Do Victims of War Need International Law? Human Rights Education Programs in Authoritarian Sudan


  • Research was funded by the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, UC Berkeley School of Law and Center for African Studies, and a Fulbright-Hays fellowship. The author is grateful to audiences at UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, Stanford University, and University of Wisconsin; and at Law and Society Association, International Studies Association, and American Political Science Association conferences, where earlier versions of this article were presented. The author thanks David Abernathy, Kent Eaton, Lauren Edelman and the participants of her Law and Society Workshop, Malcolm Feeley, Lawrence Friedman, Bob Kagan, Edith Kinney, Larisa Mann, Adam Millard-Ball, R. J. Ramey, Carroll Seron, Martin Shapiro, Helen Stacy, Kim Voss, and the editors and reviewers for helpful comments. This research would not have been possible without the kindness of many respondents in Sudan. Please direct all correspondence to Mark Fathi Massoud, Department of Politics, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95064; e-mail:


Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Sudan, this article illuminates the consequences of human rights educational workshops as a form of humanitarian assistance in war-ravaged areas. These projects are built on flawed assumptions about Sudanese politics and about the likelihood that human rights education empowers the war-ravaged poor. The beneficial impacts of human rights discourse stem from its side effects, which fulfill urgent and symbolic needs, and not from the core content of human rights. The case of an authoritarian regime exposes an alternative site of rights promotion, outside the established or struggling democracies where most literature on rights resides. Bridging the literature on rights in Western, democratic contexts and on human rights in Africa, this article argues that law is not enough—and is potentially dangerous—in the insecure and impoverished areas where the international aid community has been encouraging it to flourish.