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Boston College Sociologist Assesses ICC's Role In Africa

C. Shawn McGuffey (Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert)

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Jan. 30, 2015

Associate Professor of Sociology and African and African Diaspora Studies C. Shawn McGuffey participated in an international conference held late last year in Tanzania where scholars, practitioners, policymakers and activists gathered to make recommendations to the International Criminal Court (ICC) regarding its work in Africa.

“Renewing the Promise of the International Criminal Court: A Critical Review of the Court’s Role in Promoting Accountability in Africa,” organized by the International Justice Project, the International Refugee Rights Initiative and the Pan-African Lawyers Union, tackled complex issues related to the ICC, particularly in terms of its effectiveness and issue of legitimacy with the African Union, said McGuffey. Participants came from across the globe and, though representing very diverse areas, all were passionate and deeply committed to making things better for victims of massive human rights abuses, according to McGuffey.
McGuffey’s invitation to the conference stemmed directly from work he and his students conducted under a 2012-13 grant from the Institute for the Liberal Arts. Through the ILA-funded project, conducted in partnership with the International Justice Project in New Jersey and Physicians for Human Rights in Cambridge, McGuffey’s research team developed an instrument to measure trauma in Darfurian refugees.

McGuffey, who had done previous work with trauma survivors in South Africa and Ghana, pointed out that there was a lack of data on the trauma experienced by Darfurian refugees. “To go to court, you need strong data to make a strong case,” he said.
McGuffey said a tool needed to be developed specifically to measure the trauma in Darfurian refugees, who differed from victims of other genocides. The main issue was, he explained, was that the Darfurians share many similarities with the people who were trying to kill them. Measurement tools for working with this population needed to go beyond the Western/European framework of race and identity. “From a Western perspective, we might not see a lot of differences between the Janjaweed and the Darfurians, but they see very distinct differences with regard to race and ethnicity.”

McGuffey and his research group interviewed Darfurian refugees throughout the United States. There are an estimated 2,500 Darfurian refugees living in the US, mostly in New York, New Jersey, Maine, Arizona and Utah.

At the conference in Tanzania, McGuffey and other participants discussed how to help the refugees and other victims of violence feel that their calls for justice are heeded.

“I saw my role as making sure the voices of the refugees were heard by those making law and policy,” said McGuffey.
“One of the Darfurian refugees’ main concerns is to have heads of state held accountable for the violence, not just the people who fired the weapons, the low-level perpetrators. That is really important for the people I work with.”

Punishment for those involved in the violence is only part of the bigger picture of transitional justice, said McGuffey. “The law is just part of the narrative. It’s also about building schools where schools have been torn down, about bringing clean water and medical care to these places and about helping refugees who want to return.

“Another contribution I made to the conversation was talking about what social science can do to help make cases in the ICC. I talked in technical terms about how to conduct interviews that were not only culturally competent but could stand up to the rigor of examination. You want to be respectful when you are interviewing survivors of trauma, but you have to weigh that against what is needed in court.”

McGuffey also discussed the need to protect intermediaries – people who witnessed or survived genocide, crimes against humanity or mass atrocities, remained in the country and then provided information to the ICC investigators.  

While he left the conference hopeful, McGuffey acknowledges that not all the recommendations put forth may be acted upon. One important takeaway for him was of a more personal nature.

“I knew we were doing important work, but I had never seen the end result. It was fascinating to see how my social science research contributed to the larger discussion of international justice. The tool was funded by the ILA, designed by academics, undergraduate and graduate students, and then used by an international court system. It was powerful to see that link, where academic research had real-world implications, even beyond the country it was designed in.”