Do Victims of War Need International Law? Human Rights Education Programs in Authoritarian Sudan

Article excerpt

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Sudan, this article illuminates the consequences of human rights educational workshops as a form of humanitarian assistance in war-ravaged areas. These projects are built on flawed assumptions about Sudanese politics and about the likelihood that human rights education empowers the war-ravaged poor. The beneficial impacts of human rights discourse stem from its side effects, which fulfill urgent and symbolic needs, and not from the core content of human rights. The case of an authoritarian regime exposes an alternative site of rights promotion, outside the established or struggling democracies where most literature on rights resides. Bridging the literature on rights in Western, democratic contexts and on human rights in Africa, this article argues that law is not enough-and is potentially dangerous-in the insecure and impoverished areas where the international aid community has been encouraging it to flourish.

The government has seen them sitting [in desert camps] for 20 years. The United Nations has seen them there for 20 years. NGOs have seen them there for 20 years, in a very vulnerable area. What has been the result? Nothing. After 20 years, with the government, the UN, the NGOs [watching], they're still internally displaced persons in the desert.

(Interview, Zakaria, facilitator of human rights educational workshops, Khartoum, Sudan, May 2007)

This article explains the grassroots consequences of internationally funded projects in contemporary law and development. To what extent does the export of human rights discourse benefit those who are displaced by civil war, and what are the risks associated with rights-based humanitarian aid projects when deployed in active authoritarian contexts? Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with internally displaced persons and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Sudan, I illuminate the material and symbolic benefits and costs for the participants of human rights workshops.

I use the case of Sudan to explain what happens to rights in an authoritarian regime. Most literature on rights has rarely extended beyond the boundaries of established or struggling democracies, which has stunted the conceptual and theoretical development of the debates on rights. In democratic contexts, rights are rooted in a common political discourse of usually nonviolent and nonsectarian pluralism and competition (Glendon 1991; McCann 1994). Authoritarian regimes tend to be at best hypersensitive, and at worst openly hostile, to rights expressions; they thrive across the world from Syria and Myanmar to Libya and Sudan by violating human rights (Amnesty International 2007, 2009a, 2009b; Human Rights Watch 2009). My empirical study of the export of rights-based strategies into an authoritarian context unearths an alternative site of inquiry to reveal new consequences for rights theory and for contemporary strategies carrying the label of ''legal empowerment'' (Golub 2006; McClymont & Golub 2000).

This article builds on the rights debates in sociolegal theory by charting the function of rights in an authoritarian state, particularly as experienced by people displaced by civil war and who live in extreme poverty. Specifically, to what extent do international perspectives of rightsFor human rightsFachieve their intended goals when used as a soft form of humanitarian intervention in these places?1 To investigate this question, I adopt in this article a grassroots approach to the study of law, from the standpoint of those in the global South who encounter and sometimes disregard or resist international conceptions of rights (Rajagopal 2003). Building on sociolegal theory that contrasts the promoters of rights talk with those they serve (Bell 1995; Englund 2004; Merry 2006), I contend that the consequences of human rights promotion differ for civil society elites who promote rights than for the communities of war victims in which they intervene. …