Avoiding the Trap: Aspirations, Anxieties, and the Appropriateness of Mass-Mobilization Awareness Campaigns

Avoiding the Trap: Aspirations, Anxieties, and the Appropriateness of Mass-Mobilization Awareness Campaigns

This Online Symposium seeks to deepen a conversation that, for many people, began in March of this year, with the release of Invisible Children’s “Kony2012” video. The video has been seen over 100 million times and has triggered a heated debate: supporters of the video derided “armchair cynics” who failed to see the moral necessity of action,[1] while critics decried a “White Savior Industrial Complex” which validates privilege and displaces the affected as the center of attention.[2] Much has been written on, and in furtherance of, this particular debate, and we encourage the reader to turn elsewhere for a more focused analysis.[3] But we believe that there is a wider context to be considered. The new millennium has already brought us into a series of discussions over the desirability or acceptability of humanitarian intervention. The emerging norm of Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, has only been developed within the past few years. R2P offers a framework for the response to Mass Atrocity Crimes (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity). R2P has been invoked by the Security Council in connection with ongoing activities in Sudan and in Côte d’Ivoire, but the doctrine was used even more ambitiously when the Security Council invoked R2P for the purpose of humanitarian intervention in Libya. NATO’s military action against the country, following this invocation, has been loaded with controversy. In contrast, Syria is currently[4] embroiled in a crisis marked by atrocities against a civilian population, for which the international response has been (to put it lightly) underwhelming.

Similarly, the Arab Spring brought with it questions of international response, as regimes cracked down on demonstrations across the Middle East. But it also highlighted issues of interconnectedness, of emerging social communities: social media has been cited as a “catalyst” for the Arab Awakening, and pundits and policy analysts of all stripes are still analyzing whether sites like Facebook and Twitter truly played a role in the Awakening, and what role it may play for social movements in the future.[5]

From a purely legalistic standpoint, one could argue that these recent events have little to do with the human rights field. This, however, dramatically underplays the strong commonalities between the different threads of law and policy that are being invoked in these discussions. Human rights law and related fields may be strongly distinct from each other, from a legal standpoint. In public debate, however, these concepts are often freely interchanged. The public convergence between the fields has been so notable that some have begun arguing for the existence of a new “Humanity Law” which merges human rights, international humanitarian law, and international criminal justice.[6] Drawing from this, we apply an expansive view of “human rights” for the purposes of this Symposium.

So will this increasing interconnectedness through new forms of social media, coupled with an emerging framework for stopping Mass Atrocity Crimes, usher in a new set of tactics for human rights advocacy? Perhaps so. Samantha Power’s influential 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell,” triggered a new focus for American activists on changing American foreign policy in response to Mass Atrocity Crimes as the way to prevent genocide.[7] The Save Darfur movement, which began in 2004, took up this challenge and wedded it to a new mobilization model which brought together a significant civil society coalition, including large groups of people who had never thought of themselves as “human rights activists,” to bring global attention to the Darfur Genocide. Many youth and student activists (including some of the editors of this Journal), had their first exposure to human rights activism through this movement. During the movement, questions arose which subsequent movements and organizations have yet to resolve: How can activists, predominantly from the Global North, speak authoritatively and credibly on issues situated in foreign countries? How can movements couple awareness-raising with appropriate policy solutions? These questions were never definitively answered,[8] just as Darfur has never definitively been brought into a state of affirmative peace.

Today, human rights organizations (again predominantly from the Global North) continue to experiment with constructing a narrative for action in response to Mass Atrocity Crimes, with mobilizing large groups of people to take action. And new technologies and advances in social media have led to further changes: advocacy is being broken into bite-sized chunks and rapidly disseminated; large groups can be mobilized into performing online actions; and causes are increasingly branded, from hashtags to clothing. Mobilization for the cause of human rights is not new: what is new is the rapidity of response, the fluidity of boundaries between activism and popular culture, the uniqueness of the claim that we can create a global community of people connected only by their commitment to a cause.

At its best, this potentially emerging model of human rights activism could be a blueprint for the 21st century rights-based movement, a truly global constituency of people united by values and a new pillar for global civil society. But can this new broad-based activist movement live up to its promise? The Harvard Human Rights Journal has asked several academics to explore these issues. Each contributor was asked the same set of questions:

1. Is it possible to have a broad-based activist movement that is global in scope and sufficiently informed of the issues? If so, how do we build such a movement?
2. Is there a necessary trade-off between the nuance of a human rights situation and public support for its remedy? If so, where is that trade-off located and how should it be addressed?
3. How do we build a new ‘anti-atrocity constituency’ without falling into the trap of a Savage-Victim-Savior[9] mentality?

The contributors were given sufficient latitude to explore these questions, and they each brought much of their own experience to the table. Professors Payam Akhavan and Rosa Brooks drew upon deeply personal experiences to ground their analysis, with Akhavan pursuing the concept of “glamour” in human rights and Brooks providing poignant examples of the moral complexities present in situations ‘on the ground’. Professors Muna Ndulo and Tinenenji Banda wrote together to explore the North/South Divide and how activists from both sides of this divide must respond. Professor B.S. Chimni offers a prescription of a new “epistemological humanism” and applies this analysis to recent R2P actions. Most of our contributors address Kony 2012, which is appropriate given the year’s news. But, individually and collectively, they provide an analysis of some of the broader themes that Kony 2012 has recently brought to the world’s attention, which have been present in the past, and which the international human rights community will almost certainly continue to struggle with in the future.[10]

Making Human Rights Sexy:
Authenticity in Glamorous Times

By Payam Akhavan, McGill University

Payam Akhavan (Harvard LLM ’90 SJD ’01) is Professor of International Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and Fernand Braudel Senior Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.   He was previously Senior Fellow at Yale Law School and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Toronto.  Professor Akhavan was the first Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague (1994-2000) and has served with the United Nations in Cambodia, East Timor, and Guatemala. He has appeared as counsel in leading cases before the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the European Court of Human Rights.


For Epistemological And Prudent Internationalism

By B.S. Chimni, Jawaharlal Nehru University

B.S. Chimni is Professor and Chairperson, Centre for International Legal Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has been a Visiting Professor at Brown and Tokyo Universities. He has also held visiting positions at Harvard, Cambridge, and York Universities. He is a Vice-President of the Asian Society of International Law. He is also an associate member of the Institut De Droit International. His central research interest is to elaborate in association with a group of likeminded scholars a critical third world approach to international law (TWAIL).



[1] See e.g., Nicholas Kristof, “Viral Video, Vicious Warlord,” New York Times, 14 March 2012, available here.
[2] This new term “White Savior Industrial Complex comes from Teju Cole, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” Atlantic, 21 March 2012, available here.

[3] One distinguished space for academic analysis is Beyond Kony2012: Atrocity, Awareness, & Activism in the Internet Age, which contains a selection of critical analyses of Kony2012 and which is available here.

[4] As of December 2012.

[5] See e.g. Arab Media Influence Report – AMIR 2011, News Group, March 2011, available here.

[6] The “Humanity Law” framework arises from the work of Ritu Teitel. Ruti G. Teitel, Humanity’s Law, (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[7] Interestingly and unsurprisingly, Power went on to become one of the key architects of America’s response to the Libyan conflict. See Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Still Crusading, But Now on the Inside,” New York Times, 29 March 2011, available here.

[8] For a comprehensive review of the Save Darfur Movement, which engages in-depth with all of these issues, see Rebecca Hamilton, Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide, (Palgrave Macmillan 2011).

[9] The Savage-Victim Savior, or SVS, framework arises from the work of Makau Mutua. See Makau W. Mutua, “Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights,” Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 42:1, pgs. 201-245 (2001).

[10] The Harvard Human Rights Journal Online Team consists of Online Editors Matthew McDonell (J.D. ’13), Travis Miscia (J.D. ‘14), and James Tager (J.D. ’13). For a full list of all Editors at the Harvard Human Rights Journal, please see our Staff page.

The Harvard Human Rights Journal would like to express its gratitude to Tyler Cusick (Harvard College ‘14), Duncan Farthnic (J.D. ’14), Sean Hamidi (J.D. ’14), Lerae Kroon (J.D. ’14; HHRJ Managing Technical Editor), Pauline Mutumwinka (Harvard College ‘12), and Marissa Weinrauch (J.D. ’13), for being part of the team which worked on creating this Symposium.

The Journal would additionally like to thank Professors Gerald Neuman and Mindy Roseman, of the Harvard Human Rights Program, whose comments on this introduction were invaluable. All mistakes are our own.

Finally, the Journal would like to thank our contributors, who have created original pieces of scholarship and analysis for this Symposium. We are proud to present their work.


No comments yet.

No one have left a comment for this post yet!

Only registered users can comment.