Review Essay: Politics in the Name of Humanity, Revisited

by Mark Drury, Princeton University

Books Reviewed in this essay:

  • For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq, by Ayça Çubukçu (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
  • Branding Humanity: Competing Narratives of Rights, Violence, and Global Citizenship, by Amal Hassan Fadlalla (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2019).

Who is the subject of humanitarian intervention? What kinds of violence are particularly legible to transnational audiences, and what kinds of subjects mobilize in the name of humanity? What grounds the legitimacy of transnational political movements? And what form might an anti-imperial, subaltern, transnational solidarity movement take? These questions are addressed by two fascinating studies that grapple with transnational politics in an age of human rights in refreshingly unorthodox ways.

Amal Hassan Fadlalla’s ethnography Branding Humanity examines the relationship between 21st century transnational humanitarianism and the Sudanese nation. The bookshows how the post-Cold War Sudanese polity has been transformed by transnational alliances and interventions, from the massive “Save Darfur” campaign to celebrity activism in support of the secession of South Sudan. Through research conducted at conferences, teach-ins, organizational meetings and rallies held outside Sudan (mostly in the United States), the study attends to the many ways in which Sudanese politics have been shaped by transnational campaigns, nongovernmental organizations, and subjects acting as global citizens. This work is located at the many sites where transnational actors converge and reproduce what Fadlalla terms “humanitarian publics.” From George Clooney to the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan to many lesser known examples, the study illustrates the degree to which these publics are sustained by narratives of violence that generate an emotional response. Branding Humanity shows how global subjects, Sudanese identities, and an imagined transnational community are all shaped by engagement with narratives involving what Fadlalla terms “affective violence.”

Conceptually locating affective violence at the center of these humanitarian campaigns allows Fadlalla to make several important observations about transnational politics. A discourse predicated on affective violence operates through tropes of threatened ethnic minorities and victimized, non-Western women. In the Sudanese case, she shows, such humanitarian tropes not only contribute to creating hardened identities and perpetuating reductive understandings of gender, they also stymie the work of diasporic Sudanese activists whose commitments and solidarities tend to complicate ethnic boundaries of identity and liberal hierarchies of womanhood. Another theme that emerges from the Sudanese context is humanitarianism’s malleability: through wide ranging examples, we see how political causes in Sudan have attracted humanitarian attention for many different reasons, some religious (both Islamic and Christian), some neoconservative, some developmentalist. This lack of definition enables humanitarianism’s creeping expansion.

There is, perhaps, another point to be made concerning the “porosity” of humanitarianism and human rights, to use Fadlalla’s felicitous term, one which is stressed in For the Love of Humanity, Ayça Çubukçu’s remarkable account of the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI). Emerging from the antiwar movement, the WTI brought together a network of activists who organized a tribunal on the (in)justice of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Public hearings took place during 2004 and 2005 in over a dozen cities from Tokyo to Mumbai to Istanbul to New York. As a participant in a number of these deliberations Çubukçu was able to record many of the debates and discussions among WTI organizers. From this movement, Çubukçu identifies a form of cosmopolitan politics that acts in the name of human rights, but which cannot be reduced to either humanitarian affect or imperialist endeavor.

The internal orientation to For the Love of Humanity may frustrate some readers looking for greater situational context. What, for example, was happening in Turkey at the time that made Istanbul a propitious site for the WTI’s main hearings? How did audiences in Istanbul and elsewhere receive these proceedings? However, her focus enables Çubukçu to devote full descriptive and analytical attention to debates within the movement that produced the Tribunal. This proves fruitful for two reasons. The first involves the complexity of her subject matter. She is able to give full, detailed answers to difficult questions raised by transnational movements for justice. How does a horizontal transnational movement articulate its legitimacy? How do lawyers inclined toward legal forms and language, and activists who consider international law complicit in imperial invasions, view the tribunal’s procedures differently? By describing the WTI by and through its internal debates, Çubukçu conveys the multifarious nature of this movement, with particular attention to its form as a non-hierarchical network operating across continents but within a cosmopolitan antiwar context.

For the Love of Humanity treats the WTI’s debates as philosophical dilemmas, which reflect a broader crisis in global authority. Mobilizing as global subjects rather than as national citizens acting in concert with citizens of other nations, Çubukçu notes that the WTI marked a shift from international to cosmopolitan solidarity. From this observation, For the Love of Humanity asks: What are cosmopolitan politics? The discussions that follow are as fascinating as they are pertinent to the ongoing uncertainties of global politics today. Situating the response to Iraq within previous and subsequent expressions of cosmopolitan politics, Çubukçu places the WTI in dialogue with the Nuremburg trials, the Russell Trials on Vietnam, as well as debates surrounding interventions in Kosovo, Libya and Syria. At the same time, she places her interlocutors in conversation with scholars, lawyers and politicians debating global political interventions and their concomitant justifications.

Most insightfully, For the Love of Humanity notes that this antiwar movement used the same language of rights and humanity as those who mobilized support for the invasion of Iraq. While acknowledging the close relationship between human rights and empire, Çubukçu refrains from reducing cosmopolitan politics, and the solidarities that they engender, to iterations of imperial or neoliberal projects. As a result, For the Love of Humanity, conveys the complexity of both the WTI’s endeavor and the universalist ideals that continue to engender humanitarian, cosmopolitan, rights-based, and imperialist moral-political projects around the world.

For the Love of Humanity is as focused as Branding Humanity is extensive. Fadlalla covers over a decade of transnational campaigns and diasporic debates relative to Sudan, Çubukçu recounts a two-year movement to put the war in Iraq on trial. Where Branding Humanity contains extraordinary detail concerning the many movements, organizations, events and activists involved in transnational Sudanese politics, For the Love of Humanity treats the WTI as a matter of political philosophy to be parsed anthropologically. Both, however, are studies in the politics of transnational solidarity, and both, in very different ways, point beyond the oscillation, as described by Karen Engle, between “skepticism” and “embrace” in anthropology’s engagements with human rights and politics in the name of humanity.