‘We are not good victims’: Hierarchies of suffering and the politics of victimhood in Colombia

Roxani Krystalli

“This is the era of the victims,” declared the High Commissioner for Peace in Colombia in his June 2014 address to the Colombian Senate. Yet, not all victims are created equal. Victimhood does not merely describe an experience of harm; it is also a political status and identity that invites particular performances from the state, human rights actors, and conflict-affected individuals. Those who identify as victims have expressed a perceived sense of hierarchy among their claims, with one family member of a disappeared person telling me, “we are not good victims.” In this research project on the politics of victimhood in Colombia, I ask: What does it mean to be a “good victim”? How is victimhood produced and performed—by representatives of the state and those who identify as victims alike —in order to be legible in the context of transitional justice processes? And what are the implications of these constructed hierarchies for theories and experiences of justice during transitions from violence? Through discourse analysis and interviews with representatives of the state and human rights organizations, I examine the production of victimhood and its corresponding hierarchies. The ethnographic component of the research illuminates not only how the status of ‘victim’ is accorded from above, but also how conflict-affected individuals themselves contest, embody, police, and perform it. This project is grounded in anthropological literature on violence, complemented by insights from the fields of transitional justice, feminist theory, and critical humanitarianism. The goal of this inquiry is to trouble, rather than reify, the category of ‘victim’ and to examine its use and effects on experiences of justice during transitions from violence.