Representational Power of International Criminal Courts

This post is published in advance of the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

Joachim Savelsberg recently spoke at a symposium on power in international criminal justice. The event, held in Florence, Italy, and organized by the Centre for International Law Research and Policy and the International Nuremberg Principles Academy, included judges from the International Criminal Court (ICC) and from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as well as representatives from the United Nations and NGO experts.

Savelsberg argued that international human rights courts hold substantial representational power, defined as the probability to impress on a global public, even against resistance and competing narratives, an understanding of mass violence as a form of criminal violence. The argument is urgent as international criminal justice institutions are under fire from many sides. Most recently, Burundi was the first country to withdraw from the Rome Statute on which the ICC is based. Savelsberg presented empirical evidence from Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur to support his argument.

His analyses of the Darfur case show that international criminal justice institutions and their supporters in civil society are engaged in struggles with competing forces. The latter include diplomats who privilege representations that open up spaces for mediation and negotiation, and humanitarian aid organizations advancing narratives that allow for collaboration with the perpetrator state in the interest of the delivery of humanitarian aid. Yet, international criminal justice representations dominate in media reporting in all eight countries under investigation. They prevail over frames of the violence as armed conflict or as a humanitarian emergency, especially after the onset of institutional intervention. Sources of this dominance likely include control over rituals, access to channels of communication, and legitimacy based on procedure.

The representative power of human rights courts faces constraints, however, that color their message. They include the court’s focus on the role of individual actors (at the neglect of structural forces); limiting evidentiary rules; neglect of historical context; and a simplifying binary logic of guilty versus not guilty. They further include the need to satisfy institutions and states that exert power by controlling funding and the statutory basis of the court. The ICC also needs to be on good terms with permanent members of the UN Security Council on which it partially depends for the referral of cases and for enforcement action. The result of such tension is a treacherous journey between Scylla of formal-rational justice and Charybdis of practical concerns in the highly politicized environment of international relations. Finally, international criminal justice depends on the diffusion of its representations through mass media that follow their own rules of the game. Some of these rules induce selectivity.

Despite such constraints, theoretical arguments suggest, and Savelsberg’s analysis documents, substantial representational power of international criminal courts. Will this power advance a reduction of international human rights crimes, long-term pacification in the realm of international relations? When powerful leaders with responsibility for mass violence are repeatedly represented as criminal perpetrators, international criminal justice may then become imbued with symbolic power. A resulting broad-based understanding of such leaders as criminal perpetrators could quite possibly contribute toward a diminished role of naked violence in the international realm. Yet, the jury is still out, as they say—and that jury includes those engaged in continued scholarship.

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During the ASC conference on Thursday, November 16, see Joachim discuss the Punitive Term and the Justice Cascade. And see Joachim’s previous work on genocide from Armenia to Darfur, the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and the cultural consequences of international criminal justice intervention.


Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur by Joachim J. Savelsberg is available as a free Luminos Open Access e-book as a free download.


Genocide: From Armenia to Darfur

This post is published in advance of the National Women’s Studies Association conference in Montreal, Quebec from November 10 – 13 and in advance of American Society of Criminology conference in New Orleans from November 16 – 19. #NWSA2016 #ASC2016 #Election2016 

Joachim J. Savelsberg presented insights from Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur to affected groups on several occasions. After a speech in Yerevan, Armenia, on the occasion of the 101st anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Savelsberg more recently addressed and exchanged ideas with refugees from Darfur and other troubled regions in the Middle East.

Savelsberg-RepresentingMassViolenceOne opportunity was offered by the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, participant in a movement among French universities that offer refugees a path back into higher education. In this context, Savelsberg lectured and discussed with a group of Sudanese, Syrian and Palestinian refugee-students. His lecture evoked much interest and intense discussions. Students primarily wanted to know what actions could put an end to the continuing and newly intensifying mass atrocities in Darfur. Why does the West not intervene with military force? Why does it not arm rebel groups who fight the Sudanese government? Why have peace negotiations not succeeded? Why have indictments by the International Criminal Court (ICC) not resulted in arrests? While not all answers could satisfy all members of the group, students took some comfort from the observation that UN and ICC interventions had advanced an international perception of the mass atrocities as a form of criminal violence. They shared the author’s hope that this trend will, in the long run, further delegitimize mass atrocities and challenge those political and military actors who bear responsibility. American institutions of higher education might, it seems, learn from French universities and their initiatives, which stand in sharp contrast to closed doors rhetoric (and policy) and to the rise of right-wing populist movements that enhance exclusion and risk advancing political-religious radicalization and criminalization.

Joachim Savelsberg at Darfur Women Action Group's Mobile, Engage, Empower to End Genocide Symposium.
Joachim Savelsberg at Darfur Women Action Group’s Mobile, Engage, Empower to End Genocide Symposium.

More recently, Savelsberg spoke to Citizens for Global Solutions in Minneapolis, MN and, in Washington, DC, at the 2016 Women and Genocide conference, organized by the Darfur Women Action Group (DAWG), with support from the Global Women’s Institute, George Washington University, and the Genocide Prevention Program, George Mason University School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. His lecture followed reports in which women from Rwanda, Darfur, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Northern Nigeria spoke to their experiences in the context of mass atrocities. Like in Paris, careful scholarly analysis of the effects of new international institutions encounter impatience among those who are directly affected. Some scholars reinforce that impatience also at the DAWG event, as they focus on the weaknesses of new institutions. Savelsberg instead highlighted the historical novelty of international criminal justice, and alternative transitional justice institutions, urging patience in the exploration of the degree to which – paraphrasing Justice Robert Jackson – reason and some degree of the rule of law may eventually supplement the pure use of power in international relations. The experiment began only in the 20th century. It is a novelty in human history, initial malfunctions are expected and no reasons for dismissal. Representing Mass Violence documents how it may advance cultural change and promote hope.


Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur by Joachim J. Savelsberg is available as a free Luminos Open Access e-book and available for free download.


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.


Author Spotlight: Joachim Savelsberg

Meeting with our authors is always a pleasure, and last month, it was wonderful to welcome Joachim Savelsberg to UCP’s offices in Oakland. Joachim Savelsberg, a world-renowned expert on mass atrocities, is author of the upcoming title Representing Mass Violenceset to release this August.

Upon publication, Representing Mass Violence will be available through Luminos, University of California Press’ new Open Access publishing program for monographs. Visit www.luminosoa.org to learn more.

Left to right: Jack Young, Elena McAnespie, Maura Roessner, and Joachim Savelsberg.
Left to right: Jack Young, Elena McAnespie, Maura Roessner, and Joachim Savelsberg.

“You look at countries like my own home country Germany in the way they memorialize the Holocaust, the way they live up to the responsibilities of the past. It does not do them any harm in the international community. To the opposite, it has increased acceptance in the international community,” says Savelsberg in his recent feature in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s op-ed.

Be sure to listen to his interview with John Hines on WCCO Radio for more of Savelsberg’s profound analyses of the history of genocide.

Representing Mass Violence:  Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur
Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur

Representing Mass Violence uncovers competing narratives of international justice in the ways in which human rights crimes in Darfur (and also Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Cambodia) are represented around the world, particularly through the lens of the International Criminal Court.

This work stands apart from other accounts of genocide by focusing not on the crimes themselves or the immediate legal or political responses but on the distinct meta-narratives that develop in Western industrialized nations about the possibility of justice as administered through international judicial forces. Ireland, for instance, with its collective memory of extreme poverty, may officially support the ICC’s efforts but express strong skepticism about any judicial intervention that would interfere with food and aid delivery. And Germany, with its own history of genocide, is slow to apply the term elsewhere, recently making global news by acknowledging the Armenian genocide as such on its 100th anniversary.

These local, social, and political forces profoundly shape the ways in which mass crimes in Darfur and elsewhere are perceived and addressed. Only by understanding how they shape collective memories and representations of human rights crimes, Savelsberg argues, can we better respond to, and prevent, future atrocities.