Month: October 2006

Humanitarian Responses to Narratives of Inflicted Suffering

Conference of the Humanities Institute and the Human Rights Institute of the University of Connecticut

October 13-15, 2006 • Storrs, CT

Humanitarian Responses to Narratives of Inflicted Suffering, October 13-15, 2006

This international conference will analyze humanitarian responses to private and public narratives of politicized suffering that has been inflicted by states, private political groups and also by more structural causes such as apartheid, colonialism, and social conflict. The main themes of this conference are: first, to understand the character, form and voice of the narratives themselves; and second, to explain how and why some narratives of suffering become part of political movements of solidarity, whereas others do not.

Recent discussions of narrative and suffering have gravitated toward the uniqueness of the relationship between violence, language and meaning, concentrating on how violence is involved in the dialectical unmaking and remaking of our understanding of subjectivities and bodies. Elaine Scarry’s (1985) influential treatise The Body in Pain asserts that pain destroys language and dissolves the world of the victims. Pain and suffering create conditions of radical epistemological doubt, which may not be possible to articulate by the sufferer, or knowable by the ‘other’. For writers such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, the silencing of narratives through terror is the most fundamental of all human rights violations. In each of these formulations, narrative and suffering are contradictory terms that preclude one another.

Although Scarry’s and Lyotard’s approach has its uses, this perspective can be understood to define one area of human subjectivity as ultimately ineffable and unknowable. Consequently this might obstruct theorization of narratives on suffering and hinder scholarly inquiry into how public forums for speaking about suffering not only constrain, but also elicit testimony. Even if it is true that experiences of political violence and suffering can defy speech, this has not prevented post-conflict governments and the United Nations from establishing national forums (e.g., truth commissions) and international criminal tribunals to hear, collect, and preserve victims’ voices. As the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission demonstrates, public testimony from victims and confessions from perpetrators are now recognized as essential to the process of democratization and reconstruction in post-conflict countries. This phenomenon is not new and it is the latest in a long history of private and public expressions of suffering in literature, the media, visual artistic representations, and other more private locations such as letters, diaries and journals.

Because documented narratives on suffering have existed for centuries, researchers need to analyze in more detail the content, form and structure of these narratives, so as to understand why authors or artists generate narratives on suffering and how their motivations shape the types of narratives they construct. Studies such as Veena Das, et al. (2000) and Arthur Kleinman et al. (2001) have examined the aftermath of political violence and provided insights into how narrative plays a central role in the reconstitution of the self and the remaking of a social world. They argue that if pain and suffering destroy people’s capacities to speak and explain themselves, then the resuscitation of narrative can be the first step towards recreating social selves. Scholars must evaluate whether this is the case and how this process of reconstructing the social self proceeds.

Another key element of this discussion involves the relationship between private narratives of suffering and the institutional contexts that elicit such narratives and channel them into the public sphere. Law is the central institution here, and we must investigate to what degree the legal process evokes and authorizes particular narratives on suffering, and also excludes other kinds of narrative selectively. A number of authors have come to argue that courts of law and much of the international discourse of human rights, although created for speaking about violence, actually constrain speech by molding experience into pre-set formulations that reduce the diversity and specificity of violation narratives. Increasingly, writers on this subject have come to question the efficacy of existing political, legal and institutional contexts for speaking about violence. Legal language and human rights conventions, they argue, filter out important symbolic and expressive dimensions of fear and intimidation.

A major theme of the conference will focus upon the politicization of narrative, and will examine how narratives on suffering have contributed to the creation of political constituencies. In the United States, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin [1852] and a dozen first-person slave narratives such as that of Frederick Douglass [1845] famously intensified the anti-slavery movement. In the twentieth century, South African novelists such as André Brink, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Alex La Guma, Njabulo Ndebele and Lewis Nkosi vividly portrayed the massive injustices of racism and apartheid for a local and international readership, thus helping to inspire a global anti-apartheid movement. Conference papers will address how such narratives reinforce, or even call into being local and global humanitarian movements. They will consider whether the capacity of a narrative to galvanize national and international opposition to systems of suffering lies in the compelling content and form of the narrative itself and its ability to arouse indignation. The success of suffering narratives may depend on the extent to which they translate political ideology into a widely accessible medium. “Successful” narratives seem to be those that construct an appealing idea of common humanity, and invoke the imperative of empathy and solidarity despite divisions of race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion.

In order to complement such aesthetic concerns, we must also hold in view a more “political” understanding of empathy and narratives of suffering that emphasize political factors external to the narratives themselves. Here, we must be aware of the instrumental and even cynical use of narratives by political elites as a way of giving expression to amorphous popular sentiments. Narratives on suffering are often sequestered by new political elites engaged in nation-building projects and used to advance their own self-interest. Nearly every nation, such elites claim, is founded on original acts or events that include suffering and violence. In this nation-building process, the diverse stories of victims are refashioned into genres of suffering and redemption, and then used to create new foundational myths of the nation. The conference participants will consider under what conditions this does or does not happen.

Finally, the conference will encourage greater deliberation on the ethics of researching narratives on suffering, so that scholars might be more reflective about the methods and theories they use. They will assess the special considerations that may impinge upon the processes of reading about, listening to, and documenting and recounting narratives of fear and suffering. They will weigh whether specific ethical issues are involved in studying victims’ testimonies and documenting the attempts of individuals to “remake a world” through narrative. The aim of the conference would be to create a better understanding of how researchers in various disciplines can respect the integrity of testimonies, but at the same time draw out their social nature, and examine the degree to which they are embedded in historical, political, social and cultural processes. To explore the multiple kinds of suffering narratives and to encourage cross-cultural and cross-temporal comparisons, the conference will offer broad plenary discussions as well as thematic sessions which will include the place of narratives of suffering in the following contemporary and historical contexts:

  • Slavery and Abolition
  • Apartheid
  • Colonialism and Decolonization
  • Genocide
  • Legal Institutions and Human Rights Commissions
  • Media and Visual Representations
Conference Organizers: Richard D. Brown, Humanities Institute and Richard A. Wilson, Human Rights Institute

Conference Information

Conference Agenda

Friday October 13th

6:00pm Reception

6:30pm Keynote Lecture | Konover Auditorium, Dodd Center

  • Thomas Laqueur | 'Reason, Popular Radicalism, and the Human in “Human Rights"'


Saturday October 14th

8:00am Registration and Breakfast | Rome Ballroom, South Campus

9:00am-10:30am Session 1 (Panels Run Concurrently)

  • International Law and Global Politics
  • Anglo-American Slavery and Abolitionism
  • Visual Media and Suffering

10:30-11:00am Break and Refreshments

11:00-12:30pm Session 2 (Panels Run Concurrently)

  • Media and Propaganda
  • Christian Humanitarianism
  • Colonization and Decolonization in Africa

12:30-2:00pm Lunch

2:00-3:30pm Session 3 (Panels Run Concurrently)

  • Literary Humanitarianism
  • The Holocaust
  • When Victims Speak

3:30-4:00pm Break and Refreshments

4:00-5:30pm Session 4 (Panels Run Concurrently)

  • Humanitarianism in the French Revolutionary Tradition
  • Speaking for the Victims
  • Refugees as Victims

6:30pm Dinner


Sunday October 15th

8:00am Registration and Breakfast | Rome Ballroom, South Campus

9:00-10:30am Summary Roundtable

10:30-11:00am Break and Refreshments

11:00am-12:00pm Discussion

12:00pm Box Lunches Available



  • Peter Balakian, Colgate University
  • Rony Brauman, Former Director, Doctors Without Borders
  • James Dawes, Macalester College
  • Ron Dudai, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
  • Ilana Feldman, New York University
  • Shoshana Felman, Emory University
  • David Forsythe, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Ann T. Gardiner, Philadelphia University
  • Jennifer Geddes, University of Virginia
  • Robert Gross, University of Connecticut
  • Micheline Ishay, University of Denver
  • Carol Jacobsen, University of Michigan
  • Elizabeth Jelin, CONICET-IDES, Buenos Aires
  • Rhonda Jones, Duke University
  • Margaret M.R. Kellow, University of Western Ontario
  • Thomas Keenan, Bard College
  • Flora Keshgegian, Brown University
  • Thomas Laqueur, University of California, Berkeley
  • Michael Marrus, University of Toronto
  • William Miles, Northeastern University
  • Adam Nadel, Photographer/NYT Pulitzer Nominee
  • Klaus Neumann, University of Melbourne
  • Matthew Powell, Humanitarian NGO Photographer
  • Terence Ranger, St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford
  • Bruce Robbins, Columbia University
  • Mark Sanders, Brandeis University
  • Kristin Sandvik, S.J.D. Candidate, Harvard Law School
  • Susan Shepler, American University
  • Joseph Slaughter, Columbia University
  • Susan Slyomovics, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Laura Suski, McGill University
  • Miriam Ticktin, University of Michigan
  • Ruti Teitel, New York Law School
  • Brenda Carr Vellino, Carleton University
  • Lars Waldorf, World Policy Institute, The New School
  • Ronald Walters, Johns Hopkins University


Abstracts and Papers

Keynote Speaker

Thomas Laqueur, University of California, Berkeley | “Reason, Popular Radicalism, and the Human in “Human Rights”




Peter Balakian, Colgate University | “History, Self, and Memory: Black Dog of Fate and the Armenian Genocide”

How can a family memoir that deals with the memory of genocide create an “an appealing idea of common humanity”? (The phrase is from the conference description). In exploring how a memoir can create an empathic response across ethnic and national boundaries, I will explore certain formal dimensions of my memoir that deal with the relationship between the personal and the historical. One of my interests in Black Dog of Fate was to eschew a degree of individualism that defines memoir with a historical perspective and experience that takes the form of a kind of inter-textuality.

In creating a collage of historical voices in the second half of my story, the journey of the “I” gives way, in part at least, to a historical ”other.” A polyphony of voices intrudes on the self’s experience; the world ceases to be a negotiation between the self and personal recollection, but becomes instead a negotiation between the self and unfamiliar voices of another time and place— in this case, Ottoman Turkey during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Voices hitherto unknown, texts from other cultures, countries and places intrude upon the self that is seeking knowledge of the past. Such a collage of voices creates a layering of historical presence, inviting the reader into the past in a way that presents history as an open field of discovery for both the self and the reader.

Historical voices and texts create a space in the story that is detached from the self, a place in which the reader can come to some solid ground of history. The reader understands, of course, that this is not a historian’s history but a historical perspective of the author’s selection, but that, still, it is something to hold on to—something empirical and evidentiary. It is here perhaps that the memoir can be a witness to history and history can witness the self in its own journey toward understanding.

My own pursuit of history led me to create a polyphonic, multi-layered narrative that I hoped the reader would find something like unpeeling an onion; text after text unfolds another clue, another node of understanding. Sections from Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story (the memoir of the US ambassador to Turkey in 1915), U.S. Consul reports, eye-witness accounts from the Bryce-Toynbee Parliamentary Blue Book, a confession from an Ottoman general at a military tribunal; a human rights claim filed by my grandmother in 1920, a poem based on an eye-witness account, a Turkish propaganda pamphlet. The texts become characters in the unfolding story.

As the self of the story works through these texts, so too, must the reader. It must be an active experience, perhaps a variation on what Whitman once called “a gymnast’s struggle,” – reading as discovery; for as the “I” encounters these texts, the story takes on a new dimension, the terrain of history assumes a presence, and the reader, perhaps, can experience the story in a way that drives deeper into the source of the trauma, the inflicted suffering of genocide.

Does this kind of memoir, then, allow more readers into its sphere? Does the story widen its parameters? Are readers engaged in a more communal experience? As the author, I can’t say; I can only reflect on my own approach to form. I would note, as well, that the collage is a form that has interested me as a poet from the time I wrote a longish poem, “The Claim,” by grinding up my grandmother’s human rights lawsuit into a poem in my 1983 book Sad Days of Light. Through out my successive books of poems I have used various techniques of layering and polyphony that I call collage.


Rony Brauman, Former Director, Doctors Without Borders | “Tsunami, Darfur: from relief to propaganda”

In the realm of relief, two major events occurred in 2005, which gave place to two opposed narratives: the tsunami in South East Asia and a food crisis in Niger. In the first case, most of the survivors’ urgent needs were met, primarily through local responses. In spite of the magnitude of the destructions, the post disaster situation rapidly settled, as is always the case in natural
disasters (the earthquake in Kashmir is a notable exception). Nonetheless, false needs were created by international aid actors, in terms of urgent medical needs, abandoned children, lack of water, management of refugees camps etc. Repeated international appeals were launched in a context where spontaneous donations were already flowing in. Furthermore, though hardly any of them had ever handled a post disaster reconstruction program, many NGO’s presented them selves as proficient to enhance reconstruction. In Niger, tens of thousands of children were suffering from severe acute malnutrition in spring 2005, many of them being at risk of imminent death. As occurred in the tsunami relief operation, most of the agencies (primarily intergovernmental and governmental in this case), dismissed the field observations. Unlike the tsunami case, they denied the existence of a life threatening food crisis in this country. Distributions of food were withheld out of fear that they would disrupt long term structural aid programs to Niger. In both cases, public controversies broke out over what should be done to alleviate the sufferings of the victims. This chapter raises questions about the relationship between humanitarian organizations and the media. It describes the main features of both crises in order to understand to what extent these mainstream “humanitarian narratives” are related to or ignored factual observations and lessons from experience.


James Dawes, Macalester College | “Human Rights and the Ethics of Representation”

My talk, “Human Rights and the Ethics of Representation,” examines the representational crises that have become recurring, urgent concerns for both the fiction and fieldwork of human rights and humanitarianism. It begins with the story of one UNHCR legal officer who summed up here experiences by describing an interview she conducted with an asylum-seeker whose face had been so severely burned during her torture that the only recognizably human features that remained were the holes where her eyes and lips should have been. It was hard to know where, and if she should look. For those whose job it is to look, to document and to bring pain into language, the process of creating a surrogate voice for victims of deep shock can feel morally suspect. How must the words of the survivor be translated, edited, and rewritten to fit the officially sanctioned vocabulary of the institution? What for the organization counts as legitimate memory? Human rights fiction insistently thematizes such key issues in representational ethics. Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, for instance, not only questions what it means for its protagonists (forensic anthropologists working for a fact-finding commission) to unbury corpses and to subject the remains of torture victims to professional scrutiny, but also questions what it means for an author and a reader to do so. What is at stake in creating or reading a beautiful work of fiction about humiliation or exposure? My talk examines the ethical responsibilities of the artist and audience, the limits of privacy, and the potential of art both to heal and to damage.

These questions of authors and readers apply also to larger communities: what does it mean for a culture to disseminate and use images of suffering? After the Bangladesh War, for example, photographers who filmed a staged massacre of unarmed Biharis were awarded Pulitzer Prizes, while those who left the scene — believing the perpetrators would not go ahead with the murders without the presence of the cameras — were forgotten. What is at stake in rewarding such acts of witnessing? When does non-intervention amount to complicity? How can the voice of the survivor be used to draw attention to the needs of suffering groups, and how can this language be purposefully or inadvertently stifled, turned against itself? Understanding the sometimes infinitesimal difference between revealing and shaming, resisting and enabling, is essential to the artist, aid worker, and citizen alike. I will explore all of the questions raised above by treating issues in fieldwork and literary texts as illuminating paradigms for the ethical structure of language and voice.


Ron Dudai, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London | “Can You Describe this?: The Language of Human Rights Reports and What it Tells us about the Human Rights Movement”

In her poem Requiem, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote how, when waiting with other women outside a Leningrad prison in the days of Stalinist Terror, one woman recognized her and asked her: “Can you describe this?”. When she replied “Yes, I can”, that woman smiled. This scene concisely provides the background themes for this paper: the significant role we attach to the description of atrocities and terror, the need to identify who has the authority and ability to describe, the relationship between the victims and those whose task it is to describe their suffering to others. While analysis of representations of suffering is usually focused on works of fiction, media accounts or historical studies, here my focus is on the work of Human Rights Organizations, and the way they document, report, frame and describe abuses.

“Information is indispensable to taking action and making choices. Readers of B’Tselem publications may decide to do nothing, but they cannot say, ‘We didn’t know’”. Thus, the mission statement of B’Tselem, the leading Israeli human rights NGO; and in a nutshell, the philosophy behind that characteristic product of the modern human rights movement: the human rights report. Produced by numerous international and local NGOs in growing numbers over the last couple of decades, this type of publication has now quietly established itself as a genre of its own. We tend to casually refer to these reports for their fact-finding and legal analysis of a specific phenomenon, but here I would like to raise the gaze and address more broadly the format, style, and the unwritten yet almost universal rules of writing of the human rights report. The assumption behind this paper is that in order to fully appraise the strengths and limitations of the human rights movement’s response to atrocities and suffering we need to look not only at the abstract legal and normative principles associated with it, but also at the concrete tools it uses. The main case-study will be reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though broader conclusions will also be drawn.

My analysis is centred on identifying a tension between two ambitions. The language of human rights reporting seeks to achieve two main goals: to establish the credentials of the organization itself as an authoritative and credible voice, in order for governments and public opinion to listen to it; and to convey and generate empathy, in order that its readers will take action to change there ported reality. To advance the first goal, organizations adopt a “professional” mode: the report sare distinguished from other types of commentary on the conflict in their detached, restrained, almost minimalist, language. They exclude moral assertions, or any reference to historical orreligious arguments. In order not to be perceived as partial to either side in the conflict, there ports adopt a single point of reference: the international human rights conventions. The constant use of footnotes is almost the emblematic feature of this genre: factual pronouncements are carefully sourced to eye-witness accounts or official statements; condemnations of an actionor a policy are unfailingly referenced to international conventions. As such the reports successfully distinguish themselves from partisan polemic, and are read as reliable.

Nevertheless, this comes with a price. The cold style of writing minimizes the potential readership, and even more importantly, the conviction that knowledge will lead to action is too simplistic, as Stanley Cohen has shown in his work on States of Denial. The reports’ potential to generate empathy is compromised by their objective-rational-legal tone, and the axiomatic belief in the status of universal human rights norms may not easily translate itself to each local context.

One of the ways the authors of human rights reports try to resolve or diminish this tension is through inserting first-person testimonies of victims into the text, a practice especially common in reports on Israel/Palestine. I will reflect on the way the victims’ subjective narratives are weaved into the text, and the possible dissonance with the authors’ objective tone. I will also deal with the growing practice of using first-person testimonies of perpetrators; the way the reports refer to local legislation, court cases and procedures and the tension between that and the stated exclusive reliance on international law; the awkward conflation of human rights standards and the law of armed conflict; and the exclusion of offering long-term political solutions to the political conflict.

In a “retrospective participant-observation”, the study is partly based on reflections on my personal past experience as a human rights NGO researcher in Israel, and is part of a wider research project on responses of Israeli, Palestinian and international NGOs to the violence in the
Middle East.


Ilana Feldman, New York University | “The Quaker Way: Ethical Labor and Humanitarian Relief”

The 1948 war over Palestine created an immediate and massive refugee problem. Faced with this humanitarian crisis, the United Nations commissioned a number of relief agencies to provide assistance to the refugees. The American Friends Service Committee [AFSC] was asked to take responsibility for the new Gaza Strip. From late 1948 until mid-1950, when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees [UNRWA] took over, the Quakers provided aid to some 200,000 refugees from other parts of Palestine. This paper explores this short AFSC project, which was a source of both pride and consternation for the Quakers. AFSC practice was constrained both by the UN mandate and by the conditions they encountered on the ground. Quakers were committed to pacifism, yet had to work closely with the military. They wanted to provide assistance to anyone in need, yet were compelled to limit their reach. Perhaps most fundamentally, they wanted to be more than humanitarian – to be Quaker, to be engaged in a project that would help advance the cause of peace and justice – yet often found themselves acting as “a relief agency and nothing more.” In looking at the dilemmas that their work in Gaza posed for the volunteers who staffed the effort, my interest is to better understand the formations of humanitarianism. Ethical challenges are an endemic part of humanitarianism, and the process of working through them is important in shaping its practitioners. The dynamics of these issues in Gaza is a reminder of the often awkward relation between need and rights, between human rights and humanitarian relief.

The AFSC project in Gaza provides a window into humanitarianism from its margins. Not only did the AFSC resist defining itself as humanitarian, even as it repeatedly found itself being so, this was an early and uncertain moment in the development of the post-World War II humanitarian regime– a regime that includes both legal mechanisms for the protection of refugees and a proliferation of relief organizations. Further, compared to organizations like the ICRC, the AFSC was a very small actor within this arena (the Gaza project really strained its resources). When Quakers struggled with the ethical dilemmas of their work, they understood these questions to be particularly Quaker– and to a certain extent they were. At the same time, though, they shed tremendous light on problems that have come to be recognized as endemic to humanitarian relief in almost any circumstance. Questions about whether relief work might actually prolong suffering (Terry 2002),whether neutrality is an ethical position (Rieff 2002), and how relief projects represent and shape refugees (Malkki 1996) always accompany this work. The AFSC project shows people grappling with these problems before they were familiar. It also highlights another important feature of the humanitarian dilemma – its impact on and consequences for relief providers.

In elucidating and exploring the “ethical field” (Faubion 2001) of Quaker practice in Gaza, then, this paper sheds light on both the AFSC’s specific style of intervention and on humanitarianism more generally. It considers both what was distinctive about the Quaker approach and what their work shared with other humanitarian organizations that have followed. A close consideration of the debates among volunteers that were a consistent feature of the project illuminates an ethical practice that joined concern for others with “care of the self” (Foucault 1997), a practice that was equally attentive to an obligation to be ‘in the world’ and to be true to oneself. Considering the dilemmas that haunt humanitarian practice from this distinctive perspective (both historically and conceptually) may shed new light on them.


Shoshana Felman, Emory University | “Human Heads and Humanitarian Beheadings: Balzac’s genius of Storytelling and the Embodied Narrative of the French Revolution”

Balzac’s novella “The Red Inn” starts with the story of a murder executed with a surgeon’s knife. The murderer’s medical knowledge beheads the victim with such a speedy anatomical precision that it
prevents the victim’s cry or suffering. This beheading cannot but recall Dr Guillotin’s revolutionary plan for a swift and merciful decapitation, a humanitarian concept that triggered the
invention of the guillotine.

The murder in Balzac is followed by a trial in which an innocent accused is executed. This story gives rise to two other stories, each of which is also focused on a trial. [Each trial reenacts the previous trial and repeats its failure.] My interpretation suggests that the obsessive trials at the center of the text symbolically evoke the primal scene of the French Revolution: the trial and decapitation of the King, inaugurating the unstoppable frenzy of trials and decapitations that followed in the Reign of Terror.

I read the repetition of the trial in Balzac as a repetition of the trauma, embodying the Revolution’s contradictory, traumatic legacy. The repeated trials reenact each time what is ungraspable to legal argument in the historical//juridical/political unconscious. Balzac asks, how can literature advance us toward justice, and what can we do with such a legacy.


David Forsythe, University of Nebraska-Lincoln | “International Humanitarianism: Models and Dynamics”

A more globalized world has meant a more organized international humanitarianism. The “neutral” Red Cross model started about 1860, expanded after 1920, and became more systematized after 1970. A more “engaged” model developed along with the League of Nations and United Nations, pulling various NGOs in its wake. Both are affected by media coverage of the human condition. Both rely on a delicate combination of state political calculation and private transnational morality. The latter is a thin or weak morality. Neither has been able to overcome the thick morality that is produced by nationalism. For humanitarianism as for so much else, our globalized world is still largely a nationalized world.


Ann T. Gardiner, Philadelphia University | “Resistance to Slavery in Word and Image: Germaine de Staël, Auguste de Staël and the French
opposition to slavery”

This paper explores the relationship between word and image in treatises against slavery in France at the turn of the 19th century. I am particularly interested in Germaine de Staël’s texts against slavery, and the continuation of that battle by her son, Auguste, who used images before the French parliament to make a more forceful appeal. The paper thus compares two different media and two public spaces used to publicize opposition to human suffering. Particular attention will be paid to the form and structure of the media used — journal articles and fiction by the former, political speech and prints by the latter — as well as to the different spaces in which these appeals were made. Gender considerations will also play a significant role to explore public reaction to these appeals. I argue that feminized fiction could not compete with masculinized images, but that the son benefited from his mother’s previous work in the field. Interestingly, although Auguste de Staël’s work galvanized his contemporaries far more than that of his mother, today it is Staël rather than her son who is remembered in the humanitarian debate. The paper will thus also address the dialectic of remembering and forgetting and consider why certain narratives return to center stage, while others do not.


Jennifer Geddes, University of Virginia | “Towards an Ethics of Responding to Narratives of Suffering: Four PublicTestimonies of Holocaust Survivors”

An ethics of responding to narratives of suffering must take its cues from the sufferers who write or speak those narratives, attending to the implicit and explicit requests that sufferers make of us within them—including the ways they constrain and chasten our responses, on the one hand, and elicit and shape them, on the other. In my paper, I will briefly look at four public testimonies of Holocaust survivors—Charlotte Delbo’s Auschwitz and After, Sarah Kofman’s Smothered Words, Jean Améry’s At the Mind’s Limits, and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz—to see what they might tell us about how we should respond to their narratives. I will argue that they point to gaps, misconceptions, and presumptions in our thinking about suffering that need to be addressed in order to begin to respond responsibly. They ask us to acknowledge the ways in which we misrepresent suffering, often by domesticating it; avoid responding to it; and are at times contributors to it, whether knowingly or not. The chastening is particularly pertinent to the case of scholarly responses to narratives of suffering, where the probing of research and the presumed neutrality of position can tread heavily on sensitive ground.


Robert Gross, University of Connecticut | “Humanitarian Interests: Anti-Slavery Activism in Concord, Massachusetts in the First Decade of Abolitionism”

Is a “politicized narrative of inflicted suffering” necessary to spur humanitarian action on behalf of those in need, as our conference theme suggests?

This case study of anti-slavery activism in Concord, Massachusetts, during the first decade of abolitionism tests that proposition. Launched in Boston with William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator in 1831, abolitionism grew into a grassroots movement throughout the North over the next half- decade. In hundreds of local communities from Maine to Ohio, men and women organized local voluntary societies to fight for an end to slavery in the South and equal rights for all Americans, blacks as well as white. These efforts culminated in their participation in a national petition campaign organized in 1837-38 by the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women. The goal was to flood Congress with memorials calling for an end to slavery and the slave trade in the nation’s capital and opposing the annexation of Texas into the Union and the admission of any new slave states. Altogether, the crusade gathered up some 425,000 signatures in 1837-38, with 70 percent coming from women. The success of this campaign represented the high point of abolitionism during the 1830s. Thereafter the movement broke into competing factions, and anti-slavery petitioning reverted to uncoordinated local and state-wide activities.

How were so many people enlisted in this unprecedented mobilization of civic activism? What appeals stirred participation in the vast collective enterprise, and by what means were they spread? This
paper gauges the level of support for anti-slavery petitions in Concord and searches for social, economic, political, and religious characteristics distinguishing signers from non- signers. As it turns out, support for the petitions cannot be easily explained on such grounds. Far from reflecting existing conflicts, the petition campaign overcame the divisions that had set neighbor against neighbor for much of the decade. By what means was this broad base established? Shifting the focus, the paper examines the varied anti-slavery messages disseminated to the people of Concord from 1831 to 1838. It finds no single metaphor, no coherent narrative driving anti-slavery appeals. Abolitionists employed multiple means and media of persuasion. If any form was dominant, it was the polemic; abolitionists argued their case in much the same rhetorical style as was used by the party press of the era. Narratives of suffering slaves played a surprisingly small role.

What appeals worked? This paper finds that abolitionist rhetoric was as controversial as its objects. Critics were alienated by the denunciatory style of its polemics. Garrison and his compatriots, they complained, were too personal, too emotional, too extreme. They exaggerated the cruelties of slavery and drove away the very slaveholders upon whom the fate of slaves hinged. In place of such harsh tactics, the critics strived to fashion an alternative rhetoric that eschewed concrete examples, appealed to reason rather than passions, and based its case on the impersonal ground of universal morality. In effect, the anti-abolitionists challenged the organizing proposition of this conference: politicized narratives are not necessary for humanitarian action, and, in fact, they may well have lost the very people they seek to persuade.

But the experiment in impersonal persuasion, free from examples and narratives of suffering, was still-born. Its appeal was even more limited than Garrisonian polemics. Perhaps, narrative was essential, after all. In the 1840s and 1850, abolitionism expanded with a growing reliance on the narratives of fugitive slaves and with the popularity of anti-slavery fiction.


Micheline Ishay, University of Denver | Power Politics, and the Politicization of Human Suffering

History shows how in civil strife or wars, different sides have always used narratives of suffering. Oppressors may justify their actions in terms of their own prior oppression, just as the oppressed may unleash terrible suffering to avenge their own grievances, and just as interveners may propagate their ethos of rescuers while degenerating into ruthless occupiers. Yet not all these suffering, let alone their narratives, will be heard and many will remain in the tragic silence of the spirit of the times. Only recorded narratives of human suffering gain legitimacy, and to survive the test of time, these narratives have to be within the orbit of, in tactical association with, or in successful resistance to power politics.

With this historical understanding, I will consider how since the end of the cold war, narrativesof human suffering have been politicized to conform to two emerging yet opposite human rights worldviews crystallized by the ascendance of the US as a “lonely” global superpower. These two conflicting positions on the appropriate response to human suffering was shaped by the new role of the US as the main orchestrator of globalization, as the driving force behind military (or humanitarian) intervention, as the main force in the war on terror.

While one side of the debate has viewed the progress of globalization as the best vehicle to alleviate human suffering, the other believes that globalization has worsened the lives of the poor. While one perspective has viewed military intervention from Bosnia to Iraq as a way to rescue individuals from suffering under tyrannical regimes or genocide, the other sees such interventions as serving the geopolitical interest of the West and (more precisely of) the US, with a resulting increase in human suffering. While one position sees political efforts at democratization and nation building as the ultimate panacea against human suffering, the other see these endeavors as the reflection of US imperialism in the making. Can one transcend these Manichean human rights worldviews providing political and economic relief to the suffering of the needy within and beyond the geopolitical ambit of great powers politics? This is a central question that will animate my discussion.


Carol Jacobsen, University of Michigan | “Representing Torture, Clemency, Human Rights: A Grassroots Project”

A decade ago, Amnesty International launched its first ever campaign on torture occurring in the U.S. Working with human rights activists, including prisoners, guards, attorneys and artists, the ongoing campaign focuses on the chaining, rape, retaliation, and other forms of torture of women in U.S. prisons. As a grassroots, social documentary filmmaker working with Amnesty on this issue, a director of the Michigan Battered Women’s Clemency Project, and an educator teaching documentary video, many questions about issues of representation, power, exploitation ,censorship and voice are involved in producing and disseminating images and visual narratives of torture and human rights, and are critical to the development of cultural discourse as we struggle to make torture a visible and public issue and ultimately to end it. This presentation will include an excerpt from my film, “Segregation Unit”.

Segregation Unit, 30 min., 2000
Carol Jacobsen, Director

Agonizing look at a torture unit inside Scott Women’s Prison, in Michigan. The film is narrated by the woman seen in the footage which was shot by guards during her incarceration, and obtained after her release through the Freedom of Information Act. In 2000, She sued the State of Michigan for torture and won. Co-Sponsored by Amnesty International USA. A nonprofit film available free to activists.


Elizabeth Jelin, CONICET-IDES, Buenos Aires | “Victims, relatives and citizens in Argentina: whose voice is legitimate enough?”

Argentina can be considered an extreme case of the power of testimony and personalized narratives of suffering. In post-dictatorial Argentina, “truth” came to be equated with testimony, first in the hands of blood relatives of victims of the repression (the emblematic figure of the “Madres”, complemented afterwards by the “HIJOS” and then by the “Hermanos”). Survivors of clandestine detention camps and militants/activists of the early seventies were not heard until later on –coming to occupy center stage almost thirty years after the military coup of 1976. This prominence implies considerable power in defining the human rights agenda of the country. “Truth” and Legitimacy of voice (or “ownership” of the issue) are embedded in personal experience and genetic bonds. This implies a political and symbolic dominance, with relatively little room for broader societal voices –based on citizenship or a universal perspective on the human condition-that have to struggle for a place in the public sphere.


Rhonda Jones, Duke University | “One Day in May: Responses to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Advertisement in the New York Times Concerning Civil Rights Demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama 1963”
Margaret M.R. Kellow, University of Western Ontario | “A Hard Struggle of Doubt”: Abolitionists and the Problem of Slave Redemption

As long as slavery persisted in the United States, Americans wrestled with the probity of purchasing the freedom of those held in bondage. Increasingly, enslaved African Americans and black and white abolitionists denied a slaveholder’s right to place a price on freedom. Invoking evangelical righteousness, Garrisonian abolitionists denounced slaveholding as a crime, rejecting any suggestion that “criminals” should receive compensation. Yet despite their loud denunciations of compensation schemes, white abolitionists contributed readily to funds to purchase the liberty of individual slaves. By the same token, fugitive slaves stole themselves out of their masters’ possession thereby rejecting claims of ownership and then spent years raising the money to purchase their loved ones. These contradictions informed the debate over slave redemption in antebellum America, exposing tensions between legal and moral condemnations of slavery as an institution and emotional or humanitarian responses to enslaved individuals. At every turn, narratives created by former slaves explicating the suffering and evil inherent in bondage underscored these tensions. Confronted by the suffering these narratives revealed, abolitionists were neither unanimous nor entirely consistent in their objections to slave redemption. Although they knew very well that there were good reasons not to do it, when the slave in question was someone known, or when the
slave’s situation resonated with prevailing cultural norms, abolitionists, black and white, set their principles to one side and ransomed thousands of slaves out of bondage. When narratives of suffering brought abolitionists face to face with the real suffering engendered by slavery, few chose righteousness over compassion. As in so many instances, ideological purity and humanity coexisted uneasily. Confronted with this dilemma, most abolitionists appear to have opted for humanity.


Thomas Keenan, Bard College | “Open Secrets”

Cameras wait on Somali beaches for the Marines, and at Sarajevo intersections for snipers. Paramilitary commanders wave at television crews in Kosovo, and London’s Underground bombers record their last wills in Waziristan. Abu Ghraib’s guards use images of torture as screensavers, and insurgent armies in Iraq circulate tapes of beheadings and daylight assassinations in Internet forums. My paper attempts to track what remains of secrecy, shame, and dissimulation — and with them, the classical human rights strategies of reporting and exposure — in an era of generalized glasnost and publicity. Why does the CIA keep its fleet of private jets and network of secret prisons hidden even after senior officials confirm their existence on the front page? Why do insurgent armies never release videotapes of attacks on purely civilian targets, even as their leaders openly call for sectarian violence? Human rights norms seek to regulate actions, to prevent crimes or enable just responses to them, but they also have an aesthetic dimension, providing frames for representation, legitimizing and de-legitimizing certain narratives and images, and too often the two functions can become confused. What do they have to do with one another?


Flora Keshgegian, Brown University | “‘Starving Armenians’: The Politics and Ideology of Humanitarian Aid in the First Decades of the Twentieth Century”

During the genocide of Armenians by the Turkish government during World War I, American missionary organizations, which already had a presence in Turkey and whose missionaries were often key witnesses to the genocide, organized a separate and independent humanitarian relief effort that, in the years after the genocide, came to be called Near East Relief. Endorsed by the American government and with strong ties to powerful religious, political and economic networks, this hugely successful humanitarian relief campaign provided much needed care to the survivors and refugees of the genocide. It also utilized a particular narrative portrayal of the relationship between white Christian America and the “starving” Armenian refugees who were portrayed as fellow (white) Christians in need of rescue. This paper will discuss and analyze this “salvation as rescue” narrative and argue that in such a narrative the victim has to be similar to and appealing to the hero/rescuer, yet be categorically different as well. The victim also has to be relatively passive and lacking in agency. Meanwhile, the “villain” represents, if not personifies, evil. Such a rescue narrative sets up and perpetuates dependency, does not make for effective solidarity and relies on moral dualism. I will propose that while Near East Relief’s humanitarian efforts were effective in generating an impressive amount of refugee aid, they reinforced and further complicated dynamics of western difference and superiority that continue to impact American- Turkish-Armenian politics and relations today.


Michael Marrus, University of Toronto | “Bystanders to the Holocaust: Why Was There No Humanitarian Intervention?”

This paper will examine a familiar subject — the failure of the international community, particularly the governments of liberal, democratic societies in the West, to come to the aid of Jews persecuted by the Nazis and eventually murdered during the Holocaust, but will do so from an unfamiliar vantage point — the history of what is now considered “humanitarian intervention.” Since the late 1960s and 1970s there has been considerable study of the policies of these “bystanders” to the Holocaust. I have described this history as essentially one of insufficiency— a history of inaction, indifference, and insensitivity. But it is too little appreciated that such assessments usually rest upon an explicit expectation, by the analyst and commentator, of international action. Such action seems to match what is now often referred to as “humanitarian intervention.” How should we understand this expectation? What kinds of precedents were there,
In the 1930s and 1940s, for humanitarian intervention? What were the modern origins of such undertakings, and what was the humanitarian context within which we should understand the posture of the bystanders?


William Miles, Northeastern University | “Indigenization of the Holocaust”

This paper argues that intellectual globalization, overlapping with an age of genocide, is resulting in the indigenization of the Shoah (Holocaust). The focus here is on those nations and societies of the developing world that have experienced their own forms of post-World War II lethal and collective human rights violations. Increasing numbers of intellectuals, scholars and writers from Latin America, Asia and Africa have been exposed to the scholarship and pedagogy that have arisen in the aftermath of Europe’s mid-twentieth century experience with a “Final Solution.” In exposing the group suffering in their own regions, comparative sensitivities (and a need to write for a Western audience) have led to the inclusion of the Holocaust paradigm in their own narratives of inflicted suffering. This paradigm is contextualized, compared, and culturalized: in short, it is indigenized. In such ways, the significance and pedagogy of the Shoah are integrated into host cultures’ historical and moral frameworks. Inevitably, intellectual nativization accompanies the globalization of Holocaust studies within the Third World. Given the baggage of “Third World” ambivalence vis-à-vis Zionism (associated with lingering solidarity with the Palestinian worldview), this is a counterintuitive genre that challenges conventional perceptions of Third World indifference to Jewish suffering. Renascent empathy with the Shoah is informed by more recent, and more comparable, examples of ethnically and religiously motivated mass killing.

A precursor to contemporary Third World Views of the Holocaust is apparent in writings of the négritude movement of the African diaspora, especially those of Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon.
Césaire, Fanon, and other Black minorities in the Caribbean and Europe explicitly invoked anti- Semitism and its genocidal end product in situating their own struggle against international colonialism, the aftermath of slavery, and economic-cum-cultural oppression. More contemporary African invocations of the Holocaust include the “modeling” of the Nuremberg Trials by Gerald Gahima, Rwanda’s prosecutor against perpetrators of genocide, as well as Edward Kissi’s analysis of Holocaust parallelism during Ethiopia’s war of revolution.

In Asia, the budding field of Jewish studies in the People’s Republic of China (led by Xu Xin) parallels Japanese reassessment of its own postwar moral reckoning compared with that of Germany (articulated by Kinue Tokudome). The campaign among diasporic survivors of the Cambodian “killing fields” to establish a memorial in the United States (pace Chivy Sok) is explicitly framed within the context of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Latin America’s conceptualization of the Holocaust is contemplated by the region serving as haven of both survivors and perpetrators of the Shoah. These ambivalent legacies are expressed from Argentina (Luis Borges) to Bolivia (Leo Spitzer) to Mexico (Ilan Stavans). Noteworthy, too, is Dr. Roberto Cabrero’s linkage between his chance visit to Yad Vashem ( Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum) and his gradual recognition of an indigenous Indian genocide in his native Guatemala.

Indigenization of the Holocaust serves as an humanitarian mirror, enabling the West to better perceive its darkest historical side through the eyes of an also genocidally wounded South.


Adam Nadel, Photographer/NYT Pulitzer Nominee | TBD
Klaus Neumann, University of Melbourne | “Refugee Advocacy and Narratives of Suffering: Three Australian CaseStudies”

In a recent production, Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées), Adriane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil provides a nuanced and complex picture of forced migration as a global phenomenon. In my paper, I
contrast that theatrical performance of refugees’ narratives with narratives produced by Australian refugee advocates. By comparison, the latter appear truncated in three respects: they rely on a greater degree of mediation; they pay little attention to the lives of refugees before they reached, or tried to reach, Australia, and instead focus on narratives of suffering related to the experience of immigration detention; and they depict refugees as individuals whose worthiness endows them with a value in relation to Australia’s national interest.

In order to offer explanations for these limitations, I situate the current pro-refugee discourse in the broader, historical context of Australian responses to refugees, and in the context of
Australian public debate over asylum seekers in the past seven years. I sketch the genealogy of ideas about refugees as immigrants and about immigrants as people without a pre-Australian history, and suggest that the emphasis on the presumed worthiness of asylum seekers and refugees has to be understood as a reaction to depictions of refugees by the Australian government, according to which asylum seekers pose a security risk and do not deserve Australians’ compassion.

In the program notes for Le Dernier Caravansérail, Hélène Cixous asks those who shared their stories with Mnouchkine and her collaborators: ‘How do we avoid replacing the word from your lips with the sound of good intentions?’ I suggest that the sound of good intentions may easily bear uncanny resemblances to narratives about the nation that valorise xenophobia and collective egotism.


Matthew Powell, Humanitarian NGO Photographer | Humanitarian Photographic Narratives: “A Visual Representation of Suffering And the Humanitarian Response”

As a photographer for an international relief organization I specialize in creating visual narratives of Third World suffering and humanitarian aid responses. The primary purpose of my photography is to generate philanthropic responses from concerned donor audiences. This requires capturing fundamental aspects of human need and emotion in a manner that relates to the psychology of my audience. To do so I must reveal suffering and corresponding aid efforts in a compelling, compassionate manner that inspires hope as opposed to guilt. Thus, my narratives of suffering and the ethos they represent are not ends in themselves, but a subtle questioning to my audience: “There is hope, will you help?”

Through a presentation of my photographs I will illustrate how I conceptualize my narratives utilizing the elements found in human indigence to connect those capable of donating assistance to those in desperate need of it. I will demonstrate my methodology and the role of a narrator in crafting consistent themes from seemingly disparate images. What distinguishes my photographic narratives from others on suffering is that my work focuses on hope in the midst of suffering, not simply documenting pain.

In light of today’s media-connected world in which photos of Abu Graib torture and simple newspaper cartoons possess such obvious influence to elicit global indignation, the power of the photographic narrative demands closer scholarly analysis. Similar to these examples my narratives also demand action, not socio-political acts, but acts of compassion. Perhaps what can be achieved through the power of visual imagery is hope for reconciliation between two worlds: the needy and the powerful.


Terence Ranger, St. Anthony’s College, University of Oxford | “Repression in Matabeleland”

The recent history of Zimbabwe makes an ideal case-study for this conference. In the 1980s there was a very great deal of inflicted suffering in Matabeleland, the western province of Zimbabwe. Estimates of men and women killed by the forces of the Mugabe government in the 1980s range from 30,000 to 50,000. They were killed with great brutality and their bodies slung into mine- shafts or buried in mass graves. Yet the Zimbabwean government was not indicted or sanctioned by any international organisation; not condemned by any human rights body. No report on the atrocities was issued until 1997. [Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Legal Resources Foundation, Breaking the Silence. A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland the Midlands, 1980 to 1988, Harare] The first detailed historical study was published in 2000. [ Jocelyn Alexander, JoAnn McGregor and Terence Ranger, Violence and Memory. James Currey, Oxford] The first fictional treatment by a Zimbabwean novelist appeared in 2002. [Yvonne Vera, The Stone Virgins, Weaver, Harare]

There has been a total contrast with the violence which has taken place in Zimbabwe since 2000 even though nothing like as many people have been killed or tortured. Zimbabwe’s seizure of white-owned farms and its repression of the black opposition has been condemned and sanctioned by the European Union, the United States of America and Great Britain. A United Nations commissioner has issued a scathing report on Zimbabwe’s urban clearances. Innumerable reports have been published by international and national human rights organisations. Many books have already been published. A play has been staged at Stratford and in London and broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Thousands of Zimbabwean asylum seekers have arrived in South Africa and Britain.

I myself know about the violence of the 1980s because of the exhaustive historical research my colleagues and I carried out ten years later. I know about the current violence in Zimbabwe because I have written some 160 ‘expert’ reports on individual asylum appeals and several general reports for ‘country’ determinations by the courts. In these reports I document and of course condemn contemporary violence in Zimbabwe. But I am nevertheless struck by the great contrast in the production of humanitarian narratives of inflicted suffering then in the 1980s and now twenty years later.

In this paper I shall seek to explore the reasons for this contrast. Several have been advanced. One is racial – the victims in the 1980s, it is argued, were all black; a minority of the victims in the 2000s have been white. The democratic ‘world’ does not care about blacks: it does care about whites. As I shall show, there is a good deal of truth in this argument but it does not fully explain the contrast.

Another very different argument holds that in the 1980s Zimbabwe was facing a real and dangerous threat from internal rebels and South African destabilisation. [E.P.Makande, Marginalising the Human Rights Campaign: The Dissident Factor and the Politics of Violence in Zimbabwe, 1980-1987, Lesotho, 1992] It was in fact a security crisis rather than a human rights crisis. By contrast – and despite the paranoiac fears of the Mugabe government of invasions and conspiracies – few people believe today that Zimbabwe faces a security crisis. One can add to this sort of argument the fact that Zimbabwe liberation movements had been strongly supported by human rights bodies. These were very reluctant immediately to condemn a new regime in which they had placed such high hopes.

Supporters of the Zimbabwe regime could dismiss reports of atrocities as South African propaganda. As I shall admit from personal experience, there is something in this argument too.

But I shall also argue that availability of information – immediate access to humanitarian narratives of inflicted suffering – has also made a striking difference. In the 1980s it was very difficult to obtain regular and reliable information about what was going on. There were few internal human rights bodies. By contrast the Zimbabwean Human Rights NGO Forum, which brings together a dozen organisations, has issued monthly political violence reports from 2000 to the present. As I prepare my ‘expert’ assessments of asylum appeals I ‘google’ dozens of detailed accounts of human rights abuse in Zimbabwe. I could not now, as I regrettably did in the 1980s, claim that I do not know what is going on. I have myself written an article which draws on some of the most dramatic of asylum seeker narratives of suffering. [Terence Ranger, ‘The Narratives and Counter-narratives of Zimbabwean Asylum: female voices’, Third World Quarterly, 26, 3, 2005]

I shall discuss why there are now so many more human rights NGOs. Are they the product of a vigorous ‘civil society’ which can be said to have developed in Zimbabwe over the last twenty years? Or are they, as the Zimbabwe government alleges, foreign-funded neo-liberal bodies committed to ‘regime change’. I shall end with some discussion of the public debate about human rights which now rages in Zimbabwe.


Mark Sanders, Brandeis University | “Mentioning History: Aporias of Reparation and Remembrance in J.M. Coetzee and Antjie Krog”

What does it mean to think one’s acts as historical? What does it mean to testify to certain acts–or misdeeds–as having been part of a history of wrong? Is it responsible to do so? Is it responsible not to? What if the acts in question are sexual? One major departure in South African literary history is to see even one’s most private acts as historical. From Paton, Modisane, Gordimer, Serote, and Breytenbach, to Coetzee’s early fiction, this is readily apparent. There seems to be a consensus that it is good to see one’s acts as historical. This was a consensus on which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could rely. In Coetzee’s Disgrace, a tacit response to the Commission, this consensus is questioned: Mentioning the history of which one’s acts (or those of others) were part may, if it is only a mention, lead to a repetition of that history. Concentrating on a history of sexual violence, Coetzee’s fictional response to the Commmission therefore reveals an aporia: history must be mentioned; mentioning history may repeat that history.


Kristin Sandvik, S.J.D. Candidate, Harvard Law School | “The Physicality of Legal Consciousness: Suffering and the Production of Credibility in a Refugee Resettlement in Uganda”

The larger theme of this article is to examine how the legal recognition of particular forms of suffering functions instrumentally as a foundational myth for global humanitarianism, beyond the normative objective of resuscitating subaltern voices in international law. Based on experience as a UNHCR caseworker (2004) and fieldwork (2005) among urban refugees in Uganda, this article traces the complex strategies through which physical and psychological injury are translated into legal narrative.

Resettlement is one of the three durable solutions to bring the plight of refugees to an end. It addresses the special needs of refugees which cannot be met adequately in the country of refuge. Every year, UNHCR resettles thousands of refugees from war-torn poverty-stricken countries in the global south, to wealthy countries in the North. Still, this number accounts for less than 0,5 % off the total refugee population. The pursuit of resettlement occupies a dominant position in the encounter between UNHCR, legal protection officers and the refugee population. While resettlement-officers postulate “the perfect victim” as the ideal resettlement-candidate, resettlement requires substantial individual entrepreneurship.

I consider the process of constructing rape, torture and physical insecurity narratives geared towards fulfilling the legal criteria set out under the resettlement-procedure, and the discretionary credibility assessment embedded within this process. I examine the way distinctions between “true” narratives and manufactured stories are made by the actors, and how ideas about personhood, credibility and chronology are mediated and negotiated. A high number of urban refugees are survivors of devastating physical and sexual violence. I argue that the seeming “trivialization” of past experiences embedded in the future oriented efforts to capitalize on social identity, is fraught with ambiguities for the refugees, and incorporates a complicated view of suffering, where the self slips in and out of sight.

The pursuit of the international is an intense competition over a scarce resource; the annual resettlement quota. The ability to convey a credible story of suffering as demanded by international law, is thus viewed as instrumental by urban refugees. UNHCR officers are continuously presented with “official” letters documenting suffering. Bureaucratic culture seemed to indicate that these be routinely dismissed as “forged”, but they are instrumental for communication between UNHCR and resettlement-countries, if the case is accepted. Due to the rapid spread of internet-use and cell-phone ownership among the urban refugee population in Uganda, communication and monitoring of resettlement-narratives has become extremely efficient. This use of technology for “coaching” and “rehearsal” of impression management is perceived as “cheating” by UNHCR. Furthermore, in a bizarre twist, “true narratives” may be displaced by “syndicated narratives”, as they are perceived as having a higher chance of success. The routine character of stories arises suspicion, and frequently results in failure to be perceived as credible, despite the very real suffering underlying the choice of communication strategy.

I propose that these narratives should lead us to question our perception of purity and credibility embedded in the humanitarian subject. By more consciously rejecting essentialism as a precondition for universalism, stories of suffering may better be able to penetrate legal discourse and find a proper place in international law, contingent upon a more humanist view of survival and struggle.


Susan Shepler, American University | “Can the Child Soldier Speak?”

There is a fairly standard child soldier narrative that is presented in child protection agency documents across different national contexts, from Sri Lanka to Uganda to Colombia. The elements are: I was abducted, I was forced to commit atrocities against my will, and now my only wish is to return to my family. It is safe to say that every document concerning child soldiers by Child Protection Agencies includes narratives from the individual suffering child (usually as an illustrative sidebar). These are narratives of former child soldiers, never from current child soldiers.

What does this do? In the first place, it individualizes the suffering, thereby removing the political context. These narratives of suffering are aimed at mobilizing anti-child soldier movements in the West, and as the call for papers suggest, work best by constructing an appealing idea of common humanity, a world where we all care about the best interests of children.

Can the child speak for his or her self? Children are the subjects for whom it is most automatic(“natural”) to substitute authoritative narratives for a child’s own untutored voice. Pupavac (2001)calls this “misanthropy without borders,” and sees a fundamental mistrust of third-world adults by the international child rights regime that valorizes the speechless child at the expense of the adults charged with his or her care.

Regarding the relationship between private narratives of suffering and the institutional contexts that elicit such narratives and channel them into the public sphere, I ask: What is silenced or ignored in child soldier narratives? (For example, in my research with former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, some boys told me “I enjoyed firing my RPG.”)

Children’s participation in war is not a new phenomenon, what is new is the international child rights framework that has in some ways constructed the identity “child soldier” where it previously did not exist through techniques from the fields of education, psychology, and social welfare that take child soldiers as their objects. (There is, of course, a fine line here. Pointing out that thechild rights framework is imposed from outside does not mean denying the reality of war’s pain.)

My question is: How does “modern childhood” function as an ideology? How does it frame the possibilities for debate and analysis? The role of youth in political narratives has changed over the last ten to twenty years. Yesterday’s freedom fighting heroes are now innocent victims of abduction. I claim that NGO studies are in some ways blinded by their ideology; specifically, as much as they quote child soldier narratives in their documents, they are blinded to the views and practices of child soldiers themselves.


Joseph Slaughter, Columbia University | “The Rights of “Man”; or, What Are We Reading For?”

In the early years of WWII, British novelist H. G. Wells posed a version of the question that I take as my title in an open letter published in the London Times which asked “the Atlantic Parliamentary peoples”: “‘Is this what we are fighting for? And if not, then please tell us what you imagine we are fighting for'”(12;30). In our contemporary era, when military invasion routinely wears the rhetorical mantle of humanitarian intervention, Wells’ question about the relation between war and rights takes on a renewed urgency. This paper considers the role of reading in human rights and humanitarianism, not only in the sense of reading with an attentiveness to human rights in a particular text but in the broader sense of reading as a human rights and/or humanitarian praxis—an activity intended to facilitate the “realization [. . .] of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for [human] dignity and the free development of [human] personality” and to bring about “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want” (UDHR). What would it mean to read for human rights? Is that what we are reading for? And if not, what are we fighting for?


Susan Slyomovics, University of California, Los Angeles | Money Talks: Reparations and Testimony in Morocco and Algeria

Human rights commissions and reparations committees attach conditions to reparation funds they disburse. These conditions are both implicit and explicit. Witness testimony is a prime example of an explicit condition directly relevant to the variety of subsequent remedies available or offered. My project explores what I call the conditionality of witnessing – the narrative of suffering in relationship to pecuniary reparation – and the ways in which the conditionality of witnessing continues to shape, distort, and create the acts of giving testimony about past human rights abuses. My case studies are the Moroccan Truth Commission (mandate ended November 2005), the newly implemented 2005 Algerian commission, and the recent 2004 German Stiftung recognition to indemnify Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian slave/forced laborers from World War II. These three cases emphasize the triumph of the notion that reparation is individual and proven by narratives of suffering while perpetrators’ culpability, also conceived of as individual guilt through careful judicial examination, do not result in any form of accountability – whether acknowledgment (for example, naming torturers) or trials. I analyze the ways in which reparation in these three cases is equally concerned with how one gets something, the process undertaken to be reimbursed, and is less concerned about what one does get back or recover. In fact, what exactly does one get after embarking on the action to produce narratives of suffering that seek financial reparation?

Laura Suski, McGill University | “Children, Suffering and the Humanitarian Appeal”

The paper explores the role of children in international humanitarian narratives. Innocent in the larger structures of violence and oppression that determine their suffering, children often stand as unquestionable victims ?worthy? of international attention and assistance. They come to represent hope and promise for the future of their communities, their nations, and for the global humanitarian movement itself. International development organizations like World Vision, Unicef, and Save the Children have benefited from putting children at the forefront of their campaigns. Some of these organizations seek to create personal relationships between international donors and victims through tactics such as child sponsorship, and in so doing, suggest the possibility of a kind of familial connection that can overcome the differences of race, class, history, and nation. Still, many have been critical of the way in which the suffering of children is used to trigger the humanitarian impulse. Some argue that when humanitarianism asks us to see anyone as an object of pity to be helped, we move humanitarianism from the more politicized space of human rights into the so-called apolitical space of charity.

By drawing on interdisciplinary scholarship in the areas of media analysis, international development, and childhood studies, the paper analyzes the complex ethical relationship that is
built between a humanitarian actor and a suffering child. It is argued that while humanitarian narratives that privilege the suffering of children may risk a more radical version of humanitarianism and may deny the agency of children to express their own suffering, they can also build a profound moral attachment between distant strangers. In addition to sketching a theoretical frame for analyzing the child in international humanitarian appeals, the paper will draw on some historical and contemporary examples of humanitarian appeals from international development organizations.

The paper concludes by suggesting how the exploration of the child as international victim has the potential to transform our understanding of both global ethics and humanitarianism.


Miriam Ticktin, University of Michigan | “Suffering and Slavery in Post-Colonial France”

This paper will examine how narratives by and about “modern slaves” in France elicit greater responses from human rights and humanitarian organizations than narratives by and about undocumented immigrants, despite there being a large overlap between these two types of subject positions and experience. Why is it that the movement against modern slavery has been able to mobilize a transnational following, media presence and funding, while the social movements for undocumented immigrants have not? How do the narratives of these social and political organizations differ? Why is it that narratives by those designated “modern slaves” are increasingly prevalent in French bookstores — what work do they do in the French imaginary? Which narratives of suffering help to build the postcolonial French nation-state, and which challenge it? By looking at the types of social selves allowed to emerge from immigrants and refugees (slaves and non) – in particular, women – I will argue that the suffering that mobilizes humanitarian organizations in fact works by dividing people into “us” and “them” – invoking a feeling of pity and sympathy that perpetuates differentials of power, rather than overcomes them.


Ruti Teitel, New York Law School | ‘The Rise of Humanitarian Discourse: Constructions of Contemporary Suffering and the Loss of the Political.’

This paper discusses the rise of humanitarian discourse in current international politics and reflects upon how this discourse structures violence in a language that is either neutral or highly moral, but which does not fully include a discussion of the political dimensions of violence. It explores several illustrations of this phenomenon ranging from the dilemma of humanitarian intervention and its interaction with the political to the uses of humanitarian discourse in the “war on terror”. It concludes by reflecting upon the reasons of the continued appeal of humanitarian discourse, as well as the ramifications of the impoverishment of the political.


Brenda Carr Vellino, Carleton University | “In Spite of Us…Something is Communicated. An Ethics of Translating Torture in Ariel Dorfman’s ‘First Prologue: Simultaneous Translation.'"

Ariel Dorfman in prefaces, essays, and interviews has repeatedly identified the problem of apathy regarding state inflicted suffering such as torture and has made it a goal of his life-work to enlist his implied readers as co-witnesses in the project of “exorcizing terror.” His human rights witness poetry along with plays and novels seek to awaken in his implied reader a “responsibility to know and assist” through representations that ground ethics in empathy (Cohen). Literary translation of bodily pain under torture is a central human rights pedagogical tactic deployed by Dorfman (and other human rights witness poets) designed to draw the reader towards empathy through recognition of shared sentience and embodiment. However, Dorfman also anticipates the concern of many Latin-Americanist critics about armchair leftists from the North who substitute a “poetics of solidarity” for actual extra literary social movement engagement (Moreiras 198-199). He does so by building into his poems reminders of the many gaps which translation work seeks to bridge– linguistic, cultural, geographical, political, uneven privilege and power, and identity locations. Foregrounding the complexity of North/South translation which both seeks to bring across communicative connection and maintain differences between subjects of suffering and subjects of privilege is a principle tactic by which Dorfman seeks to create a productive tension within the reader, balancing proximity and distance, which then opens the possibility of an ethics of empathy and solidarity.

In the poetic “prologue” to In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land (2000), Ariel Dorfman raises significant questions about his attempt to “translate” into poetry the trauma of torture undergone by many Chilean political prisoners and desaparecedos under Augusto Pinochet’s regime. By invoking the frame of simultaneous translation as an interchangeable trope for his own act of poetic translation, Dorfman abridges two distinct modalities and sites of translation which are typically not seen as related. Literary translation with its own contexts, theoretical debates, and implications implies transferring ideas expressed in writing from one language to another. “Community interpreting,” practiced by a network of professional and volunteer participants who work variously at NGO conferences, for the UN and the European Union, in refugee and immigrant services in local communities positions the interpreter as a linguistic intermediary with social commitments whose role is to interpret orally and sometimes advocate in real time from the source language into the target language. While “simultaneous translation” is sometimes used interchangeably by the lay community with “simultaneous interpretation” to convey the work of a community interpreter, it is not used by the community of translation and interpretation professionals because it already implies a kind of cross-over between two forms of translation perceived to be distinct. This paper seeks to explore what artists, scholars, and readers who seek to witness to human rights violations through creating or engaging representations of traumatic suffering may learn from Dorfman’s overlay of community interpretation and artistic translation as a hybrid model for ethical representation and reception.

Dorfman’s poem highlights a tension that arises both within literary translation theory and through the juxtaposed priorities of literary and community models of translation/interpretation. The speaker struggles between “finding the exact equivalent” and “trying to communicate the essence and the feeling,” to position himself with documentary precision “without emotion” and to convey “sensation” and “feeling.” The mimetic model of literary translation asserts the need for accuracy, a “word for word” or “sense for sense” rendering of the original into the secondary language. Typically the bias of many scholars and critics is that such a translation will always be in some sense inferior to the artistic merit of the original exemplified by the reluctance of many in the literary world to teach texts in translation. A counter position to this view is that of Willis Barnstone and many literary theorists that all writers and readers are translators and many official translators are performing an art of “creative transformance” to create equivalencies of sound, sense, and meaning between the source and target language.

In the case of Dorfman’s poem, the challenge of being an “intermediary” across the many gaps of geographical distance, firsthand experience, bodily trauma and artistic representation is enormous. While Dorfman was deeply involved with the inner circle who worked in support of the quiet socialist revolution of Allende, his fate was to be clandestinely spirited out of Chile rather than be subjected to disappearance , torture, and political murder. From a position of survivor guilt, political and self-chosen exile, and ethical commitment, Dorfman covenants with the dead and the tortured to take up a position of advocacy representation, to create the means for their voices to come through. This puts him in the heavily debated position of a proxy witness, one who deliberately takes the ethical risks of translating bodily and psychic pain into representation to the end of alleviating suffering much as an Amnesty International appeal does (Scarry). If every translation, according to Willis Barnstone, dwells in a liminal space of exile in between languages and home locations (265-266), the endeavor to translate across geographic spaces, radically uneven power relations, subjective experience, and witnessing locations in literary human rights representation is highly charged with the problems and possibilities of its liminality. In Translation and Empire, Douglas Robinson calls for a model of decolonizing translation that does not attempt to cover over “translation inequalities” (31). If cultural and linguistic translation has historically been entangled with the project of empire and imperialism, Dorfman’s work instigates a postcolonial project of “re-translation” which disturbs any notion of a full equivalency between texts, suggesting that the need for the writer and reader who would be proxy witnesses to struggle in the space in-between traumatized bodies, literary representation, and social intervention. While the speaker of Dorfman’s poem self-defines as “an intermediary, not even a bridge”; elsewhere Dorfman describes himself as a “bridge,” a “space for those voices,” forgotten, erased, denied, and not to be confused with the voices themselves. It is up to educators and readers to submit to this liminal space and to answer Ariel Dorfman’s unceasing call to join him as a collaborator in the ongoing project of public acknowledgment and social remediation.


Lars Waldorf, World Policy Institute, The New School |“Don’t Ask Me for Forgiveness! Narratives from Rwanda’s Community Genocide Trials”

In 2002, Rwanda embarked on the most ambitious experiment in transitional justice ever attempted. While other post-conflict states have opted for amnesties, truth commissions, selective criminal prosecutions, or some combination thereof, Rwanda decided to put most of the nation on trial. To accomplish this task, the government radically modified a “customary” dispute resolution mechanism (gacaca) to try hundreds of thousands of suspected Hutu genocidaires in approximately 9000 local communities. In each community, perpetrators, victims, bystanders, and rescuers are supposed to come together once a week to make accusations, hear confessions, give testimonies, and somehow become better neighbors in the process.

This paper explores the construction of local narratives in gacaca proceedings using ethnographic data that I am collecting in three rural communities. It then examines how those local narratives fit with national and international narratives on ethnicity, genocide, reconciliation, and humanitarianism.

Gacaca testimonies are inevitably shaped by local political, socio-economic, and cultural factors. In small, face-to-face communities, narratives are necessarily constrained by what Sally Falk Moore has termed “the micropolitics of local standing.” On Rwanda’s hills, those micropolitics play out against a backdrop of pervasive secrecy, mutual suspicion, and occasional denunciation. Survivors and confessed killers do most of the testifying in gacaca, while their Hutu neighbors remain largely silent. Killers evince little remorse and even less responsibility in their public confessions, which only further embitters survivors. Thus far, gacaca has confounded hopes that narratives of suffering and remorse would lead to local-level reconciliation in Rwanda.

Gacaca narratives reveal contradictions in the state’s legitimating narrative of “national unity and reconciliation.” First, the state has made ethnicity a taboo subject, but it is impossible to narrate the genocide without talking about ethnicity. Second, gacaca narratives occasionally reveal “hidden transcripts”: some Tutsi survivors criticize the state’s failure to provide long-promised reparations, while some Hutu criticize gacaca for not adjudicating the current regime’s war crimes. Finally, the state, which advertises gacaca as a truth and reconciliation mechanism (particularly to Western donors), now seems bent on instrumentalizing gacaca’s narratives of suffering to impose collective guilt on the Hutu majority: gacaca is expected to result in one million genocide suspects (which represents nearly a third of the adult Hutu population).

Gacaca narratives also challenge the international humanitarian response to genocide. First, they offer a more nuanced, micro-level understanding of how the Rwandan genocide occurred, which may assist international actors in preventing future mass atrocities. Second, they point up the problematic nature of humanitarian and reconciliation discourses, which often insist on simplistic dichotomies between victims and perpetrators. Finally, they show how well-meaning, post- genocide interventions (such as international donor funding for gacaca) may become complicit in an authoritarian regime’s legitimation strategies.


Ronald Walters, Johns Hopkins University | "Abolitionist Representations of Suffering"

From 1830 until the Civil War American abolitionists carried their message to the public in a wide variety of ways, making full use of new technologies, innovative organizational strategies, and contemporary popular culture. While scholars have long remarked on this, few have examined in depth what happened to the antislavery message as it migrated across cultural forms and genres. This paper uses narrative responses to the trope of the suffering slave as a way of exploring the importance of form in framing and shaping the humanitarian message. It also looks at inconsistencies and tensions within the abolitionist narrative response itself and examines counter-narratives, both from within antislavery and from its opponents. Finally, the paper suggests that the case of American abolitionist propaganda might be something of a cautionary tale about how—in a modern world of competing media—the availability of a wide variety of alternative cultural forms and narratives simultaneously empowers and constrains reformers’ persuasive strategies.

Conference Organizers

Professor Richard Brown
Director Humanities Institute

University of Connecticut
CLAS Building, Suite 300-312, Unit 4234
215 Glenbrook Road
Storrs, CT 06269-4234, USA


Professor Richard A. Wilson
Gladstein Chair of Human Rights
Director, Human Rights Institute

Thomas J. Dodd Research Center
University of Connecticut
U-1205, Storrs, CT 06268, USA