A fascinating colloquy is taking shape at the SSRC’s Making Sense of Darfur blog, based on Jayne Blayton’s threepart essay, “Human Rights Reporting on Darfur: A Genre that Redefines Tragedy.” The crux of Blayton’s argument is that “human rights reporting […] has developed into a distinct and new sub-genre.” More specifically,

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.

Whether you agree or disagree with her thesis, Blayton’s complex and original essay deserves to be read in its entirety. Her comparison of the respective characterizations of the Darfur and Congo conflicts should be vital for anyone interested in the broader topic.

In response, Abdelwahab El-Affendi develops and sharpens Blayton’s criticisms of the human rights genre, indeed leveling a scathing critique—on grounds of moralistic self-indulgence and a thinly veiled animus towards Arabs—at the media campaigns of the Save Darfur Coalition:

This campaign offers activists an escape from divisive politics where citizens are forced to acknowledge responsibility for the actions of their government, and into a rarefied moral universe where pure goodness is pitted against pure evil. While politically responsible action forces actors to struggle with their conscience, this act of charity towards far away victims makes the activists feel good about themselves. Unlike the Vietnam War protests, activists here do not have to face police or endanger themselves. In fact the real “activism” here was not the one performed by the volunteers (the “child soldiers” as Mamdani calls them: young school kids who sell the lemonade, send emails or collect donations) but by highly paid advertising executives who structure the campaign. What we appear to have here is more a feature of the consumer society than of a society of engaged and responsible citizens.

The other side of this coin on the international arena is the global “war of terror”, another export from Bush’s depoliticized America where the consumer-citizen had become as docile and as receptive of government propaganda as subjects in totalitarian regimes. The war in Iraq was just another manifestation of this turn in politics, as was the selective attention to conflicts such as that in Darfur in contrast to even more devastating conflicts in the DRC and Chad. Allies of the US and the great powers in the “war on terror” are permitted as horrendous atrocities as they can manage, but those who do not play ball face instant sanctions. The war on terror also provides the language and symbols for the popularized narrative on the violence in Darfur. Here we find the familiar image of the demonized “Arab”, perpetrator of terror and now, genocide.

Guy Gabriel, in turn, looks further into the manner in which the work of human rights advocacy organizations has shaped the mainstream media narrative of the Darfur conflict in the West:

The elements selected [by major media outlets] tend to fit in with the Western media’s broader iconography of an African disaster: distant, bloody, man-made and interminable. […] Thus the media narrative has tended to render Darfur’s identity politics fixed as opposed to fluid, which is of course what they are. This then became fed back into the conflict, contributing to its perpetuation.

Finally, Annette Jansen reflects on the striking ardour of human rights campaigns and discerns a distinct religiosity of the human rights movement:

Human rights has become the major article of faith of a secular culture that fears it believes in nothing else.

A secular culture that emerged from a very particular and unique—Western—history, in which the religious imagination of a ‘grand design’ evolved into a political imagination of a ‘grand design’. It is a worldview framed in secular terms but loaded with the debris of Christian eschatology and the missionary zeal of Protestantism and Puritanism. With representations and narratives of violent reform and revolution, of a just or holy war that needs to be fought to redeem the human race from ‘evil’ and realize the project of peace and human flourishing. A worldview in which imaginations of ‘the sacred’ gradually shifted focus from God to Man: to Man as the object of devotion, whose flourishing should be sought in the name of God; to Man as carrying intrinsic worth, as endowed with natural rights that should be protected—if necessary by war. A worldview in which the individual human body symbolizes the locus of moral sovereignty, and can, therefore, never be the locus of ‘evil’.

The continuity of the religious imaginary in human rights discourse and praxis, she suggests, ought to serve as the basis for an anthropological analysis of human rights as a Weltanschauung.

You can find all of the posts mentioned above here.