Symposium on ‘Marketing Global Justice’ – Managing Contaminated Resistance Tactics? Some Notes on Mediatization, the Strategy of Rupture, and Jacques Vergès

Symposium on ‘Marketing Global Justice’ – Managing Contaminated Resistance Tactics? Some Notes on Mediatization, the Strategy of Rupture, and Jacques Vergès

[Filip Strandberg Hassellind is a doctoral candidate in International Law at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.]

In Marketing Global Justice: The Political Economy of International Criminal Law, Christine Schwöbel-Patel argues that “a global elite benefit from marketized global justice whilst those who tend to be the ‘faces’ of global injustice – particularly victims of conflict – are instrumentalized and ultimately commodified” [p. i]. The book directs the searchlight at efforts to “sell” global justice and international criminal law – looking at how such endeavors get named, by whom, and with what consequences. It is a groundbreaking addition to contemporary international criminal law (ICL). With the overarching aim to offer a new reading of the rise of international criminal law as the dominant institutional expression of global justice, linking it to the rise of branding, Schwöbel-Patel offers a comprehensive scholarly case based on a wide range of material, going beyond judgments and legal sources. This is a necessary book where the future of ICL seems to be at a crossroads.

It is easy to agree with the book’s key argument, as Schwöbel-Patel wields an impressive command of a massive body of scholarly works across various disciplines. When reading the book, I was struck by the underlying optimism in Schwöbel-Patel’s critique of ICL. One of the strengths of the book, in my view, is its constructive approach, offering alternative perspectives and proposing new ways of thinking about ICL. Schwöbel-Patel suggests that marketized justice “is the dominant way of understanding global justice, but not the only way” [p. 19]. This nuanced perspective challenges the notion of a fixed structure and invites us to consider different possibilities. The book goes beyond critique and offers four distinct tactics, all rooted in a decolonial logic, to address the marketization of the global justice sector: i) an unplugged, ii) de-spectacularized, iii) unmasked, and iv) resistance global justice approach.

In this blog post, I would like to briefly hone in on the third tactic – the unmasking of global justice. Schwöbel-Patel takes this to mean “to highlight, perhaps to an extreme, the focus on image, both in its visual sense as well as in its reputational sense” [p. 260]. Not only that, but it “does not shy away from making the object of attention look ridiculous, pathetic even” [p. 260]. Schwöbel-Patel connects the unmasking-tactic to the strategy of rupture, coined by the (in)famous lawyer Jacques Vergès. Vergès is perhaps best known for having defended high-profile names such as Klaus Barbie, “Carlos the Jackal” and Khieu Samphan. In defending the “indefensible”, Vergès took to using the strategy of legal rupture. For him, this meant to reverse the legal process by turning it into an attack on the prosecutor and the dominating legal system.

To me, the connection between using Vergès’ rupture as an unmasking-tactic raises questions about how we best challenge the status quo as well as on the promises and pitfalls of carrying out resistance about the liberal global justice project. A point I would like to raise here is that Vergès himself proposes “mediatization” as a necessary part of the strategy of rupture. The objective of this important step of the strategy is to mobilize necessary popular support for the court case and to create political pressure, thus escalating the political dimension of the case, as Mikael Baaz and Mona Lilja has argued. This was particularly evident in the trial against the Front de Libération Nationale activist Djamila Bouhired, who was sentenced to death in 1957. Bouhired was represented by Vergès, who started mediatization by waging a public campaign for her, emphasizing the double standard of the French legal system and the colonial nature of the French state. Jonathan Widell suggests that the French government found itself under overwhelming pressure from international public opinion due to the campaign and eventually the French president René Coty granted a partial pardon and commuted the death sentence to forced labor. The example of Bouhired is not the only example of Vergès inviting media attention into the courtroom. As I have suggested together with Mikael Baaz elsewhere, Vergès also practiced mediatization in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. In what can be presumed to have been a publicity stunt, Vergès stormed out of a hearing in April 2008, causing it to be adjourned. This incident drew media attention. After the incident, the ECCC judges asked the defendants to request a new counsel. Vergès turned to the press, stating that “I have been a lawyer for 50 years; it is the first time I have seen judges ask an accused to change his lawyer. […] This is a scandal”, a statement – which has previously been used by Mikael Baaz and Mona Lilja – that drew even more media attention.  

From one position, Vergès’s idea of mediatization seems to function within the tenets of the liberal market. He does not shy away from branding. Through sensationalist narratives, putting a tactical media-spin on cases, it could be argued that we are witnessing the very same form of commodification Schwöbel-Patel points to in, among others, the case of Kony 2012. By storming out of the courtroom, it could be argued that Vergès plays into media’s constant quest for higher ratings and wider audiences, making the proceedings into a drama – a marketable good that can be packaged, promoted, and consumed. Surely, such publicity stunts “sell”.

Then again, Vergès’s media maneuverings can also be used to illustrate the precarious interplay between law and the media, where the pursuit of indeterminate ideas of “truth” and “justice” become tangled up with the production of spectacle and the manipulation of public opinion. In today’s world, where information is disseminated at an unprecedented speed and scale, the media has emerged as a formidable force in shaping public perception. By extension, the media can be seen as a potential tool for shaping the perception of guilt or innocence, and for swaying the public’s judgment. To be sure, it offers a platform on which claims about “violence, and social deprivation may be made even against the dominant elements”, as Martti Koskenniemi puts it. From this position, it may not matter that much that the strategy of rupture flirts with marketization ideals because it offers purchase for social change outside that logic. It does not need to be a matter of either/or.

The ambition with this blog post is not to flesh out tentative solutions on how the two positions can be balanced. What I want to do is to caution that carrying out resistance tactics against the dominating social order often is a difficult task. Vergès engagements with the media show how tactics can become contaminated by branding. A contaminated tactic does not need to be adverse in itself, but it may weaken or fracture the broader movement, rendering it ineffective or vulnerable to being co-opted. This is a paradoxical dynamic. Arguably, it reveals the complex interplay between ideology and action, between the conscious goals of a movement and the unconscious desires that drive it. The question would then be how contamination risks can be mitigated. Good intentions alone are not enough to safeguard from that, a supposition that is bolstered by looking at the many empirical examples provided by the book. The danger lies not only in overt contamination, but also in the subtle ways in which resistance can be commodified, commoditized, and appropriated by the very system it aims to subvert.

The question of how social change can be achieved through ICL ultimately remains an open one. Schwöbel-Patel offers us some new and inspiring tools in answering the question. No tactic is beyond reproach, and every approach comes with its limitations and complexities. But apathy, too, takes its toll. Schwöbel-Patel convincingly argues for a call to social action, urging us to move beyond passive observation and take concrete steps towards addressing social injustices. It would be my hope that such constructive ambitions are contagious and that many will follow in a similar vein. For those of us who want to do so, I think we need to keep in mind the Janus-faced nature of resistance, which can be contaminated or diluted, and the challenges of balancing good intentions with practical implementation.

In conclusion, Marketing Global Justice is an impressive and magnificent book that will be of high interest for anyone concerned about contemporary international criminal law. It is a seminal work that will, without any doubt, stimulate future scholarly thinking about the field. It is a powerful reminder of the ethical responsibilities of the scholar, as well as an original contribution on the complexities and contradictions of global justice.

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