Human Rights Reporting on Darfur: A Genre that Redefines Tragedy (1)
The headline was, “A Tragedy Straight out of Shakespeare,” and the opening lines gripped my imagination and emotion. A student of literature wonders how her passion for the subject can be anything more than a personal, even selfish indulgence in a world scarred by genocide and starvation.
“In my decades teaching English literature, I’ve experienced nothing so painful as the final scene of “˜King Lear.’ Howling in bereavement, Shakespeare’s profoundly humbled king enters holding his dead daughter, Cordelia, and subsequently dies of grief.
“But in the arid regions of Darfur province in western Sudan, such agony as Lear’s is common. It’s recorded in only the tersest accounts from the bereaved, distinguished by neither poetry nor dramatic shape. The fiercest suffering is muffled within a vast and growing arena of violence.”
With these lines, the writer links the power of a dramatic text to excite the imagination, with how these same powers of sympathetic imagination are needed, to grasp the human reality of atrocities in a faraway land. The teacher who can reach across four centuries to evoke the dramaturgy of William Shakespeare is perhaps uniquely qualified to reach across the continents to give dramatic shape to what would otherwise remain “a faraway country of which we know little.” The author of the article, a Massachusetts literature professor, has dedicated the last few years to giving a voice to the voiceless of Darfur. The stories he recounts are harrowing.
“Consider what a young woman in South Darfur experienced in July 2004, according to a Knight Ridder report: “˜Kaltoma Idris, 23, was inside her hut when the Janjaweed arrived. Outside, her sister was boiling water on a small fire, her recently born twins next to her. “The Janjaweed came and took the water and poured it over the babies,” recalled Idris, who stayed in the hut and kept silent. “They tied my sister up.” Idris fled out the back. As she ran for cover, she said she saw children being thrown into flaming huts.’ Such barbarism has defined Darfur for four years, with no end in sight.”
The story of Kaltoma Idris and numberless other victims of the Darfur atrocities is heart-rending. Prof. Reeves’s own personal story is also a personal inspiration to the student of literature, humble and confused about her role in the world:
“I’ve not been able to travel to Darfur, although I’ve spent time in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Yet as distant as Darfur is geographically, it could not be morally more proximate. As my own mission in life has gradually shifted from teaching Shakespeare to bearing witness to Darfur’s torment, I’ve tried to convey what it is that leaves me haunted to the point of desperation, even terror.”
But as a student of literature, I found the title given to Prof. Reeves’s article, published on June 3, 2007, by the editors of the Washington Post wildly misleading. I wanted to shout out, “Tragedy is not personal suffering and barbarism! Tragedy is a dramatic form!”
Expounding on the theories of tragedy, from Aristotle through Shakespeare to modernist versions, falls beyond the scope of this paper. In most of its forms, tragedy involves a protagonist, admirable in many ways, who suffers a reverse in fortune, due either to circumstance or a fatal flaw in his or her character. The drama evokes fear and pity in the audience, and usually ends with a scene of revelation or epiphany on the part of the fallen hero.
The narrative form of human rights reporting, including the snapshot of Reeves’s own writing in the column quoted, is entirely different: the characters are cast in the moulds victim and perpetrator from the very beginning and never escape from those categories that define them. The human rights report version of tragedy is a catalogue of the march of evil, detailing the sufferings of the innocents trampled underfoot.
The story of the Darfur mass atrocities is horrific, real, and is still unfolding as I write these lines. But it is not, “a tragedy straight out of Shakespeare.” Commenting on a draft of this paper, Reeves clarified that “The Washington Post piece was most definitely not given its title by me, and I found it quite embarrassing.” Darfur is a tragedy only in the everyday use of the word to mean a pitiful instance of human suffering.
The subject of my paper is that human rights reporting, of which Prof. Reeves’s writing is a radical exemplar, has developed into a distinct and new sub-genre. I will argue that the human rights report, whether a short newspaper column or a full-fledged report published by a leading international human rights agency, has become a genre of its own. The sub-editor who chose to entitle Reeves’s article “a tragedy” used the word in its everyday sense, and it is this commonplace usage, distinct from any literary theory, that applies to the genre of the human rights report. More properly, the human rights report is a genre that portrays a Manichean world divided into perpetrators and victims, with human rights defenders as its heroes. In some radical variants it has co-opted the concept of “evil.” Unlike literary tragedy, it is a genre that admits of no moral ambiguities, and therein lies at once its power and its weakness.
In the first part I develop the concept of the human rights report as a literary genre, with a case study of Sudan. In part two, I show how this genre shares some key characteristics with the writings of those propagandists who defend the perpetrators of abuse. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this demonstrates how even the apologists of mass atrocity have been forced to pay their respects to the human rights reporting genre. In the third and last part, I show how the genre has proven so influential that even the world’s highest ranking human rights prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, has shaped his statements and reports accordingly.
The Human Rights Report as an Evolving Genre
Human rights reports are judged on their factual basis and their impact (including elements such as timeliness). Up to now they have not been assessed as a particular kind of genre of writing. In this paper I examine how human rights organizations, including freelance activists and official bodies, have written about the Darfur atrocities, from the point of view of a student of literature. The methods I use are literary methods that were developed principally for works of fiction and so sometimes it is easy for the critic to lose sight of the fact that the reports are describing actual current events affecting real human beings. The reason why a human rights activist dedicates her time to writing a human rights report or article is not just to describe the world in an interesting way but to make the world a better place or at least a less bad one. I will try to bring the “reality check” perspective into the paper. The case study of the Darfur atrocities is a particularly rich example because of the sheer amount of writing it has generated (far too much for one essay to cover) and also it has pushed the boundaries of the genre in new ways.
Human rights writing has come a long way in the last twenty years. Researching the reports of the 1980s is an unexpectedly old-fashioned experience. The researcher has to go to the physical archives of human rights organizations or to libraries where the main reports (but not Amnesty International (AI) “urgent actions” and “news from Africa Watch” xeroxed pages) are filed in hard copy. The AI reports have a formalism and aridity that makes them appear like the remnants of an earlier era. They describe an individual case in dry factual summary and allocate the case to a particular category of violation and ask the reader to write politely to the head of state and minister of justice to complain, with regular mailing addresses given.
Not so today! Human rights reports are glossy publications and available online, with pictures and graphs and professional production standards. Gone are the days of standardized two-color covers and single font text. They sit on the shelves next to photojournalists’ books and academic volumes. The websites are also increasingly professional.
The text inside has changed in style and substance. Each of the major human rights organizations has its house style, whether AI, Human Rights Watch (HRW), Minority Rights Group (MRG), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) or International Crisis Group (ICG). But they have a common format for the substance, which is a blend of journalistic rapportage, field investigation, ethnography and prosecution brief. The text relies heavily on victim testimony. These publications also look designed to stand the test of time.
In the Sudanese case, the human rights report archive takes a turn in 1990 with the publication of Africa Watch’s “Denying the Honor of Living”: Sudan: A Human Rights Disaster. There are predecessors to this, most importantly an AI report on human rights violations in the course of the war in South Sudan and a MRG investigation into the origins of that same war. However Africa Watch’s report is the first that physically resembles a book and tries to cover the whole spectrum of issues in Sudan. It is the first one that looks at starvation as a violation of human rights as well as having a chapter on slavery.
A textual analysis reveals that this report also makes an interesting innovation in narrative structure. It is structured with intent to blame the Sudanese government for the wrongs described””all of them. The earlier human rights reports all did this too but they ascribed legal responsibility to the state for specific violations of rights against Sudanese citizens. In a background interview, a former AI official explained that the organization used to hold the sovereign government accountable for all the violations that fell within Amnesty’s mandate, irrespective of whether the government was materially responsible for the violation, because upholding the rights of citizens was a sovereign responsibility. So Amnesty did not deal with violations committed by anti-government insurgents such as the SPLA. (Its 1989 report on violations in the war was the first-ever to do so, she said.) What the Africa Watch report “Denying the Honor of Living” did was to extend this principle of state responsibility to a range of other violations including famine, slavery, overthrow of democratic institutions, etc. On the issue of slavery, the report describes how slavery cannot be discounted as local or traditional practices but is actually a distinct phenomenon, and the Sudanese government bears overall responsibility for allowing militia troops to abduct people as slaves and keep them as slave laborers. As well as maintaining the principle that the sovereign government has a general legal responsibility to protect its citizens, the report made the case that the Sudanese government had specific material responsibility for each of these violations, whether directly through act of policy or indirectly through creating the conditions for others to commit the violation.
Just about every human rights report on Sudan since 1990 follows the same principle. The reports describe a gamut of human rights abuses and humanitarian deprivation and accuse the Sudanese government of overall responsibility. The HRW report Sudan, Oil and Human Rights (2003) runs to over 750 pages, is extensively footnoted, and reads like a definitive archive of record. It describes violations stretching back over many years and in places is like a military history of a complicated factional war. It is political-military ethnography which ascribes responsibility for a range of violations to actors ranging from local rebel commanders right the way up to China which provided money and technology for the oil exploration and extraction, but maintains that the Sudanese government deserves to be the center of the allocation of blame.
The reports on the atrocities in Darfur are much wider and more ambitious than anything in the previous compilation of literature in the human rights genre. The Darfur crisis has spawned a greater variety of forms of human rights reporting than ever before, many of them on the internet. New forms of imagery, from using children’s drawings of atrocities to Google Earth’s satellite mapping of destroyed villages, and including YouTube video essays, have provided unprecedented means of portraying the disaster and bringing it home to bigger audiences than ever before. But the old-fashioned text still remains the defining medium. It has been the written word in newspaper columns, penned by authors such as Reeves and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, that provided the moral narrative that identified and defined Darfur as genocide.
The title of one influential human rights report provides an illustration of how ascription of material political responsibility has superseded strict ascription of legal responsibility. In the report, Darfur 2007: Chaos by Design, HRW argues that “primary responsibility” for the breakdown of law and order in Darfur and tens of thousands of civilian deaths lies with the Sudanese government.
Many human rights reports from Darfur use victim testimony extensively. This is presented as verbatim although judging from the text of the uncommonly cogent testimonies these are reconstructed from notes and recordings rather than the direct transcripts of interviews or statements which are invariably less coherent and well-structured. The stories of victims are moving and harrowing and bring home the human realities of the genocide.
As mentioned, the textual clues give away the fact that victim testimony is very rarely reproduced as spoken. In addition to this, the wealth of victim testimony can play some narrative tricks. For example, in some reports, the sheer number of the testimonies gives the impression that the whole story has been told, whereas in fact no testimonies have been provided from the perpetrators point of view, which would be necessary for a complete picture. The sample has been carefully selected by the researchers and writers. There are also no testimonies from people who for one reason or another were unaffected by the atrocities. The victims describe their emotions and their suffering, and the impact that the violations have had on their personal life histories. The stories of rape survivors are especially emotional and the reader learns how it is traumatic and difficult and perhaps impossible for a rape survivor to re-establish her normal life. She is condemned to live a life of stigma, poverty and shame. The reader is emotionally caught and naturally empathizes with the victim, viscerally feeling the emotions of terror, shame and anger which are implicitly ascribed to her. But how does the reader know that she is not projecting those emotions onto someone who may in fact be experiencing things in a different way? It is also over easy to project the emotion and life impact of the victim into the mind of the perpetrator and to assume that because a crime had all the appalling outcomes described by the victim, this is what the perpetrator and his superiors intended to be the case. In these reports, no personality is given to the perpetrator, who is reduced to the criminal counterpart of the victim. The reports are a catalogue of barbarism and victimhood and not a rounded account of the events and still less a tragic reading of the atrocities.
Human rights investigators are not criminal investigators and, according to officials of human rights agencies I interviewed, their reports do not reach a standard of proof that will stand up in court. What the reports do is to provide the “first draft” of the prosecutor’s inquiry. In the case of Darfur at least, the human rights reports are so dominant in the depiction of the crisis, that they rule out a prosecutor starting anywhere else when he begins investigating.
As a genre, human rights reports provide an exclusive explanatory framework which asserts moral and factual certainty and does not leave room for multiple explanations. Reports may use ethnographic material but their approach is the antithesis of the anthropological one, which is reflective and self-questioning. It is also the polar opposite of the literary scholar’s approach which admits indeterminacy as a guiding principle. Instead, the scaffolding is a Manichean framework and the dramatic narrative is defined by dualities: victim-perpetrator; innocent-guilty; and our explanation-their explanation. While established human rights organizations continue to make extensive reference to legal principles, and to frame their analysis and recommendations with reference to legal responsibility, some radical writers have developed the genre further. They have become more ambitiously moralistic, invoking the duality of good and evil.
In either the form that human rights organizations have made conventional, or the more radical versions of freelance writer-activists, this structure possesses none of the ambiguity and moral anguish of literary tragedy. The moral sentiments it evokes are horror, fear, outrage and sympathy. There is no conflict among values. The reader is not invited to introspect or feel any internal moral dissonance. Instead she is reassured that there are perpetrators against whom it is legitimate to feel fear and anger, while being told that there are also suffering victims for whom they are obliged to feel sympathy and solidarity.
The word “evil” plays a special role in this literature. The Darfur has atrocities have been so horrific that leading commentators like Kristof have been prepared to use the word “evil”, although initially, perhaps, with hesitation. In his February 7, 2006, column, Kristof invited a critic to accompany him on a visit to Darfur, saying “You’ll encounter pure evil.” Later, Kristof was asked why he wrote more about Darfur and not Congo, where more people had been killed. In his June 20, 2007, column he explained:
“We all have within us a moral compass, and that is moved partly by the level of human suffering. I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur. There’s no greater crime than genocide, and that is Sudan’s specialty.”
Some scholars (for example Mahmood Mamdani) have challenged Kristof’s use of the term “evil” in this way. In the context of the Manichean logic and the parallel underlying moralism of the human rights genre, we should rather be surprised that it is not used more often.
Kristof implicitly locates evil in the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militia, in a similar way to President George W. Bush identified the “Axis of Evil” in three dictatorships and al Qaeda. Both the liberal and secular Kristof and the religious conservative Bush share a similar Manichean logic. In both cases, the source of evil is seen as a corrupting force coming from outside populations that are inherently predisposed to be peaceful and democratic.
It is instructive to contrast how “evil” has been used in writing on Congo, for more than a century. In 1904, Roger Casement, who was then a diplomatic official in the Congo, wrote to the human rights campaigner E.D. Morel describing “Congo evil … [as] a special and extraordinary evil.” A long series of writings on Congo, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, and including recent human rights reports, have depicted Congo as a place in which human savagery is unleashed without limit. In the Congo opus, the source of evil is located within the human soul, and the journey to the interior of Congo is simultaneously a journey to a literal “heart of darkness.” The racism implicit in these characterizations is obvious.
Perhaps because of this tradition, even the radical innovators of the human rights genre, such as Kristof, have hesitated to speak of “evil” in Congo. Although, even by Kristof’s admission, the horrors of the Congo war surpass the Darfur atrocities in scale, “evil” is rarely invoked. In an internet search, the only contemporary uses of the word “evil” I could find in relation to the barbarities of Congo were by Christian missionaries and other churchpeople, for example in reaction to reports of cannibalism and witchcraft accusations against children.
“Evil” in Congo is interior, both to the jungle and to humanity. Although the corpus of contemporary human rights reportage shuns the word, it reflects this spirit. Writing on Congo encourages the reader to reflect on the depravity of the human spirit and the danger to every one of us that we may succumb to the dark forces that lurk inside. The solution to the Congo mass atrocities including its genocides lies at a philosophical level in the form of a reform of the human spirit. This is a non-Manichean evil and a far cry from the evil identified in the writings on Sudan.
I have not found a book on Sudan that comparably describes the country as an evil place. When the sobriquet “evil” has been applied, it has been to specific people or groups. According to Mamdani in his book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, the depiction of the perpetrators as “evil” is tied in with them being described as “Arabs” and “outsiders.” He infers that lurking beneath the surface is a logic that implies that Sudan’s “evil” can be extirpated by expelling this alien presence.