Joachim Savelsberg (Minnesota): „Global Human Rights Law and National Cultures: Representing, remembering, and controlling mass atrocities“


International criminal courts or tribunals write history. They produce representations and collective memories of grave human rights violations. Yet, these processes are insufficiently understood to date. This is problematic as such courts have proliferated since the end of the Cold War, culminating in the International Criminal Court (ICC) (since 2002). Political scientists today in fact diagnose a “justice cascade” (Sikkink), hoping that the writing of history by courts may contribute to radically delegitimizing grave violations of human rights. Their expectations build on earlier hopes invested into the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. They are supported by sociological theory, for example Durkheimian arguments about the ritual force of law. And yet, legal interventions are processed through complex societal fields involving: actors with competing interests within the judicial field; fields such as diplomacy and humanitarian aid that often challenge the judicial field; tensions between national and global actors; conflicting habitus and identities; and competing institutional logics. An introduction into the broader theme is followed by an overview of an empirical study of representations (acknowledgements, framing, bridging to past events) of the mass violence that unfolded in the Darfur region of Sudan, especially in 2003-04. Research is based on a large scale content analysis of media reports and on interviews with Africa-correspondents, foreign policy makers and NGO- specialists in eight Western countries. This presentation of selected findings highlights that ICC interventions did indeed affect media representations. They enhanced an understanding of the violence as state crime. Yet, interventions are simultaneously filtered through nation-level factors, including the organization of civil society and cultural sensitivities that shape the perception of Darfur. Qualitative illustrations for the cases of the United States (active civil society), Germany (legacies of the Holocaust), Ireland (history of famine and humanitarian aid focus) and Switzerland (diplomacy focus) are supplemented by a multi-level multivariate statistical analysis. Results do not dispel but caution against exaggerated hopes in the history writing power of tribunals.

Prof. Dr. Joachim J. Savelsberg

Curriculum Vitae

Joachim Savelsberg is Professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota since 1989. He has held guest professorships at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (2000), at Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz (2003-2004), and at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (2010-2011), as well as numerous Fellowships, inter alia, at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Minnesota (2007) and at Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (2010). Since 2008, he is Elected Fellow of the American Society of Criminology. Moreover, Professor Savelsberg has received various grants and awards, including, among others, the Outstanding Book Award by the Society for the Study of Social Problems (2012) for his book “American Memories: Atrocities and the Law” (with Ryan D. King), the Best Article Award by the American Sociological Association (Section on Culture, 2007) and the Outstanding Article Award by the Law & Society Association (2006). Since August 2013, Joachim Savelsberg is Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities „Law as Culture“.

Selected Publications

  • Representations and Memories of Human Rights Crimes: Justice and its Competitors in a Globalizing World. Berkeley: University of California Press (in progress).
  • Discourses on Darfur: Law, Science, Journalism (with John Hagan and Jens Meierhenrich). Cambridge University Press (in progress).
  • American Memories: Atrocities and the Law (with R. King). ASA Rose Monograph Series. New York: Russell Sage Foundation 2011.
  • Crime and Human Rights: Criminology of Genocide and Atrocities. London: Sage 2010.
  • Constructing White-Collar Crime: Rationalities, Communications, and Power (with contributions by Peter Brühl), Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.