The Cultural Consequences of International Criminal Justice Intervention

by Joachim J. Savelsberg, author of Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur. A free ebook version of this title is available through Luminos, University of California Press’s new open access publishing program for monographs.

Savelsberg-RepresentingMassViolence

This guest post is published as part of a series in relation to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences conference occurring at the end of March in Denver, CO .

How can international criminal justice contribute to fighting mass atrocities?

Mass atrocities, specifically genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, have cost manifold more human lives than all street crimes combined. New research, mostly conducted by political scientists, indicates that interventions by international institutions, including the new International Criminal Court, reduce such violence. But the mechanism is hidden in a black box. Some speculate that deterrence is at work. The current book instead examines the cultural consequences of interventions. Based on content analysis of well over three thousand news media reports and interviews with Africa correspondents, NGO experts and foreign ministry officials from eight countries, it depicts the changing collective representations of mass violence. Criminal justice interventions play a major role as they keep mass violence on the public radar and increase the likelihood that it will be depicted as state crime and genocide. The age old celebration of those responsible for mass violence as great state builders and decades of denial are thereby challenged. And such challenges are likely to affect international responses to mass violence.

Are there challenges to the representative function of criminal justice interventions?

Challenges to criminal justice framing of mass violence are numerous. They do not just emanate from the dark forces of perpetrating organizations and states. Competing representations are also generated by other social fields that seek to provide relief in the midst of devastation or to put an end to the violence. Humanitarian aid organizations tell stories about the violence that differ substantially from those told by the Court. Their accounts treat the perpetrating state cautiously. They focus on deprivations in refugee camps rather than on those victims who suffer directly from criminal violence. In the words of one humanitarian NGO worker: “Who is the devil? Good and bad – we don’t necessarily see the world in that way… We need [communication], because to be present in an area you need acceptance by the groups.” Also diplomats who work tirelessly to put an end to the violence provide a representation that competes with the criminal justice frame. And here too, actors in the diplomatic field provide their reasoning openly: “If you want to make peace in Darfur through negotiations, you have to deal with the Sudanese government… If you want justice through the ICC, well, then you should stigmatize someone who is indicted.” Media analysis shows that the humanitarian aid and armed conflict frames, promoted by aid NGOs and diplomats respectively, also affect media reporting. Yet, they do so less successfully than criminal justice interventions.

Can findings about the case of Darfur be generalized?

Representing Mass Violence focuses on the mass violence that unfolded in the Darfur region of Sudan during the first decade of the 21st century. The estimated death toll is 300,000. Millions have been driven from their homes. Tens of thousands have been raped. The livelihood of half of the population of Darfur has been destroyed. But Darfur is not a single case. The last two and a half decades saw mass violence in countries such as Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, the DRC, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and East Timor, continuing histories of horror of the 20th and of preceding centuries.

Today the ongoing mass violence in Syria and Iraq dominates news media headlines. To be sure, the geopolitical position of each of these countries differs, and so does their exposure to international criminal justice institutions. Yet, all of these situations have seen some form of criminal justice response. Many of the responding institutions are new and barely tested. Scholarship needs to pay close attention to their functioning and impact. The story of Darfur tells us, however, that they will likely contribute to a representation of those responsible for mass violence that will cast a shadow on the reputation of responsible actors. These state and military leaders are less likely to go down in history as heroes but as villains instead. The buildup of international justice institutions may generate some of the civilizing effect that the development of state institutions had over past centuries. Uncertainties are great, of course, but an opportunity lends itself, and continued observation is the order of the day.


Joachim J. Savelsberg is Professor of Sociology and Law and Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair at the University of Minnesota. He is the coauthor of American Memories: Atrocities and the Law and author of Crime and Human Rights: Criminology of Genocide and Atrocities.