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?
Chad Haszlitt may be too busy with field research to respond to your queries about the possible revictimization of victims through human rights work, so I would like to describe one of the programs that his organization, GI Net, supports in the Darfur and Eastern Chad region, and this blog’s readers may decide whether it negatively impacts the lives of people it purports to support.
GI-Net raises funds for firewood patrols to aid the women attempting to gather wood fuel for their cooking fires to feed their families in the IDP or refugee camps. The concept is to fund a female translator to accompany women along with an AU or UNAMID soldier. According to reports from Radio Dabanga or from a recent study by Physician for Human Rights, the problem of sexual assault on women as they venture out of the camps is still rather pressing. GI-Net has a history of listening to the specific requests of people within the camps in that they at one point sent solar cookers to help in processing UN food aid, but when the refugees stated that the solar cookers cooked at too low a temperature, they switched to stoves with higher temperatures for cooking.
One might take the ongoing work of of PHR, GIN and Amnesty International as test cases to answer your queries about the potential for revictimization. My understanding, limited as it may be by distance, is that each of these organizations seeks to give voice to and empower the victims of the crisis in Darfur.
Consider also, the work of the humanitarian aid agencies, 16 of whom were expelled in early March. The acceleration of suffering evident in the IDP camps since that time, even as US Special Envoy claims that service capacity is at 100% of the pre-expulsion levels, seems rather irrefutable. A better case may be made that the international community revictimizes rather than empowers the refugees by ignoring their current plight.
One shortcoming of your analysis is that you seem to imply that the Save Darfur discourse is the only discourse in town. But if you listen to Khalil Ibrahim of JEM, and plenty of other rebel leaders and followers, you will hear quite a different discourse. Not of passive fatalism and waiting to be “saved” by the West at all. Moreover, the discourses of Sudan did not start with Save Darfur… the whole history of Sudan, from the Funj to the Mahdiyya to Nimeiri to the Jabha Islamiyya to the Mutmarridin (the SPLA) are alive and present in most corners of Sudan. So victim discourse is just a tiny aspect of a much more complex and multifaceted discourse. The victim discourse may be strategically deployed on certain stages, at certain times, but I think I would rephrase your last sentence, with respect, to be something like this:
Does the current Western approach (i.e. Neha’s) of giving salience to western discourses (i.e. Mamdani and Save Darfur- two actors engaged in a “western discourse”) and then critically examining those discourses in very hypothetical ways (“it is possible that they do this or that”) in fact revalorise the “western commentator” (all of us on this blog) by claiming that we can “understand” and “discourse about” the victims…
And at the end, of course, I insert 😉
(And impossible to resist- do you really think that the Indians of Bangalore are “accepting destiny and circumstance”? Did Mahatma Gandhi? Nehru? Tagore? )
I believe in psychology, there is also a danger that once a group of people are dehumanized, they will not know their rights and entitlement, hence, remains victims forever. The people of Darfur unlike those in South Sudan have for all these years accepted to be marginalized by the successive brutal regimes in Khartoum. When South Sudanese freedom fighters reached Eastern Sudan during the liberation struggle, they were surprise and appall at the same time with the hopelessness of the people of Eastern Sudan. They began to wonder how these people were not the first to lead a rebellion movement against the governments in Khartoum. It is about time that all the marginalized in Sudan understand that they are really victimized by the successive regimes in Khartoum.
In 1980s, when a new government was installed in Khartoum, the regime offered John Garang ministerial positions for the South Sudanese as a condition to abandon armed struggle, and in response, Garang said, how about the Darfur, Nuba, and Beja, do they also have to take arms before their ministerial positions are recognized. So, the situation is not just that the people of Darfur are framed by the international community or advocacy groups to be victims, they are victims of the real situation and circumstances.
While I wasnâ€™t specifically criticizing GI Netâ€™s or Chad Hazlettâ€™s work, I can make the few following points:
In terms of providing security to women in Darfur, hiring translators to work with UNAMID peacekeepers is a system which relies on external and costly inputs. It is impractical and â€˜disempowering to rely on, external forces; they cannot and should not be relied upon in the long run. What about Darfurisâ€™ potential to develop and run their own security systems to protect their communities? Is empowerment sending solar cookers to communities? I would think that empowerment would be teaching communities to make solar cookers using easily accessible materials. I would stress that the problem does not lie in supporting the needs of Darfuriâ€™s, but in how we currently do this.
I would deeply regret it if in any way I had promoted Save Darfurâ€™s discourse as the only discourse; of course there have been many empowering discourses from within Sudan throughout history. Yet the discourse of the victim seems to be deployed frequently in relations with â€˜the Westâ€™. A quick anecdote: I was walking in Juba yesterday afternoon and was greeted by a man sitting outside his house with some friends. The first question he asked me was â€œWhat have you brought for us in Sudan?â€ After an initial discussion about this question (I quoted John F. Kennedy of course), we sat down with his friends and had a fascinating two hour discussion and debate about the history, politics and future of Sudan. Naturally, their historical and political knowledge far surpassed my own, yet they had still approached me asking me what I could bring to the country! Human rights discourse has been adopted across the world (many people I meet in Africa look starry eyed when they talk about human rights) and I think that it is dangerous to do so without looking at its flaws.
I wouldnâ€™t say that this blog gives salience to Western discourse; this article is only one of hundreds. In my view, there is no ownership of â€˜understandingâ€™ or â€˜discourseâ€™; it is generated through participation (where you and indeed anyone can contribute to creating it). I ask questions because I do not presume to have full knowledge. But it remains an interesting pointâ€¦
Re: Gandhi, Tagore and others, this is a very long conversation! Only to say here that there are two levels of discourse. In the mainstream (the caste system, for example) one accepts oneâ€™s position in society as the result of actions in a past life. The deeper philosophy however stresses the divine potential within each human being. Remember that in Indian thinking acceptance is transcendence rather than apathy.
I agree that people in Darfur and Sudan are real victims of situations and circumstances, and this is why I wrote about â€˜revictimising the victimâ€™. This is not to deny their status as â€˜victimsâ€™, but that we perhaps make them victims even further through our approach. I think that rather than saying â€œit is about time that all the marginalized in Sudan understand that they are really victimized by the successive regimes in Khartoumâ€ we should say â€œThe marginalised in Sudan should realise that they have the potential to be the driving force of their destinyâ€.
Very interesting article and replies. I would suggest, Neha, not to fall into an all-or-nothing approach whereby any ‘non-empowering’ aid solution must be seen as less attractive than an ’empowering’ one. Even more importantly, I would be cautious in applying indiscriminately the notion of ’empowerment’, since it is a floating concept usually escaping a priori assessments. How can we be so sure that one practice is more empowering than the other? The context is crucial in shaping both needs of people and feasibility of solutions, as well as the ’empowering’ consequences of them. It is from the context that can be assessed whether is better â€“ and actually feasible â€“ to teach how to make solar cookers, rather than directly giving them to people. Specific situations could require an aid of the former kind, as more acceptable in the short-term, for instance allowing other â€˜empoweringâ€™ achievements to be pursued by taking over individuals from more pressing needs. To put it otherwise, I contend that the notion of â€˜empowermentâ€™ should not be compartmentalised into a-temporal and a-contextual niches. Crucial is to keep in sight wider and long-term perspective, since it is both necessary to avoid turning aid into dependency AND to lose opportunities aid could provide. Seeking to apply the â€˜empowerment â€™argument to every mundane detail of humanitarian aid runs the risk of resulting, in the end, pedantically unhelpful.
A last point I wish to make is about the â€˜re-victimisationâ€™ of Darfurians. It is undoubtedly a very important suggestion, a much-needed warning against a tendency far too common in humanitarian approach as well as in UN language, both in term of fostering dependency and developing a unilateral blame approach. Just think, to mention the Jewâ€™s question you briefly referred too, how the narrative of post-Holocaust victimisation of Jews played in de facto justifying every unilateral action of the Israeli Government, on the assumption that any anti-Israel position would be equalled to a denial , at best, of Israelâ€™s right to exist and, at worst, of the Holocaust itself.
However, paternalistic approach can lie also in the assumption that the â€˜victimisedâ€™ condition of Darfurians is necessarily caused by Western discourse. I understand that your suggestion is framed into an approach based on engaging people as active subjects of their own destiny rather than passive receivers of othersâ€™, Western discourses. It is also clear that the condition of Darfurians as victims is an undeniable fact. Nonetheless, the narrative of â€˜victimisationâ€™ they have developed during these years is truly the result of Western discourse? Is not [to assume that] just another way to â€˜depriveâ€™ Darfurians of their subjectivity? How we decide whether a â€˜victimâ€™ stance is the consequence of Western â€˜victimisingâ€™ approach or an actual feature of the Darfurian state of mind? What seems to me is that, although deeming extremely valuable your critique of Western approach, it still posits Western discourse as too central in shaping the way Darfurians perceive themselves.
Wouldn’t a way of truly following your approach being that of saying neither â€œit is about time that all the marginalized in Sudan understand that they are really victimized by the successive regimes in Khartoumâ€ nor â€œThe marginalised in Sudan should realise that they have the potential to be the driving force of their destinyâ€, but simply to accept the narrative developed by the marginalised, whatever that is?
However, as a conclusive remark, given my limited knowledge of the subject matter, I must stress the purely speculative character of these reflections and the very likely occurrence of them stemming on an incomplete understanding of both your thought and the Sudanese situation.