Discourses on Darfur summary

Conference Executive Summary

Discourses on Darfur: Science, Law, Media

Rockefeller Bellagio Center: April 24-26, 2012

The Center on Law and Globalization is grateful for the in-kind grant provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, without whose generous support this conference would not have been possible.

Discourses on Darfur Participants: Top left to right: Simon Tisdall, Joachim Savelsburg, Gudrun Harrer, Wenona Rymond-Richmond, Jennifer Schense, El Hag Warrag, Eric Reeves, Hollie Nyseth Brehm, John Bradshaw, Amy Schlueter. Bottom left to right: David Lanz, Richard Williamson, Rob Crilly, Hamid Ali Nur, Jens Meierhenrich, David Scheffer, John Hagan, Bruce Spencer, Debarati Guha-Sapir. Not pictured: Fabrice Weissman
Discourses on Darfur Participants
Top left to right: Simon Tisdall, Joachim Savelsburg, Gudrun Harrer, Wenona Rymond-Richmond, Jennifer Schense,  Al-Haj Warrag, Eric Reeves, Hollie Nyseth Brehm, John Bradshaw, Amy Schlueter. Bottom left to right: David Lanz, Richard Williamson, Rob Crilly, Hamid Ali Nur, Jens Meierhenrich, David Scheffer, John Hagan, Bruce Spencer, Debarati Guha-Sapir. Not pictured: Fabrice Weissman


In examining the occurrences of mass atrocities as complex and on such a large scale as the conflict in Sudan, and the crisis in Darfur in particular, the American Bar Foundation’s Center on Law and Globalization (CLG) convened a select group of scholars from varying disciplines to determine what could be learned from other invited experts in the fields of law, social science, and media to more effectively focus the attention of the world community on the crime of genocide in Darfur and in other conflict zones around the world. These twenty experts convened at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Conference Center on April 24-26th, 2012 to share, first-hand, their experiences with the conflict, the challenges to their work in this field, relevant findings from research, and to determine what practical information could be useful in the field and in working toward future solutions across academic and other professional disciplines.   

John Hagan speaking at Bellagio.

Organized by Center co-director, John Hagan, in cooperation with Joachim Savelsberg of the University of Minnesota Sociology Department, and Jens Meierhenreich of the London School of Economics International Relations Department, the hope was that unifying themes across several disciplines would emerge and experts from disparate organizations could come to better understand one another and work together more effectively on future efforts to redress and prevent crimes against humanity and genocide. The organizers planned a frank exchange, addressing the issues of conflict, mass atrocities and genocide in Darfur and elsewhere. Recent media coverage on Sudan served as the point of departure and discussion followed from there. Among the wide-ranging topics on the agenda, the conference participants discussed practical usage of data, the sources and relevance of statistics, alternative means of information gathering and data collection in the redress of genocide and crimes against humanity. Also on the agenda was the topic of the unfolding role of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in these processes.

In attendance were lawmakers, scholars, journalists, NGO representatives and researchers from across the globe. Those in attendance were:

John Hagan, The American Bar Foundation Center on Law and Globalization Co-Director, Northwestern University Sociology professor: scholar, author Organizer

Joachim Savelsberg, University of Minnesota Sociology professor: scholar, Organizer

Jens Meierhenreich, London School of Economics International Relations professor: scholar, Organizer

David Scheffer, first United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes, Northwestern University Law professor: ambassador, lawyer

Richard Williamson, former Special Envoy to Sudan, principal at Salisbury Strategies: diplomat, lawyer

John Bradshaw, Enough Project Executive Director: NGO, lawyer

Eric Reeves, Smith College Language and Literature professor: Sudan researcher, advocate

Simon Tisdall, The Guardian Assistant Editor, foreign affairs columnist: journalist, editor

Rob Crilly, The Telegraph foreign correspondent, Saving Darfur author: journalist

Al-Haj Warrag, HurriyatSudan Editor: journalist, editor

Jennifer Schense, International Criminal Court Associate Situation Analyst, Office of the Prosecutor: lawyer

Wenona Rymond-Richmond, University of Massachusetts Amherst Sociology professor, Darfur crisis author: scholar

Debarati Guha Sapir, World Health Organization collaborating Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters Director: scholar

Hamid Ali Nur, Governance Bureau Khartoum/Sudan Executive Director: journalist, researcher

Gudrun Harrer, Der Standard Senior Editor, University of Vienna International Studies professor: journalist, scholar

David Lanz, Swiss Peace Foundation Sudan researcher, University of Basel PhD candidate: researcher

Fabrice Weissman, Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Foundation Research Director: researcher, author

Bruce Spencer, Northwestern University Statistics professor: scholar

Hollie Nyseth Brehm, University of Minnesota Sociology PhD candidate: scholar

Through candid interchanges, participants considered the complexities of issues---both within and outside of their respective disciplines--and were able to reframe not only the conflict in Darfur “writ large,” but to examine their own work through fresh new perspectives.

Major discussion topics and themes that surfaced at this conference:

Issues within Core Disciplines

  • Law and Dissemination of Justice
    • International Courts and tribunals by nature are modeled after past crimes and atrocities, beginning with the Nuremburg Trials, following the end of World War II, though they may not be, as structured, necessarily equipped to address the particular crimes of a recent or currently unfolding conflict. Opinions vary on matters such as the structure of the body or the limitations that should be placed a court to operate most effectively.

    • Throughout the conflict in Darfur the ICC has tried to intervene with declarations against the current regime and the issuance of warrants for alleged war criminals like Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Proceedings fall under the restrictions of the ICC, rather than a specialized tribunal, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, The former Yugoslavia or Sierra Leone, since a specialized tribunal has not been formed for the crimes committed in Sudan and Darfur. Each of these courts are unique and have slightly different mandates, some indicting both “winners” and “losers,” as one lawyer-participant reflected. Conference participants generally felt that at present, the ICC is not currently a deterrent to crime and should not be viewed as such. Rather the ICC is an instrument of justice, though the perceived effectiveness among participants varied greatly, and arguably a specialized tribunal could be better suited to address past Darfurian atrocities.

    • Some participants observed that there seems to be an uneven measure for determining the criteria that constitute genocide. Though the legal definition of genocide is laid out in international law (under Articles II and III of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide), the definition seems to be applied unevenly due to the ramifications of invoking it in real-time as a conflict unfolds. Studies, first-hand accounts, documented crimes, and reports from NGOs all contribute to the criteria in determining what constitutes genocide in a particular occurrence.

  • Science and Data Gathering
    • The scholar-participants discussed the notion that in gathering statistics, especially in conflict zones, the statistics themselves, i.e., how and what to measure, are central to the use of social science research in understanding and redressing crimes against humanity. There are four main reasons that data are collected: 1) advocacy; 2) prosecution; 3) resource allocation/program planning; 4) science (insofar as the data can further the knowledge of the field). 

    • Some of the scholar-participants noted that it can be difficult to attract media attention to the release of meaningful new findings on war crimes, no matter how groundbreaking or significant.

    • Scholars and NGOs conducting research are also faced with the issue of impartiality. To appear to be sympathetic to one “side” or another can bring into question the credibility of information if an inherent bias is perceived.

      • For some NGOs the issue is less thorny. If the international organization (IO) is an aid or humanitarian organization (e.g. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Red Cross, etc.) their research can be used to further their own mission, and the information they disseminate, even if biased, can still be valuable and useful sources of information to both the media and lawmakers.
    • Despite the best efforts of researchers, data and statistics fail to tell the entire story, and research is still limiting in several ways. Flaws in calculations (such as double-counting IDPs across camps) can impact the accuracy of statistics and therefore the accuracy of the conclusions that can necessarily be drawn from them.
  • Media and Impartiality of Reporting
    • Journalists and the media are constantly struggling with the issue of credibility and reliability. Even within a single organization there can be multiple narratives. One journalist-participant, Simon Tisdall noted, “The UN doesn’t speak one voice.” Reporting on a conflict can be difficult when dealing with a biased or otherwise inconsistent source; while a particular reporter may be trying to provide an objective account, the source in question may be trying to influence the outcome of the story to align with their own ends to legitimate their personal narrative. Biased sources have a specific narrative they want reflected, and this can be challenging for journalists seeking information.

      • One participant, scholar and activist Eric Reeves, noted that the presence of the media helps to unify the narrative into one voice, though the response of each actor (international community, Darfurians, etc.) will vary based on the information each has.

    • Journalists and members of the media also struggle with framing the conflict. In particular, participants discussed the article by Jeffrey Gettleman that appeared in the New York Times on February 26th, 2012, “A Taste of Hope Sends Refugees Back to Darfur” in which Gettleman reports that more than one hundred thousand refugees have returned home from IDP and refugee camps. While other participants argued about the validity of this claim based on other data, one journalist-participant, author Rob Crilly, quipped, “This is a newspaper.  The headline ‘95% of the people are still in camps and miserable’ is not really news.  You could make it news, but it’s tricky.”

Discipline Intersections and Implications

  • Science and Media
    • Statistics in the media are important and influence public opinion and can result in various reactions from different constituencies. One of the issues broached in discussions was the inconsistency of statistics within the media. Organizer John Hagan argued that numbers are important; statistics that are generated by social scientists and the way they are treated in the press and enter into the world of politics and international criminal law can have a significant impact. These numbers give a voice to those who have died or been displaced and are unable to express and share their own experiences.
  • Science/NGOs and Law
    • As research and data are collected and disseminated, either through press or other means, to the international legal organizations, their implications can have varying degrees of effectiveness in evoking a response or to prompt greater investigation from international governing or judicial bodies. Researchers have the freedom to choose whether they wish to remain neutral, or sympathetic to a certain position or set of conclusions. International legal organizations, however, cannot, by their very mandates, act in such a manner; their aim instead is justice based on facts and evidence. While the goals and ideals of these organizations may be similar, the matters of expression and means for achieving them are different. As such, research and data can influence these international legal actors, though perhaps not as directly as researchers or scholars may wish.

  • Law and Media
    • At this intersection, participants identified that some words in media lexicons may be used differently or outside of their legal application. A salient example of this is the use of the word “genocide.” The word itself has been used liberally in the media, as well as among scholars, though the exact legal definition elicits a definite and strong response from international legal actors when used within that context.

      One journalist-participant, Simon Tisdall, noted that the word, “genocide” in media has become so overused that it has been devalued. Tisdall commented that he recently heard someone refer to a conflict as a “super genocide,” and that the usage of “genocide” has become nothing more than a way to play political games within both international and national courts as well as in government, with the media as a fulcrum for driving  those motives.

Participant roundtable

Discipline Intersections and Implications Significance Disconnect

  • Science and Media
    • With regard to the issue the use of statistics in reporting on war crimes, it was made clear that when statistics from different sources or scholars are used, but treated uniformly by the media, the result can be problematic. As objectives of researchers are different, so are the ways in which the collected data and statistical results will vary from other findings. This can lend to the impression that both researchers and/or the media are just “making up numbers” or that perplexing or misleading numbers are being reported. The definition and inclusion of terms in the calculation of statistics are highly significant (e.g.: conflating numbers of refugees and IDPs) and those measurements, when unexplained, can seem misleading or otherwise inaccurate.

  • Science and Law
    • While these two communities share the goal of achieving justice for war crimes, their paths to pursuing justice are very different. Participants discussed one of the oldest criticisms of law: that “justice” may not always seem fair or even just, as, ideally, the law should be applied as evenly as possible to alleged criminals in conflicts such as the war in Sudan. Courts indict individuals from both sides of the conflict (“winners and losers”), to stand trial for crimes against humanity, regardless of the rationale for the violence (e.g. “self defense,” “only following orders”). Whereas scientists and researchers may be interested in the impact the conflict itself has had on a population and, certainly, that the violence be staunched as quickly as possible, these concerns may not reflect some of the tenets of international law (e.g. respecting a nation’s sovereignty). Therefore, a “disconnect” lies between the perceived significance of scientific reporting of a particular situation and the role of data in the interpretation of the law and the intent to redress war crimes.
  • Law and Media
    • The most noted disconnect between the disciplines of Law and Media that emerged was the issue of rhetoric. The participants continued to grapple with the difference between the legal definition of the word “genocide” and the idea that any kind of mass killing is, or was, genocide. In terms of public opinion, generally accepted ideas about genocide are particularly influenced by past atrocities, most notably the Holocaust and the resulting Nuremberg Trials. The usage of the word “genocide” in the media begs the international legal community for a ruling on whether or not the conflict is truly genocide, given the type of response that would be required from UN member states. Once either the UN has or a state declares that genocide has legitimately occurred there is a required legal and humanitarian intervention from the larger international community (under Articles II and III of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide) and has far-reaching implications. With such confusion surrounding the term, participants asked at what point is it appropriate to use in legal rhetoric and reporting? In these discussions, participants confronted the powerful political implications of the term, “genocide” and agreed that the issue is far too complex to be relegated to a debate on mere semantics.

  • Law, Science, Media and the Ground
    • Despite the opposing views that each of these disciplines may have with one another, all of these fields seem to have an impact and create (perhaps unintended) expectations for those embroiled in the conflict.

      • Law
        • How: The UN presence in the field, by nature, along with strong ICC and lawmaker rhetoric, can give the impression that aid and relief is imminent. Many people do not understand what the UN and ICC are truly capable of as legal entities. Therefore these elements can create “false hope” among civilians as well as disappointment and despair when those expectations are not met.

          One researcher-participant, David Lanz, shared a powerful anecdote that while in Sudan, he shared with a cab driver that he was with the UN. Hearing this, the driver put a UN flag on top of his car, endangering his own safety, because he felt it was important to 1) let people know the UN was there and 2) that help was on the way. Lanz felt guilty because he personally felt that this was a misunderstanding about what these international legal entities are actually capable of doing, and yet the driver was endangering his own safety in the hope that the strong ICC rhetoric and UN presence meant that peacekeepers were on the way and that the leadership committing war crimes would be corralled and swiftly brought to justice.
      • Science
        • How: One Sudanese journalist-participant, Elhag Warrag, implored scholars that significant findings should be translated into the local language and made more widely available in Sudan. The data being collected and resulting studies are important, but Sudanese had 1) no idea the information was being collected and; 2) this information could be useful for local aid groups to get a better grasp of the on-going challenges and can apply that information to possibly better assist those in need. Accessible translations of findings may give the research a more far-reaching impact, and allow findings to become, arguably, more activist in nature.

      • Media
        • How: Though the world is increasingly connected by media technologies there are places where stories in news outlets do not reach in Sudan. While those embroiled in conflict (e.g.: victims of violence, IDPs, etc.) may be best informed about what is happening closest to them the picture may look different elsewhere. These differences in perception can contribute to Sudanese and Darfurians feeling that the situation being reported is misrepresented by the press, and can feasibly increase unrest.

          Simon Tisdall, argued that there is no “The Truth” or one true version of a story; rather there are versions of the truth and no one individual in any given discipline, constituency, geographic area, etc. can fully see an entire situation unfolding. We only have ideas about analyzing situations as they occur. Therefore we all work the best we can toward understanding a conflict—such as the one in Darfur—and remedy it the best way possible.

Future of Work/Finding 

  • The organizers hope to use the output of the conference in their individual work and in a cooperative book effort that is currently under way. The Center on Law and Globalization hopes to use the fruits of this conference to better understand the situation in Darfur and to integrate resulting research under its Protection Pillar. Participants of Discourses on Darfur felt overall that the conference was informative, and would assist them as they strive to address the myriad complexities of the Darfur conflict. Several of our participants have requested a follow-up conference within the next few years.


Click through the slideshow to view some of our favorite photos from the conference.