘a little old lady’. He paints a picture of the little old lady who, on her way home from caring for her sick sister, is hit on the head by a big man who robs her for alcohol or drugs. He identifies five attributes of ideal victimhood: (1) the victim is weak (female, elderly), (2) the victim was carrying out a respectable project (caring for her sister), (3) she could not be blamed for where she was (she was in the street during the daytime), (4) the offender was big and bad, and (5) the offender was in no personal relationship to her. Furthermore, he also observes that the victim must be able to command just enough power to establish their identity as an ideal victim but ‘be weak enough not to become a threat to other important interests’.
These attributes can be slightly modified for the international sphere. Arguably, the ideal victim in international law has three attributes: (1) The victim is vulnerable and weak, (2) the victim is dependent, and (3) the victim is grotesque. Vulnerability and weakness is often accorded to women and children. It is often they who are invoked when an intervention by powerful states in less powerful states, particularly the formerly colonised world, is being justified. Dependency is a crucial aspect for victimhood, articulated in Christie’s statement regarding the victim’s relationship to other important interests. So long as a victim is deemed dependent on assistance, they do not pose a threat. If, however, a victim displays agency which goes beyond establishing their identity as an ideal victim, say by taking up arms against their aggressor or by deciding to migrate to one of the intervening countries, they quickly lose their ‘ideal’ status, if not their victim status altogether. Finally, an ideal victim in the international sphere – a victim of conflict or of international crime – often has some visual features which brand them as victims. This may be the colour of their skin more generally, but usually it is a distended tummy, a mutilation, an amputated limb. This bodily manifestation of victimhood can be referred to as ‘grotesque’. It is this in particular which prompts empathy in the ‘civilised’ world yet also creates distance; a feature which distinguishes ‘us’ from ‘them’. The ideal victim of the international sphere, then, matches the typical fundraising images of international NGOs – a black (or at least non-white) child who displays the scars of poverty and conflict.
These three features can arguably be regarded as a currency in a global victim industry. Those victims who display all the mentioned attributes are not only ‘ideal’ for rhetorical purposes, they are also ideal for economic purposes. These victims will induce empathy among donors, will silence competitors, will attract the attention of the international media, and will legitimise the funding of military intervention. Invocation of these victims guarantees legitimacy in the name of humanitarianism and global justice. Suffering has become commodified.
Christie teaches us the importance of identifying how victimhood has been socially constructed for questioning the purposes of invoking victimhood. Why did the former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno-Ocampo and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jump on the bandwagon of exaggerated accounts of Viagra-fuelled mass rape allegedly committed by Gaddafi’s forces ‘against his own population’ shortly after the military intervention in Libya in 2011? Why is it that people from the same Libyan population four years on, trying to escape their conflict-ridden country, are now referred to as ‘illegal immigrants’? When David Cameron went on his ‘liberator tour’ to Libya with French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in September 2011, he referred to the Libyan victims of Gaddafi’s regime as demonstrating the ‘courage of lions’. In 2015, with Libya a conflict-ridden country (a condition notably brought on by the so-called ‘liberation’), Cameron referred to people from this population as a ‘swarm’ of people trying to migrate to the UK. The construction of the same people as going from ‘ideal victims’ to aggressors in the space of just a few years is significant for posing some critical questions. The next time we see the faces of anonymous victims take up the entire billboard of the marketing strategy of humanitarianism, we should ask ourselves, in the spirit of Nils Christie, what it is that these images are really for?
 Nils Christie, “The Ideal Victim” in From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, ed. Fattah E. A., (London: Macmillan, 1986) 18 (17-30).
 Basia Spalek, Crime Victims: Theory, Policy and Practice (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).