Theory Teacher's Blog

Theorizing Spaces and the ICC

My father just told me about this new blog he heard about, called Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa, and I am interested in this blog for two reasons: one, I work with Oromo-Americans, and two, I happen to be going on a faculty development trip to Kenya in June, and the organizer/leader of this trip happens to study humanitarianism in Africa (though I have no idea whether he’s heard of this blog or would agree or disagree with the arguments put forth in it.) Its latest post is about the International Criminal Court’s issuance of an arrest warrent four days ago for Omar Al Bashir, the president of Sudan, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The blogger begins by observing that the 7-year-old ICC has so far only been willing to override the soverignty of a nation in Africa (and never anywhere else.) There is a troubling irony here. The United States hypocritically refuses to be held accountable to the ICC at the same time that it argues that all other nations should be held accountable. In contrast, the African nations all signed on to the ICC in hopes that the rule of law would protect them, but their voices are rarely heeded compared to the strong voice of the U.S. Hence, the ICC has become yet another instrument of U.S. and European neo-colonial control. What’s interesting about this mechanism of control, besides America’s all-too-painfully-obvious hypocrisy, is that the African nations willingly subjected themselves to it. Moreover, the ICC would seem to repeat some of the early 18th and 19th century examples of colonial morality when the Europeans imagined themselves as being obligated in some sort of Christian way to help the poor Africans even though it was the Europeans themselves who caused the problems for Africa in the first place (i.e., conquest, slavery, etc.).  The blogger concludes that African nations should reject the ICC, and he does so even though he fully recognizes Sudananese government’s terrible deeds.

I’d like to add a literary poststructuralist side to that blogger’s postcolonial argument. There is something curious with the European sense of space. On the one hand, geopolitical spaces are rigidly defined. Africa is Africa, and Europe is Europe — culturally and politically distinct. What happens in Africa is (according to this spatial logic) a problem with the African culture or with the African leaders, who should be held responsible for the tragedies there (even though their leaders are almost always partially subject to a confusing mixture of organizations with divergent agendas such as the International Monetary Fund, the United States, mineral and agricultural corportations (i.e., oil, coffee, cotton), various non-governmental organizations, etc.)

On the other hand, and at the same time, both the ICC and many of the humanitarian organizations imagine themselves as space-less… as utopically transcending all geopolitical and cultural locations. This is the same kind of utopian logic put forward by cosmopolitans, citizens of the world, and global citizens (who advocate for such lovely things as peace and democracy but oddly seem to forget that one’s legal rights as a citizen are guaranteed by a concrete, constituted government not by an abstract ideal.)  By inhabiting such a non-place, the ICC and other such global citizen organizations purify themselves from complicity with evil. But as Zizek has pointed out in his recent book Violence, many of the global institutions manage a systemic violence that produces mass famine, drought, and disease, but this systemic violence is rarely discussed or brought before the courts because there is no single event to report on and no single action to bring to trial. While the ICC is nowhere (nowhere specifically), systemic violence is (by definition) everywhere, and it’s that kind of violence that is often the underlying cause of local “crimes against humanity” (a phrase which seems to be deployed as a legal euphemism for almost-but-not-quite genocide.)

In other words, the question we should be asking as theorists is not simply whether or not the ICC should have issued the warrant on Omar Al Bashir, but why it hasn’t issued warrants for the president of every member state. And since many of these member states are democratic, perhaps the ICC should really be issuing warrants to arrest the people who voted for those presidents (i.e., you and me.)

I admit that I’m getting a bit wingnutty, and I also admit that the Darfur crisis is not something I know much about, except what I hear from time to time in the news. And before anyone starts throwing bloggy-cyber-stones at me, I must add that I really, really don’t mean to suggest that Omar Al Bashir is innocent or that all African leaders should be let off the hook just because we know the extent to which Africa’s problems are in part caused by colonial and neo-colonial mechanisms of control. To the contrary.

And I definitely don’t mean to suggest at all that we should not taking the Darfur crisis seriously. I do take it seriously, as do I take the famine in Guatemala (which was sparked by a coup d’etat organized by the United States), as do I take the millions who have died in the Congo (a situation sparked by the assassination of Congo’s president… also by the United States) . . . . as do I take the millions who have died or suffered all around but never make the headline news.

Such concern motivates the many hours I spend working with (not for — notice the difference in preposition) the Oromo, whom I’ve blogged about before here and here  — a people who suffer because Ethiopia’s political alliance with the United States actually fosters crimes against humanity. Ironically, the United States has repeatedly taken the moral high ground when it asks the Ethiopian government to cease such actions just as the UN and ICC asks Sudan to cease such actions, but then at the same time the United States pressures Ethiopia to invade Somalia and to protect its capital investments, etc.

One could also argue against me and say, well, geez, what use it is to deconstruct the spatial order of the ICC? We must do something! After all, people are dying there! And without such a spatial order (or “world order” or “geopolitical order”), we have no grounds for ethical action or political agency! Against that statement, I would say this: in addition to thinking we must do something to help them over there about localized episodic violence, we might also think about what we are doing all the time over here that is complicit with globalized systemic violence. As we begin to learn about so-called “others” and other cultures, we should also start with a questioning of ourselves, of our own place in this spatial order, and of the degree to which the spatial order as it has been legally constituted protects our privileged position within it and inoculates us from culpability. If we think about this more globally, in other words, we as individuals might be able to work with the African governments and other African organizations more constructively.

So far, what I’m saying may sound all too “poly-sci” and not “lit” (and I’m a literature professor by training), but imagine writing a novel or memoir or journalistic piece about this situation. What are you going to include? How are you going to connect the dots? Here, I find that the form of the novel has incredible value because of its unique ability to connect personal lived experience with geopolitical concerns and its ability to highly the nuances of contradictory and paradoxical situations.

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April 8, 2009 - Posted by | global

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