Many thanks to Charli Carpenter for her recent article, the prodigiously titled: “‘You Talk Of Terrible Things So Matter-of-Factly in This Language of Science’: Constructing Human Rights in the Academy.” She explores the intellectual, ethical, and career dilemmas that political scientists get into when they do research on and with people they care about. Such reflections in a high-profile journal are important because the discipline seems to ignore such things. Anthropologists have written and agonized for at least half a century about encounters in the field, and the role that their knowledge production plays in politics and governance. Somewhat strangely, political scientists have not. And IR scholars in particular remain at a remove from the human beings they study – either by focusing on institutions (states and international organizations) and data sets. We don’t often discuss, in public, the harm or help we might be doing to our research subjects. Carpenter does here, with admirable honesty.
The article begins with a great anecdote. Her research is on the absence of international attention to children born of war-time rape. After presenting early results, a senior faculty member told her: “You’d better stop talking to international organizations about this issue until you publish…Otherwise, before you know it, you will no longer have a puzzle to explain, because these children will be on the agenda” (363).
Carpenter was startled by the suggestion that her academic work might in fact be norm entrepreneurship. She was even more surprised at the value judgment implied by the comment—that publishing an interesting paper on the phenomenon was a higher priority than bringing attention and assistance to a profoundly disempowered group. Carpenter’s article therefore explores the impact of engagement with human rights advocacy on her academic role, and the opportunities (and limitations) for an academic to engage in human rights advocacy.
Among her interesting observations:
- She notes that while “calls for calls for greater reflexivity in the discipline are now commonplace, they are rarely implemented in mainstream IR research. Even rarer are empirical studies of the IR discipline as a site in which global politics gets constructed” (364). Tellingly, when she tried to include a chapter on this topic in her book Forgetting Children Born of War, Columbia University Press insisted it be cut.
- Other pressures she faced in the IR discipline: to avoid “should” questions and focus on “why” questions (a bias she admits to imposing on her own students), to avoid publishing with a commercial press (even if it means the work will get a much larger audience, including policymakers and the human rights community), and to avoid asking questions that require methodological approaches not favoured in IR.
- Carpenter felt that the ethics review board process failed to provide guidance in interviewing vulnerable populations (by contrast I found UBC’s BREB quite helpful). But while she lacked assistance through formal channels, she seems to have worked things out over time—which I suspect is a common path.
- Very interesting was her attempt to ‘give something back’ to the community she was studying (organizations who assist children born of war). She is inventive in doing so: ranging from giving out copies of her publications, to sharing contacts, to reviewing grant applications, to consulting for UNICEF. “It seemed unethical to me to study a human rights non- issue without contributing to well-intentioned efforts to turn it into an issue” (369).
- Rather than a simple theory-practitioner divide she “encountered practitioners willing to listen to me as an academic, and academics hungry for me to articulate a clear policy stance” (371).
- Communicating with audiences outside of academia required new skills – such as putting together glossy policy documents (and the funds to publish them), hitting one’s talking points on radio interviews, and blogging (Carpenter is a key contributor to the Ducks of Minerva). In addition to these different skills are the different form of impact she sought.
- Most interesting was her observation that by actively engaging as a part of the advocacy community, she struggled to maintain forms of objectivity, but at the same time gained great insight into the obstacles that advocates faced. Had she wanted, Carpenter could have drawn on writers from John Dewey to Pierre Bourdieu to Iris Marion Young to explain theoretically why this experience of position-taking is relevant and epistemologically robust. But she would likely come to the same take-away lesson: “that interfacing with the policy community in order to disseminate research findings itself constitutes a form of participant observation that can supplement and enrich earlier research findings derived from multiple other methods” (376).
Carpenter’s attempt to advance a cause and an academic career is estimable, but also daunting. I was struck by how much extra work it required, beyond the usual demands of academia. It doesn’t appear that this additional labour receives institutional recognition–she didn’t mention how policy documents contributed to getting tenure, or how public advocacy got her time away from teaching. Maybe that’s as it should be. But the “dual role” she played reminded me of the one the one now ‘enjoyed’ by women who seek to have vibrant careers and be devoted mothers—you can have both, so long as you have great support and little need for sleep.
And she finds time to be a Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica nerd!
In the next two weeks, the Assembly of States Parties will undoubtedly address one of the most innovative and troubled aspects of the International Criminal Court: victim participation. Such discussions must take heed of recent decisions by Trial Chamber V on the upcoming trials in the Kenya situation, which introduced a dramatically different scheme for victim participation compared to previous Court practice. Will that decision lead to a shrinking role for victims at the ICC, or make it more efficient and inclusive? Much will depend on how the new scheme is operationalized, including the resources and direction the ASP offers.
The ICC’s approach to victim participation is without precedent. The only role for victims at previous courts was limited to witnesses, a role that was criticized by civil society actors and some states during the drafting of the Rome Statute. The Rome Statute ultimately included Article 68(3), which stated that: Where the personal interests of the victims are affected, the Court shall permit their views and concerns to be presented and considered at stages of the proceedings determined to be appropriate by the Court…
Judges and court staff spent considerable energy in the Court’s early years interpreting and re-interpreting how victims would participate. Fundamental questions have been grappled with: Who is a victim eligible to participate? What modalities of participation are possible, and at what stages of proceedings? ? How can common legal representatives (CLR) for large numbers of victims be selected?
While rules for victim participation have become more concrete, they continue to leave many unsatisfied. This summer, several legal advisers for State Parties told me that it was a top issue for reform, primarily for budgetary reasons. While some civil society groups were pushing for more resources for victims’ legal teams, key State Parties continue to push for tightening legal aid and Registry budgets. These areas of the budget will continue to be squeezed so long as the Court takes on more situations (some referred to it by the UNSC) while State Parties hold to zero-growth in funding.
A Kenyan boy wears a t-shirt bearing the name of former ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo
A version of this post originally appeared at the Africa Portal.
Toward the end of my Africa Initiative field research in Kenya, I visited a woman (I’ll call her Eunice) at her home in Kibera, a large informal community in Nairobi. I had met her a week earlier when she was a participant in a focus group that brought together victims of post-election violence to discuss their views on justice, assistance and the work of the International Criminal Court.
During the focus group, I was struck by Eunice’s straightforward answers and openness in discussing the day post-election rioters burned down her home. I couldn’t help but notice the mottled pink and white scar tissue on her hands and face, the only parts of her body not covered by clothes or a headscarf. Many Kenyans continue to suffer from post-election violence, but few have it written as plainly on their bodies.
My subsequent encounters with Eunice following the focus group highlight some of the ethical questions that confront those who research social justice issues. While ethics boards at academic institutions address some of these concerns — in particular the promotion of informed consent, and the avoidance of harm and conflicts of interest — these bodies do not determine all of the principles that orient researchers’ relationships with the people, organizations, or communities they study.
Ethical principles can inform many stages of research, from choice of topic to study design. But there is another set of issues: are ethical obligations limited to what you do as a researcher? Or, if you encounter people with problems that need to be addressed, and if you have the knowledge or authority or resources to help, should you do so? This question confronts anyone who witnesses suffering or injustice but whose job does not entail the direct delivery of assistance, from journalists to development experts to social science researchers. In my experience, people doing these jobs in countries with poor social safety nets often give aid to individuals they have encountered, from paying for someone’s medical treatment to funding a child’s school fees
Questions about ethical obligations beyond one’s research are more likely to come up when one encounters people suffering from illness, deprivation, or injustice. For that reason, it is not just what one studies, but also how that research is conducted. Methodology affects how a researcher understands and empathizes with the subjects of their study. It can also make one more aware of the need or opportunity for intercession.
Thomas Fuller, the New York Times reporter who writes most of the paper’s stories on Burma, recently wrote an article about the end of the government bureaucracy responsible for censoring media in the country. He also wrote a charming blog, A Reporter Meets His Censor, about his encounter with the unlikely and likable young woman tasked with censoring his own work. It’s yet another wonderful development in what seems to be s steady stream of positive steps in Burma. Political prisoners are being released. Government ministries are being reformed. The country’s president even praised Aung San Suu Kyi in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly. With every such announcement I’m delighted, and a little baffled. It just isn’t the country I remember.
Back in 1999 I traveled to Burma for my first real experience of foreign correspondence and investigative journalism. I went there to explore a possible uprising against the military government, a set of country-wide demonstrations that might begin on Sept 9, 1999 (9-9-99) to mirror the massive anti-government uprising on August 8, 1988 (8-8-88). During my time in the country I spoke to people who were afraid to say Aung San Suu Kyi’s name in a restaurant or on the street, out of concern that a military intelligence officer might overhear and throw them in jail. I met with former political prisoners, who amazed me not only by the hardships they faced but their acceptance of the fact that they would likely end up in jail again in the future. These pro-democracy activists, writers, and monks would not abandon their support for human dignity, and that put them on a collision course with the government. Sooner or later they would choose principle over silence and be jailed for it.
No one I met in Burma made more of an impression on me than Ludu Daw Amar, one of the country’s best-known writers. We met in the building that doubled as both her home and publishing house, in the city of Mandalay. She sat behind a big wooden desk in a small room, cramped by piles of literary magazines. She, her youngest son, and her husband had all spent time in jail for their words and beliefs. She told me about writing under the regime of censorship that had existed for years. I remember one of her comments very distinctly:
When I write, I begin with a circle. But I know the censor won’t let it be published. So I turn it into a square. When the censor gets it he will still make changes, and he turns it into a triangle. The trick is to write in such a way that the reader will see that triangle and know the circle that I originally intended.
Interestingly, Daw Amar thought that the Burmese were therefore extraordinarily sensitive readers, alert to the allusions and indirect references that writers used to talk about issues that the government deemed controversial.
Another memory from that night. The window in her office had bars across it, and a wisp of curtain. At one point she gestured to the street corner outside. Several men loitered there. Those are government agents, she told me. They keep watch, and follow whatever we do.
The day after my meeting with Daw Amar I returned to my hotel in the afternoon and found that some of my notes, which I had hidden behind a pipe outside the window, were gone. Nothing else from the room had been stolen. While it was never confirmed, I assume that I had been trailed from her publishing house, and that intelligence searched my room the following morning while I was away. I can’t imagine the fortitude it would take to live in such a regime, continually at risk, knowing that any day you could be jailed at the whim of thugs or censors, and continue to write and publish for decade after decade.
Daw Amar was 84 when I met her. She lived to 93. I wish she had lived just a few years more, to learn that the censor bureau had closed, and that she could stop with squares and write circles again.
Written July 12, first published at Africa Portal on Aug 1, 2012.
LUKODI, UGANDA — An important visitor is coming to Lukodi, a village in the north of Uganda. To prepare, a man with a limp and a withered hand sweeps the fallen leaves and red dust off the ground under several mango trees. He arranges five white plastic chairs and two wooden benches. Shortly after noon an elderly gentleman arrives pushing a bicycle with no pedals. He and I chat while other community members begin to arrive. I ask the man what he wants to hear from the coming visitor, an outreach officer for the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“I want him to say that he will arrest Kony and bring him to book,” says the man, speaking in Luo to my translator and me. “And he should tell us how to address the problems that victims continue to face.”
The visit from the ICC representative allows me to observe how the Court portrays itself to a conflict-affected community. The following day I will ask my focus groups what they think of the presentation.
I suspect that the ICC representative has chosen Lukodi for the same reason I have — it is a community known for the massacre it suffered in May 2004. The elderly man tells me of the day Lukodi was attacked by a detachment of Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army (LRA). He ran into the bush and escaped as the rebels abducted, burned and killed fellow residents. That night his wife searched for their daughter-in-law, who had a newborn child. The daughter-in-law was abducted by rebels, while the baby was left behind and trampled, and later died. Read more…
First published at Africa Portal, July 1, 2012.
THE HAGUE, THE NETHERLANDS
I am now in The Hague, a well-ordered and pleasant city near the coast of the North Sea. For over a century, the Dutch seat of government has also been a laboratory where diplomats and lawyers and activists have worked on the rules and institutions of international justice. A bike ride around the city takes you from the neo-gothic stone Peace Palace that hosts the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration, to the drab insurance company office that became the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and to the gleaming white towers of the International Criminal Court. I first came to The Hague seven years ago as a freelance journalist, to report on the trial of alleged perpetrators of genocidal acts in Srebrenica. My research on international criminal justice has taken me back several times since then, from reporting and research in Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Uganda, and elsewhere. On each visit I am struck by the incredible gulf between this calm, orderly city, and the testimonies of chaos and terror and grief that fill the courtrooms of its international tribunals.
On the one hand, the remoteness of the International Criminal Court (the focus of my current research) from the violence it investigates is a virtue. The ICC was created to provide some justice for exceptional crimes – genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity – when state governments are unable or unwilling to do so. A basic premise of the Court is that in certain circumstances, some forms of justice must come from outside a state. To make this ‘foreign’ justice legitimate, the ICC must operate according to impartial rules or accepted legal principles, and must follow the commitments made by those 121 states that have ratified the treaty that created the Court.
However, The Hague and its justice can also be too remote from victims and affected communities. To address that fear, the ICC was created with several victim-focused programs that didn’t exist for previous international tribunals, such as the post-WW2 Nuremberg tribunal or the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The ICC seeks to bring information about the Court to affected communities through outreach programs, it seeks to bring victims’ concerns and voices into the Court as legal participants, and it aims to bring some direct aid to victims through assistance and reparations. My project with Africa Initiative seeks to evaluate these programs, drawing on voices within the Court and voices from violence-affected communities in Uganda and Kenya.
My research is therefore an act of translation as well as one of evaluation. Without doubt the language of justice in The Hague – spoken in English and French, rooted in legal traditions familiar to me, conducted in office buildings and embassies and Dutch cafés – is an easier one for me to understand. The real challenge for me in the next two months will be to hear perspectives on violence, justice, and peacebuilding that come from extremely different experiences and social contexts. And it’s helpful to remember that the justice that the ICC attempts to bring to distant communities is not just ‘international’ but also very ‘local’ – headquartered in a particular city on the Dutch seaside.
Over the last couple weeks I’ve been editing the article series Peace vs. Justice: the International Criminal Court and Its Alternatives, along with my Trudeau Foundation colleagues Simon Collard-Wexler, Scott Naysmith, and Rosalind Raddatz. I quite like how it’s turned out. The first week is heavy on the ICC, and the second week focuses on ‘alternatives,’ from the hybrid tribunal in Sierra Leone to the community-based struggles for justice in Northern Uganda. I could go on about the series, but why not just take a look at it yourself, starting with this introductory post?
In the last couple weeks I’ve also read two interesting and very different takes on the relationship between democracy and international criminal tribunals–an issue that is central to my doctoral dissertation. Last year, Lara Nettelfield published Courting Democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Hague Tribunal’s Impact in a Postwar State (Cambridge UP). Lara, who I met while she was at Simon Fraser University’s School for International Studies, puts forward a nuanced case that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia advanced democratic developments in Bosnia. She bases this claim on an impressive battery of research methods, from opinion surveys among soldiers in the Bosnian army to extended participant observation with civil society groups–including a bus trip with the Mothers of the Enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa to demonstrate in The Hague.