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Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur, Joachim J. Savelsberg (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), xix + 341 pp., paperback $34.95, electronic version available.

Representing Mass Violence, by sociologist Joachim J. Savelsberg, examines how the Western world portrayed the mass violence in the western Sudan region of Darfur during the early twenty-first century. The study is based on in-depth interviews with relevant agents such as international legal specialists, humanitarian aid workers, diplomats, and journalists, as well as on an ambitious quantitative analysis of more than 3,300 North American and Western European newspaper articles. To frame his topic Savelsberg employs Kathryn Sikkink’s notion of a “justice cascade,” which posits that the increase in international prosecution for human rights abuses over the past two decades has had a significant political impact. He also uses Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a “social field” in which agents operate according to a distinct worldview. The subjects of Savelsberg’s study work in their own specific fields, a fact that shapes their opinions and expressions but also allows for improvisation. Savelsberg also employs intersectionality, demonstrating how interconnected variables such as educational background, nationality, and gender influenced actors.

The book is organized into four sections, each with two or three chapters. The first section looks at the field of international justice, using Amnesty International and the United States as examples. Both portrayed the violence in Darfur in terms of criminal actions by individuals and less commonly placed it within broader historical, social, or environmental contexts. While the United States has not ratified the Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, George W. Bush’s administration came out forcefully in defining mass violence in Darfur as genocide and recommended international investigation and prosecution. As Savelsberg notes, this U.S. government position was in part a response to the activism of the celebrity-driven Save Darfur movement, which brought together Christian church groups hostile to the Muslim government in Khartoum, African Americans who perceived the violence as anti-Black racism committed by Arabs, and Jewish- Americans who related mass violence in Sudan to the Holocaust.

The second section looks at the humanitarian field, examining how Doctors Without Borders and the country of Ireland responded to the crisis in Darfur. In both cases, there was a tendency to ground the conflict in broader issues such as competition over a decreasing amount of productive land. Both avoided the term genocide, fearing doing so would alienate the government in Khartoum, which controlled the delivery of aid. In Ireland, historical memory of famine created a desire to ameliorate suffering. More recent events in Northern Ireland, in which criminal prosecutions were set aside to facilitate a peace process that ended a long war, also influenced views.

A similar approach appears in the book’s third section, which deals with national governments and diplomats, who generally desired to keep communication with Khartoum open in the hopes of reaching a settlement in Darfur and cooperating on other issues such as Islamist terrorism. Drawing [End Page 132] on Karen E. Smith’s Genocide and the Europeans,1 Savelsberg discusses how distinctive national factors created slight differences in Western states’ positions on Darfur. Many European national governments, unlike the United States and the European Union, carefully avoided legalistic language to describe events in Darfur. Diplomats from Britain and France, the former colonial rulers of Sudan and neighboring Chad, respectively, avoided the term genocide, fearing that it would further destabilize the area. Those from Germany (given lasting guilt over genocide during the Second World War) did not want to relativize the Holocaust by comparing it to mass violence in Darfur. Berlin also lacked the military capability to contribute to international intervention. Switzerland’s historic neutrality informed its stance; Austria’s good relations with Muslim states and Sudanese government lobbying influenced its position.

The fourth section examines print journalism—the most important of the four fields under study—which the other actors used to communicate with the wider world. In light of interviews with Africa correspondents and statistical analysis of the media, Savelsberg concludes that the international legal field had a more significant...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1476-7937
Print ISSN
8756-6583
Pages
pp. 132-133
Launched on MUSE
2018-05-04
Open Access
No
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