Darfur: Revictimising the Victim – Human Rights and the Blame Approach
In the growing debate on the approach and impacts of international advocacy on Darfur, largely articulated through human rights discourse, the focus so far has tended to be on how it affects international perceptions of the conflict and the consequent responses elicited. In this article however, I would like to ask a different but important question: has international advocacy and human rights discourse shaped how Darfurians view themselves and the conflict? What are the repercussions of this?
At the end of a conference a few months ago, I was discussing the issue of human rights with some students in Cambridge. I suggested that human rights in its current framework disempowered people by perpetuating a belief that we were not already free; that a system had to set us free through the granting of rights; that these rights could not exist without the necessary institutional frameworks in place; and therefore our freedom did not depend on ourselves but on external institutions and systems. In response to my statement one student exclaimed that human rights were inherently empowering, setting us free by their very existence. At the time I could not articulate myself too well, as if often the case; however recently my thoughts have managed to form some sort of coherence.
Ofer Zur’s “Rethinking Don’t Blame the Victim: the Psychology of Victimhood” is a highly insightful and relevant article, providing much food for thought on Darfur’s victims. It looks at how Western approaches to victims can be more damaging than helpful.
Zur terms the problem a “˜blame approach’: “At the heart of the blame approach is a system of warfare, which centers on the outcome of moral or legal battles rather than on the resolution of conflict and the prevention of future violence”. He argues that this approach “has not only failed to resolve the violence and suffering but in fact… [has] tended to perpetuate and exacerbate [it]”.
Such an approach is a significant factor in the creation and reinforcement of people’s identities as victims. Furthermore, Zur writes, “the victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy”.
At the Darfur Debate recently held at Columbia University, John Prendergast and Mahmood Mamdani were hosted as speakers and each allotted time to respond to a set of questions. A number of Darfuris rose to respond at the end of the debate and I noticed that they all had something in common: a strong insistence on their identity as victims and the government as perpetrator, wholly responsible for their suffering. Furthermore there was a common implied assertion that their victimhood was proof that Mamdani’s analysis was erroneous and that this victimhood was being violated in some way by his position.
These responses echoed previous Sudanese/Darfuri responses to those who had spoken out against an ICC indictment on President Bashir. Initially, many Sudanese and Darfurians felt very strongly that an anti-indictment position was an anti-Darfurian position. Such feelings strongly reminded me of the for-us-or-against-us logic used under the Bush administration during the early phase of the Iraq invasion; the “˜for the war or against the troops’ mentality.
In an article criticising Mamdani, Chad Hazlett recently asserted that Mamdani’s argument about Save Darfur advocacy lacked evidence and suggested that a content analysis of Save Darfur messaging would have been prudent. I thought this an excellent idea and undertook a crude and preliminary analysis, using the search function on the Save Darfur website. This yielded some interesting results:
The word “victims“ generated 130 entries
The word “survivors“ generated 70 entries
The word “help“ generated 530 entries
The word “empower“ generated 14 entries
The word “genocide“ generated 799 entries
The word “counterinsurgency“ generated 5 entries
Whilst this analysis took all of about five minutes, the results indicate the following: Save Darfur’s advocacy generates a discourse of victims who are in dire need of help within a system of victims against perpetrators (or good against evil) in which the former are wholly innocent and the later wholly guilty.
But what is so wrong with supporting victimhood? The suffering of the people of Darfur is undeniable and it would be grossly unfair to dismiss it.
Contrary to Buddhist or Hindu systems (for example) where there is an acceptance of one’s destiny and circumstances, Western thinking emphasizes the need to eradicate suffering and develop agendas for change. Whilst we support a belief in the agency of people to change their circumstances (the yes-we-can approach), our view of victims encourages them to see themselves as totally helpless. The dangers of this are articulated by Zur in a psychological profile of victims:
“The difference between victims and non-victims who operate within the same social, political, economic, and legal context lies not in external factors, as is so often argued, but… in how they view themselves, the world around them, and their relationship to the trauma…The basic mode of operation of an adult victim is a feeling of helplessness and self-pity, no sense of accountability, and the tendency to blame… The victim’s locus of control is likely to be external… a belief that what happens to a person is contingent on events outside of that person’s control rather than on what one does… victims harbor feelings of self-inefficacy, of not being successful in affecting one’s environment or in one’s life”.
The question of the accountability of victims must also make us pause to think. The carte blanche extended to victims to allocate blame wholly on to others, further compounds a helpless status of the victim. Zur defines five types of victims who have varying levels of responsibility for their suffering. He classes the Jews who suffered during the holocaust as being “˜victims with minor guilt’, citing their lack of resistance as one of the reasons for this classification. In any situation, if we can find the role we have played in perpetuating a bad situation, then we can find a way to change that situation and move forward. Where there is no responsibility, what reason or method is there for action?
The current functioning of the human rights system means that in order for one to claim a right, one must show that someone/something else is violating that right; one must allocate blame somewhere. Rarely, if ever, does human rights discourse and advocacy encourage victims to understand their roles, responsibilities and potentials for action without the presence of strong, functioning external institutions.
Whilst human rights is viewed as an empowering discourse, does it really function in this way? Undoubtedly rights were created to empower people, to set them free so to speak. But through this built-in blame approach does it actually disempower people, encouraging victims to look elsewhere for solutions, rather than with themselves? Does the current Western approach to suffering, in fact revictimise the victim?