By Bonny Ibhawoh,
Chris Dolan, Social Torture: The Case of Northern Uganda, 1986-2006. New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books. 2009. xiv + 338.
In Social Torture, Chris Dolan seeks to complicate our understanding of the protracted conflict in Northern Uganda. Though typically portrayed as a military conflict between the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the government, Dolan argues that the conflict is better understood as a form of “social torture” that has maintained local population in a position of subordinate inclusion. The book shows how, alongside the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army, government decisions and actions on the ground, consolidated by humanitarian interventions and silences have played a central role in creating and sustaining a massive yet little recognized humanitarian crisis.
Dolan questions the seriousness of the Ugandan government in its stated intentions of finding a solution to the war. The rebels, he argues, could have been overcome with a coherent military strategy that did not alienate large number of civilians. The point of the prolonged and intense suffering was not so much to defeat the insurgency as to send a sharp message to the members of the Acholi parts of the country.
At times, the conflict between the Government’s stubborn insistence on seeking a military solution, and the equally strong resistance to this from civil society actors, appear to be as important as the conflict they all purported to be seeking a solution to. The result is that individuals and the society as a whole came to exhibit symptoms typical of torture.
In Dolan’s interpretation of the conflict, the key actors cannot simply be reduced to perpetrators and victims. The category of perpetrator is further unpacked revealing visible perpetrators and complicit bystanders. Visible perpetrators include the government and the LRA. Less visible but no less complicit actors are donor governments, multilateral organizations, churches and NGOs.
For someone whose account of the conflict derives from working with an international NGO, Dolan is particularly scathing in his criticism of the role of NGOs in the conflict. He argues that like doctors in a torture situation, they appear to be there to ease the suffering of victims, but in reality they enable the process to be prolonged by keeping the victim alive for further abuse. Doing this serves some economic, political and psychological functions for both perpetrators and bystanders alike.
The book also offers a persuasive critique of public discourses on the conflict and their accompanying silences. By focusing loudly on some elements of the situation and keeping silent on others, public discourses serve to fragment and thus divert attention from the bigger picture. The discourse of the conflict and its silences are therefore themselves a form of violence.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the analysis of the gendered consequences of the conflict in Chapter 7. The author argues that although the war consolidated expectations of hegemonic masculinity, it simultaneously undermined men’s lived experiences of their own masculinity, thereby aggravating a process set in motion by colonialism.
Social Torture is a detailed and well researched book; perhaps too detailed in parts. The book could have done with less of the laborious methodological discussion that takes up much of the first two chapters.
Dolan acknowledges that his construction of social torture may raise concerns as to whether the integrity and condemnatory power of the term “torture” will be weakened, either conceptually or in terms of action taken against its perpetrators. He is convinced that it will not, but not everyone will agree.
He critiques as narrow and legalistic, the explicit emphasis on intentionality in the definition of torture in the UN Torture Convention. People’s behaviour, he argues, are not reducible to the intentionality that lies at the heart of the Convention definition of torture. However, one can argue that it is precisely that narrowness hinged on intentionality that gives the concept of torture its relevance and efficacy. Like “social genocide” or “cultural genocide,” the concept of “social torture” risks diluting the potency of the original concept. Torture, as a human rights concept, loses its meaning if used to describe every act of pain and suffering whether inflicted intentionally or not.
In all, Social Torture is a welcome study. By drawing on firsthand experience, the author brings a rare insider perspective to his analysis of the conflict. To this extent, Dolan largely succeeds in his stated aim of crafting a resilient counter-narrative to mainstream discourses about the conflict in Northern Uganda.