Vol. 27 No. 6 (July 2017) pp. 92-96

REPRESENTING MASS VIOLENCE: CONFLICTING RESPONSES TO HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS IN DARFUR, by Joachim J. Savelsberg. Oakland: University of California Press. 2015. 341 pp. Paper $24.95. ISBN: 978-0-520-28150-9.

Reviewed by Wesley T. Milner, Office of International Programs, University of Evansville. Email:

Numerous scholars view the last century as one of the most destructive in human history, with massive conflict and human rights degradation. Additionally, the last two decades have seen advancing technology and the almost instantaneous proliferation of information around the globe. As we enter the seventh year of an increasingly devastating civil war in Syria and widespread reports of human rights violations throughout the world, some may question if we have become desensitized to the egregious practices we continue to inflict on our fellow human beings.

In this context, sociologist Joachim Savelsberg utilizes the situation in Darfur as a case study for investigating a much wider set of interesting inquiries. Some may question his focus on Darfur as much of the world’s attention has unfortunately, if not understandably, moved on to other crises. Drawing heavily from the “justice cascade” as illustrated by Sikkink (2011), Savelsberg carefully examines the fields of human rights and criminal law, humanitarianism, and diplomacy as they intersect with media conceptualizations of mass violence in this region. Through studying some 3400 newspaper reports in eight countries (i.e., Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States) and conducting extensive interviews with journalists, non-governmental organization (NGO) officials and diplomats, the author asks why we see such differences in reporting and framing. He argues that focusing on similar states - wealthy, western, free-market democracies - provides for better isolation of crucial variables. Here, he also attempts to move beyond “methodological nationalism” toward a quantitative and qualitative intersection of global, national and local inputs (Beck and Sznaider 2006). The book is very systematic in its organization and execution with the main body separated into four, distinct sections.

Part I focuses on the emerging justice frame and examines the human rights field and fight against impunity. In the first chapter, the reader is whisked through a brief but effective introduction to international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and transnational advocacy networks (TANs) and the acceptance of criminalization and individualization of international law. Here we see the initial utterance of the word “genocide” by Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George W. Bush in 2004 to describe the atrocities in Darfur quickly followed by the United Nations Security Council referral of the case to the new International Criminal Court (ICC). This ultimately led to the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. Notwithstanding the progress in favor of the justice cascade (Sikkink 2011), Savelsberg honestly acknowledges the limits of this approach and the fact that no Darfur case has reached the trial stage. The second chapter focuses on civil society and human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, the Enough Project, and especially Amnesty International. Savelsberg portrays Amnesty International as a formal, centralized organization that is very effective at the grass roots. While also seeking other goals of peace and victim protection, Amnesty International pushes first for justice in the expectation that justice is perhaps needed as a precondition for the achievement of these other desirable ends.

Chapter 3 explores the linkages to civil society in the human rights field and highlights the outsize role of the US in the progress of the justice cascade. This is especially surprising since the US has never ratified the Rome Statute [*93] and distances itself from the ICC. At the forefront of this movement are the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (who in 2004 issued a genocide alert for Darfur) and the Save Darfur campaign. Savelsberg notes during this period US media were more likely to recognize victimization compared to the other seven countries he studies. He also shows empirically that the US media use the crime frame more often than other states and are much more likely to cite the genocide frame. Here, the depiction of mass violence through the crime frame exposes these egregious acts as criminal and the perpetrators as violators of and subject to international law. Moving beyond the Clinton Administration’s reluctance with Rwanda in the 1990s, both the US government and civil society organizations portrayed human rights violations in Darfur unmistakably as genocide.

In the second section, the humanitarian aid field is considered alongside the justice approach. Chapter 4 goes into some detail to distinguish M̩decins Sans Fronti̬res (MSF) (Doctors Without Borders) from other INGOs. Though humanitarian INGOs share attributes of other NGOs - part of global civil society, members of TANs and contributors to global narratives in keeping with the World Polity School (e.g., Myer, Ramirez, and Soysal 1992; Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer 2000) РMSF pursues the simultaneous goals of administering vital aid and bearing witness to atrocities. Obviously, this dual mandate can lead to substantial conflict within the organization as well as with indigenous governments. Having said that, many MSF interviewees did not support a state crime frame approach to the violence in Darfur and do not refer to the Sudanese government as criminal (Zacher, Nyseth Brehm, and Savelsberg 2010: 42). This is in stark contrast with all those polled from Amnesty International who completely embraced the justice frame.

Using Ireland as a case study, Chapter 5 looks at humanitarian aid policy as a challenge to the justice cascade. In this context, donor countries heavily involved in humanitarian assistance must work with governments of recipient countries. Further, Savelsberg describes in some detail what he calls the “humanitarian complex,” a network of international relations involving international organizations (e.g., United Nations, European Union, African Union, etc.), NGOs and both the donor and recipient states. Here, countries like Ireland who are heavily invested in humanitarian aid will also exhibit media that lean toward a depiction of conflict reflecting humanitarian concerns.

Part III centers on the diplomatic field and looks at the search for peace versus the search for justice. Chapter 5 specifically lays out the diplomatic representations of mass violence and describes the unique situations in which Foreign Service personnel find themselves when confronting conflict and violence. First, actors involved in justice aim to exclude political players deemed responsible for the violations. Diplomats, on the other hand, are forced to include players irrespective of their involvement in egregious human rights behavior. Interviewees were reluctant to use the term “genocide,” which is in keeping with the work of Samantha Power (2002) and Karen Smith (2010). While humanitarian aid typically involves lower-level players, diplomacy relies on the highest-ranking government officials. Essentially, foreign policy teams juggle a hierarchy of goals – survival of impacted populations, integrity of the sovereign state, and push for justice. Most interviewees argue that peace is the most important first step and in many instances a precondition for reconciliation and transitional justice, which can only come later. Having said that, some in the diplomatic corps argue that justice must be accomplished at the same time or any resulting peace will be completely unsustainable. Rather, the movement toward justice should be used as a means of encouraging or cajoling the peace process. The author notes that organizational and education background further differentiates actors in this field – diplomatic actors with legal training stray from the diplomatic peace narrative much more so than those with a political science pedigree.

Savelsberg in Chapter 7 expands on this deviation from the diplomatic narrative where he delves into the national context. As noted in the comparative studies by Karen Smith (2010), a country’s attributes (e.g., size, economic and [*94] geopolitical concerns, political power, resources, expertise, presence of expatriate groups/colonial history, and collective memories of past human rights abuses) can substantially affect the actions and frames surrounding state involvement. Here, the US deviates the most from the diplomatic narrative in its vocal deployments of the term “genocide” in response to calls from domestic civil society to embrace a more justice-oriented approach. Ireland, because of its penchant for mercy and collective memory, is closely tied to humanitarian and development aid. Switzerland, though being a small country like Ireland, draws upon its traditional neutrality and arbitration toward a more predictable diplomatic narrative for peace. Austria, which is also a similarly small country, distances itself from the justice narrative as a result of its ties to the Arab world and intense lobbying by Sudan. France and the UK, being former colonial rulers, are cautious of the overt justice approach lest they be viewed as neo-colonial activists. Finally, Germany draws heavily on the cultural trauma and its role as a massive perpetrator in the middle of the last century.

Section IV considers the important role of media and the field of journalists. Here, the author lays out how media reconcile the various, competing representations of mass violence. Chapter 8 delves into the rules of the game of journalism and attempts to identify the habitus of foreign correspondents in Africa. Indeed, the author overuses the sociological term “habitus” throughout the book but does explain it in this section quite well by invoking Pierre Bourdieu (1998) and field theory as it applies to journalism (as well as Emirbayer and Johnson 2008). Savelesberg defines it as a “set of relatively fixed dispositions that reflect the actor’s trajectories and their position within the field” (p. 211). For those scholars covering conflict in Africa, we find that the vast majority of journalists are male, middle class, well-educated, have at least one parent who was also a journalist, grew up in the Global North, value autonomy, and have a sense of adventurism.

The penultimate Chapter 9 goes to great lengths to determine the patterns of journalist reporting as they relate to the judicial, humanitarian, and diplomatic fields. Here, the author also seeks patterns in the media based on country and regional context, ideology and gender. Savelsberg identifies a timeline of peaks and valleys of reporting about Darfur and the analysis suggests that interventions by the judicial field, especially by the ICC, strongly shaped the coverage of Darfur. Having said that, these judicial actions did not command long-term attention of the public or media. The humanitarian frame utility declined even more quickly and dramatically.

In the concluding chapter, we see a diminished role for the United Nations and recent, multiple crises (e.g., Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Central African Republic, South Sudan, etc.) that have taken attention from the vexing situation in Darfur. However, the ICC through the media presence has forged a widespread acceptance of the mass violence in the region through the lens of crime and justice. Savelsberg closes on an optimistic note invoking outgoing Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow’s (2002) claim that the most important aspect of the 20th century was not the preponderance of human rights violations, but rather the installation of the first time in human history institutions to address and possibly prevent such destructive behavior. The postscript argues correctly that sovereignty as well as geopolitical and economic interests prevents states from fully allowing the ICC to have the substantive impact that is desperately needed. The undercurrent of doubt and lack of support from the major powers, especially China, Russia and the US further complicate the efficiency of the court and the justice perspective.

While Savelsberg very methodically addresses media coverage of Darfur and attempts to explain differences across eight western countries, one still wonders from a comparative standpoint how media samples from the developing world could additionally illuminate the situation. Further, the political scientist in me (perhaps revealing my background bias as the author alludes in Part III) questions if the central focus on criminal justice might be countered or enhanced with a consideration of truth commissions and reconciliation. Though [*95] Savelsberg weighs criminal justice along with humanitarian and peace considerations, evaluating restorative justice and reconciliation in the vein of South Africa and some two dozen other countries could be very enlightening. Not unlike the diplomat’s myriad goals as described above, Assefa (1999, 6-7) argues that states and individuals should employ reconciliation with justice. In a social science context, he believes that justice is a necessary but not sufficient condition for reconciliation. Ultimately, individuals, states and the international community must employ the wide spectrum of tools to combat human rights violations and move toward an effective and comprehensive conflict resolution model.

Overall, this solid research exhibits the systematic approach of a well-trained social scientist and will appeal not only to human rights scholars but also those considering the efficacy of international legal institutions as well as the role of the media, diplomacy and humanitarian organizations. Having said that, it is not applicable for an undergraduate audience, except perhaps for advanced seminars in human rights.


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Zacher, Megan, Hollie Nyseth Brehm, and Joachim J. Savelsberg. 2014. “NGOs, IOs, and the ICC: Diagnosing and Framing Darfur.” SOCIOLOGICAL FORUM 29(1): 29-51.


© Copyright 2017 by author, Wesley T. Milner.