Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Personal Narrative in the Study of Ethics and International Affairs

By Noam Schimmel

We must move beyond abstractions and theories and broad concepts in the study and practice of international affairs toward engagement with the individual and his or her narrative, and how the individual lives and experiences that vast world that encompasses “international affairs.”

In so doing, we will care more and cultivate our empathy, we will appreciate their humanity, and we will be able to show greater ethical concern and greater ethical integrity in our actions.

I will start with the personal - with part of my own narrative, because it is through the narratives of others that I was changed.

When I served as an Assistant Legal Officer at the Office of the Prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, one of my tasks was to summarize witness statements of genocide survivors.

These were often statements, testimonies, of experience and witness of extreme terror and violence, of mass murder, of torture, and of sadistic cruelty on an enormous scale.

As a member of the prosecuting team once a witness took the stand I was not allowed to interact with them—even just to be emotionally supportive—and so following my summarizing what they had witnessed and experienced, and hearing these narratives in court, I was left powerless to help in the face of their suffering and injustice.

In my experience, individual narratives pierced the legalism and its emotional and ethical distancing that was so pronounced at the UN Tribunal. These narratives humanized and restored the vastness of scale of the genocide to its immediate dimensions, impacting individuals, families, and communities.

It enabled judges to understand the egregious nature of the human rights violations and enabled all in court to understand their impact on survivors and on those who were murdered.

In a New Yorker article, “Betraying Justice for Rwanda’s Genocide Survivors,” Jina Moore addresses the legacy of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, and warns of the dangers of not appreciating the individual experience of large-scale crimes:

"More than hate, more than fear, more than machetes or machine guns, scale has always been the genocidaires’ most powerful weapon. The world remembers mass murder, mass rape, mass crimes, and speaks with pathos of nameless, faceless victims—and the tribunals tell us, through millions of pages of testimony and other overwhelming proof, that those mass crimes were committed by these relatively few men. The perpetrators’ ability to execute atrocity outstrips our capacity to imagine it. We cannot grasp it. The overwhelming proof overwhelms us. A countable collection of perpetrators has become as faceless, as abstract, as the thousands and thousands of people they’ve killed. This… is the injustice of international justice: the killers, like their victims, become nameless, faceless statistics."

This is precisely what we must reject; to submit to the tyranny of abstraction and statistics.

It is too easy to shut down cognitively, emotionally, perceptually, and ethically, in the face of vast numbers that can overwhelm us in their horror and leave us numb.

But we cannot fall into this state as this is a terrible abnegation of our moral responsibilities and also of our international legal ones in relation to human rights.

If we are to understand what the survivors lived through, and the moral choices and murderous violence of the perpetrators, we must not surrender to the tyranny of abstraction.

So let us think about the spaces and contexts internationally where we hear narratives: at UN Human Rights Committees, in the reports of UN Special Rapporteurs and NGOs like Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at UN Tribunals in Cambodia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, at Nuremberg and at the Tokyo trials and at the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Many of these have been studied closely, but some have not. And even when studied, the statements of survivors are often not central to their study and are elided and marginalized.

They need to be central.

Clearly, ethics have never been the forte of international affairs. One does not need to be a realist to acknowledge this.

The ethical impulse is not the dominant factor in global affairs or even a high or medium ranking one in relations between states and peoples.

Between wars, both civil and international, genocide, crimes against humanity —particularly extermination and other forms of mass murder, sexual violence, human trafficking—contemporary forms of slavery, the degradation of abuse that characterizes authoritarian and totalitarian states, and utter disrespect for human rights as a whole, we are ethically challenged as human beings.

Challenged is far too gracious and moderate a word to describe in quality, quantity, and intensity the extent to which human beings are routinely and frequently capable of normalizing mass violence both physical and structural, against innocents, denying them their dignity, freedom, equality, and access to justice—and often, denying them their very lives.

Yet what also reminds us of the demands of human rights and of our humanity is the call and voice of the individual and his or her narratives.

For many of us, individual narratives anchor our understanding of historical events and of ethics without our even being consciously aware of the extent to which they provide these bearings.

When we think of the Holocaust of European Jews, we may immediately call up the number 6 million, but we will also likely recall an individual and her or his testimonies— Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, and Primo Levi, for example.

That individual’s narrative enables us to appreciate the lived experience of the Holocaust and its consequences.

It humanizes the enormity of the statistics and helps us to understand the crime.

At the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., when one begins to explore its main exhibit, one receives a passport that describes the life journey of one individual affected by the Holocaust. If we begin with one person, then it helps us understand the nature of the crimes committed.

In Germany’s main Holocaust Memorial, in Berlin, some people take to having picnics on the vast concrete pillars—stelae reminiscent of gravestones—that form its heart, to playing games and snapping endless selfies there, because they relate to the Holocaust Memorial more as conceptual art and abstraction than as a memorial.

There is a kind of perverse emotional relief from the enormity of mass crimes that human beings take in abstractions.

The memorial enables this emotionally and morally tragic evasion.

Painfully and disturbingly, many visitors to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial treat it as a labyrinth in which to run around and play hide-and go-seek.

Perhaps if each one of those stelae were engraved with names and also accompanied by photos, this would not happen.

It is only downstairs, in the underground museum part of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, where stories are told, particularities revealed, individual names shared, and photos of faces appear throughout the exhibit, that such disrespectful and self-centered behavior doesn’t take place because the quality of the crimes and their individual human consequences are constantly communicated.

Down there, one cannot turn away from the faces, their stories, and their memories.

There is no mere general sense of claustrophobia and foreboding—harsh and negative emotions but abstract ones nonetheless—which is what the external memorial and its many stelae of different sizes, placements, and shadows engenders.

In the underground component of the memorial we actually encounter the individuals tortured and murdered in the genocide of European Jewry. They look at us and we look at them.

But studying individuals and their narratives is no guarantee of ethical behavior.

It is necessary but insufficient to enable us to think, feel, and act more ethically.

President Clinton was deeply concerned with the fate of one Rwandan named Monique Mujawamariya whom he had met in Washington, D.C. a few months before the genocide.

When the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi began in April of 1994 he repeatedly asked State Department officials about her fate and was concerned with securing her safety.

Indeed she was flown out of Rwanda on one of the last flights out of the country for foreigners as the genocide began.

But in his emphasis on her alone as an individual he neglected one million Tutsis and tens of thousands of Hutus who actively respected the rights of their fellow Rwandan Tutsis—and were murdered as a result.

He did almost nothing to prevent and stop the Rwandan genocide.

Indeed, his administration took active steps to prevent efforts to intervene and stop the killings.

He limited his care and his empathy to an individual, rather than expanding it to embrace many individuals and the persecuted Tutsi collective and tens of thousands of Hutus.

Engaging with individual narratives, studying them and relating to them does not replace the need to understand, appreciate, and act on a larger scale to address systemic and structural injustices and failures. The two are integral.

Others at the State Department tried to demand that Tutsis threatened with and then subject to genocide be protected—such as Prudence Bushnell. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in 1994.

But despite her warnings of impending catastrophe, she was not listened to and the State Department maintained a policy of indifference to, and complicity in, genocide.

Bushnell has said, “Oh my God, all hell is breaking loose and I am getting phone calls ‘Where’s Monique?’ The greatest pressure from the White House during the entire Rwandan affair was finding Monique.”

When the body of the young Syrian Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of Turkey, it generated outrage and concern in Europe and North America about the plight of Syrian refugees.

The outrage and concern lasted for a brief period and then ended.

It’s troubling that it took that kind of individual horror to cause people to care.

Alan Kurdi was as much of a rights-bearing individual before he died in that tragic way.

But it was only when his death illustrated his individuality and narrated it visually in a way that could not be denied, that global audiences cared and responded with an outpouring of concern, donations, and media discussion.

The concern generated by this searing image of a drowned, dead boy, however, could not be and was not sustained absent a greater commitment to address the injustice that was causing the same fate, simultaneously, to thousands of others.

When a photo of Amal Hussein, a Yemeni girl, was featured in the New York Times in an article about starvation in Yemen, it inspired readers to reach out and ask if they could help and how.

But the offers of support came too late.

The toll on her health was already too severe and the structural injustices she faced in the form of acute poverty exacerbated by the war between Saudi Arabia and the Iranian backed Houthis and the mass killing of civilians by all the belligerents — overwhelmed her life and the life of thousands of other civilians.

Hussein died three weeks later.

Human beings in crisis, facing gross human rights violations, cannot wait for us to be moved to care about their fate and do something to assist them and defend their human rights because of a dramatic photo and a newspaper article that reminds us that individuals are suffering and experiencing these massive human rights violations.

We need to seek out their stories and sensitize ourselves proactively, in a timely manner, and then to take whatever action we can to address the situation and act to protect human rights and welfare more broadly, not just for the one but for the many.

Ethics in international affairs that are deeply consequential can take place in the smallest of acts and moral choices that impact one individual—as was the case during the Holocaust when thousands of rescuers were sometimes only able to protect and rescue one Jewish individual or several members of a family and not hundreds or thousands, as Oscar Schindler and the Swiss diplomat, Carl Lutz, were able to rescue.

Still, each rescue was enormously consequential in protecting an innocent human life and affirming morality.

So our task when we study topics such as the Syrian Civil War and crimes against humanity against Syrian civilians by the Russian backed Assad dictatorship, the massacres of the Rohingya in Burma, Chinese repression and abuse of Uighurs, crimes against humanity in South Sudan and Sudan and in Congo, and Russian crimes against humanity and war crimes in Ukraine and potentially genocide, is to insure that for any issue in which we are engaging with academically and in policy that we also have an individual anchor to humanize and understand how these human rights violations are being experienced and their implications both for individuals and for communities.

This will ensure that we truly appreciate (not just cognitively but also ethically, emotionally, and with our perceptual senses) the consequences of these large scale human rights violations.

This will also help us deepen our understanding, to appreciate nuances, complexities, and to appreciate empathically from within rather than externally, from without - from the perspective of the scholar, or researcher, or journalist gazing as a visitor trying to understand something whose complexities and intricacies may not be apparent.

With this knowledge, we will be empowered to act in a way that honors the narrative and experience of an individual while addressing the broader injustice from which that individual is suffering.

Individual narratives humanize, but they also make us more intelligent, by moving beyond general categories and revealing how human rights violations are lived and experienced with myriad consequences that no formal report focused on data aggregation and numbers can reveal.

These narratives enable what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined as “thick description.” They have depth, diversity, and detail.

We can find these narratives in poems and artwork, such as those of the children of the Terezin concentration camp.

Those types of works belong in our syllabi and in our classrooms. So, too, do journalistic accounts, memoirs of survivors of human rights violations, and testimonies collected by human rights organizations and writers who have assembled anthologies of first person narratives to give voice and illustrate large-scale human rights violations.

Few of us, for example, are familiar with the religion, history, and culture of the Yazidi community.

Nadia Murad’s narrative, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and My Fight Against the Islamic State provides an essential pathway toward greater understanding of their experiences at the hands of ISIS.

While many have seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, which provides a very incomplete and in significant ways inaccurate depiction of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi and of rescue within it — designed to appeal to Western audiences and their interests and biases — relatively few people have read the extraordinary series of ethnographic books (4 in total) by French journalist Jean Hatzfeld, that along with the narratives of genocide perpetrators and bystanders feature extensive interviews with and testimonies of genocide survivors. Those books are as essential to understanding the genocide and its aftermath as traditional analyses of history, policy, and international relations.

An article in Foreign Policy from the early 1970s should serve as a warning for us, one which has yet to be heeded. In it, the authors, Anthony Lake and Roger Morris, explain that policy decisions leading to egregious human rights violations, mass violence, and attacks on civilians stem in large part because of how international affairs are conceptualized, studied, perceived, and practiced.

The article, “The Human Reality of Realpolitik,” asks how the folly of the Vietnam War was perpetrated, despite is disastrous moral consequences. They observe:

"The answer to that question begins with a basic intellectual approach which views foreign policy as a lifeless, bloodless set of abstractions. “Nations,” “interests," “influence," “prestige,”—all are disembodied and dehumanized terms which encourage easy inattention to the real people whose lives our decisions effect or even end."

Commenting on whether human consequences were generally considered in the development of foreign policy they say, “It is simply not done. Policy—good, steady policy—is made by the ‘tough-minded.’ To talk of suffering is to lose ‘effectiveness,’ almost to lose one’s grip. It is seen as a sign that one’s ‘rational’ arguments are weak.”

Ironically, Lake would go on not to heed his own warning when he had the opportunity to act upon his words of critique and his diagnosis of the core ethical problem of foreign policy.

He served from 1993 until 1997 as Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser, and during the Rwandan genocide he played a key role in the American response of indifference and complicity.

In "If This Is a Man", Primo Levi writes about the concentration and death camp, Auschwitz, in which millions were murdered but some had the possibility of survival:

"Even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last—the power to refuse our consent."

When Levi exercised that power it created an ethical responsibility and obligation for us; to listen to his and similar stories, to be an integral part of bearing witness in listening, and to actively refuse our consent to human rights violations wherever and whenever they occur.

To those individuals who do not have the power to raise their voices and be heard we must not wait passively for someone to tell their story—we must seek them out, we must share them and amplify them.

To be ethical in the realm of international affairs just as to be ethical in any domain of life requires a fundamental and active respect for the infinite worth of the individual as bearing of human rights and human dignity.

Ultimately this requires us to recognize, to make eye contact, to listen, to look, with humility and self-awareness, to empathize, to respond, and not to turn away.


Noam Schimmel is a Lecturer in International and Area Studies at UC Berkeley and a Lecturer in Development Practice at the Goldman School of Public Policy. This is an edited extract from a speech given at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University as part of the LEAP Leadership, Ethics and Practice Program.

This is an edited version of 'Personal Narrative in the Study of Ethics and International Affairs' published by Taylor & Francis in Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice on January 19, 2021 and available at