Yale professor gets NSF grant to study pursuit of human rights in Africa

Kamari Maxine Clarke of Yale’s Department of Anthropology was recently awarded a highly competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in the amount of $260,000 for her project, titled “The International Criminal Court, Africa, and the Pursuit of Justice.”

Co-funded by the NSF Cultural Anthropology program and the Law and Social Sciences program, the grant provides support for three years of research on three continents. Clarke will study the controversies over the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Africa.

Clarke intends to apply her theory of “affect” to international law-making in general and the African response to ICC actions in particular. A recent development in the field of social science, the theory holds that structures of feelings deeply embedded in the culture and history of a society play a significant role in how members of that society respond to political decision-making – especially in postcolonial contexts. The theory brings together private, interior, individual emotions and "public sentiment" as factors that together shape the shared imagination of a people and influence how individuals articulate their own sense of self.

Clarke notes that in the past three years there has been an intensive focus on African states by the ICC, including issuing arrest warrants for numerous African leaders. However, following the announcement in 2009 of the ICC chief prosecutor’s intention to have the sitting president of Sudan arrested during a period of peace negotiations, the African Union (AU) called for its members to refuse to cooperate, a decision that has gained popularity among African leaders. Although initially a strong supporter of the ICC, the African Union in recent years has become strongly critical of the court, citing its disproportionate focus on African cases and questioning its ability to contribute to ongoing peace processes.

Implicit in the AU’s criticisms are two questions: Are trials sufficient for achieving post-violence justice? And: Should international criminal trials be subordinated to other justice-producing mechanisms available on the African continent? These questions have raised a debate between members of the AU and its critics on the African continent — one side contending that Africa should conform to international human rights standards; the other, that international human rights standards should be adapted to reflect African customs and sensibilities. Though broadly stated, these opposing viewpoints directly impact the viability of the ICC and its ability to achieve justice, especially in the most retributive sense of the term, notes Clarke.

By examining why African national leaders defy ICC calls for international justice, even as violence in Africa has continued to escalate over the past decade, the proposed research will explore the disputes over appropriate judicial practices in The Hague and in various regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Clarke’s research will focus on the ICC in The Hague and the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “Researching the nexus of affect and power provides a promising site for understanding the relationship between discourse and sentiment,” says Clarke.

Given the ICC’s intense focus on Africa in recent years, the project is particularly significant and timely, contends Clarke, adding that there is a special urgency to this research as it relates to appropriate forms of legal involvement in the pursuit of peace. Through the fields of interdisciplinary legal studies and the social sciences, especially anthropology, the project will aim to provide insights into the motivating factors, experiences, and concerns of international courts of law, she notes.

Clarke is a professor of anthropology and international and area studies at Yale, a senior research scientist at Yale Law School, and a collaborative partner of the Leadership Enterprise for African Development. Her many notable publications include “Fictions of Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Challenge of Legal Pluralism in Sub-Saharan Africa” (2009), and she is the co-editor, with Mark Goodale, of “Mirrors of Justice: Law and Power in the Post-Cold War Era” (2010).