Books: Reading ‘Diplomat’ magazine through Marketing Global Justice

by | 28 Jul 2021

Concluding our engagement with Marketing Global Justice (CUP 2021), Richard Clements explores a particular moment of marketing the spectacle of global justice.

‘And here is now another example: I am at the barber’s, and a copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young [black man] in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this [black man] in serving his so-called oppressors. I am therefore again faced with a greater semiological system: there is a signifier, itself already formed with a previous system (a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is a signified (it is here a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); finally, there is a presence of the signified through the signifier.’

Roland Barthes, Mythologies

I am at the bank, and copies of Diplomat magazine are sitting on display. On the cover, a middle-aged black woman in advocate’s gown is standing, with her gaze directed at the camera, and the reader. ‘All this is the meaning of the picture. But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me’: that global justice is a great cause, that all races rally to its flag, ‘without fear or favour’, and that there can be no better answer to the detractors of an alleged anti-African bias ‘than the zeal shown’ by this woman ‘in serving [her] so-called oppressors’.

In this engagement, I use Christine Schwӧbel-Patel’s new book, Marketing Global Justice, to read a global justice equivalent of Roland Barthes’ Paris Match: the November 2020 issue of the Hague-based Diplomat magazine. In doing so, I hope not only to do justice to the significance of Schwӧbel-Patel’s ideas, but to reveal, as best I can, the extent and purchase of the lens she deploys in seeking to see global justice anew. I also hope that this effort will be seen for what it is – an experiment in the détournement or ‘unmasking’ (243) of global justice for which Schwӧbel-Patel calls.

To the initiated, it comes as no surprise that the person adorning the cover of Diplomat is outgoing ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. Across the first three pages of the magazine, the Prosecutor writes formidably about the ‘pursuit of international criminal justice’ (p.6) – her mandate, her achievements throughout her eight-year term, and all the organizational, investigative, and political challenges she faced along the way. And yet, text is not everything. Sure, the article is written in the classic polemical style familiar to all ICL commentators. But we also have three additional photographs of the Prosecutor appear across the three-page article. These are all variations on the front cover: standing resolutely before the sun-kissed ICC building at sunset. And, of course, what is this magazine about? I read in the colophon that the Diplomat is ‘by diplomats for diplomats’, that it is a ‘non-profit Dutch foundation’, and that it is published ‘in collaboration with experts in international relations and diplomacy, the academia and dedicated volunteers from the Netherlands and overseas’ (p.3).

Of course, we can read this simple form of PR – one of the marketing techniques Schwӧbel-Patel identifies – as just a way of spreading the word. But that would be to radically underestimate the role of marketing, marketing discourses, and the market itself, in shaping the contemporary anti-impunity project. It is not simply a matter of global justice being marketed after the fact of its creation, but the marketing and marketisation of global justice itself, with all the ‘constraints and opportunities’ that process throws up (3). What is marketed or ‘marketised’ global justice? It is easier to say what it does than what it is. According to Schwӧbel-Patel, by its deployment of spectacularized images of good (white, Western) and evil (black, African), marketized GJ is ‘implicated in the continuing inequality between the Global North and the Global South’ (4). By reducing the structurality and complexity of victims to suit the Western consumer of GJ, marketized GJ ‘is harmful to those who should benefit from global justice projects’ (4). By operating at the ‘intersection between international law, neoliberalism, and empire’ (4), marketized GJ ‘frames competition as a mechanism to order social relations’. By peddling in the ‘attention economy’ (17), i.e. by deploying ‘technologies of visibility’ (89), marketized global justice invisibilises structural violence (when was the last time ‘ICC defendant’ made you think of the IMF director not an ‘African warlord’? The answer ‘a long time ago’ is attributable to marketized GJ). And by its doing all these things in an era of trade ‘liberalisation’ and new interventionism, marketized GJ ‘is both symptomatic and constitutive of neoliberalism’ (19).

Back to the Diplomat, then. Marketing Global Justice explains why the Prosecutor writes such pieces, why she writes so polemically, why her image is of a piece with the text, and why she appears in this magazine at all. The article is a piece of marketing, a ‘practice of promoting and selling products [here global justice], as well as the exploitation of new business opportunities’ (27). Bensouda appears in the magazine alongside ambassadors professing the ‘open for business’ credentials of their national economies, and the mayor of The Hague citing the city’s fulfilment of one of the Sustainable Development Goals (pp.22, 26, 35). Bensouda’s image is so prominent because PR and publicity is about ‘managing reputations through building relationships and maintaining a positive image’ (37). Bensouda has been nothing if not a promoter of a very different prosecutorial strategy to her predecessor – one of calm consensus-builder rather than crusading bombast.
And Bensouda’s polemic represents the common themes in all marketing practices, according to Schwӧbel-Patel, namely ‘persuasion and distraction’ (41). In the piece, Bensouda focuses our attention on the ‘sweeping’ changes enacted to enhance ‘organisational management’, improve ‘internal office culture’, and imbue the Office of the Prosecutor with ‘core values’ of ‘dedication, integrity, and respect’ (p.7). We are directed to the ‘important litigation successes’ such as the Al Mahdi conviction for attacks on cultural property (what Schwӧbel-Patel calls the propertisation of global justice). And we are told that the Trump-imposed sanctions on Bensouda and senior OTP staff ‘will not deter [them] from continuing to do [their] work dispassionately and honourably’ (p.8). Persuasion: they are doing what they can, Bensouda tells us, as well as engaging in ‘critical self-reflection’ (p.7), so please cut them some slack. Distraction: we do not hear of greedy judges complaining about salaries, about the way complementarity has been used as carrot but also stick to beat African states parties with, or, indeed, about people living in atrocity spaces.

Indeed, there is a sense in which the ICC has reveled in Trump’s attacks. It can once again focus attention on the good ICC versus the evil Trump-like figures of the world, and always with the moral authority attaching to their vocalization of what victims apparently need. All this, however, reads not like values of ‘dedication, integrity, and respect’, much less ‘solidarity’ and ‘resistance’, but the market values of competition for capital, curating one’s audience, and ‘living the brand’ (146). It strikes me, upon reading Marketing Global Justice, that the version of humanitarianism the ICC promotes not only garners significant brand loyalty, but a cadre of professionals who aspire to live the brand. The ICC professional lives in the ICC and in The Hague, but the ICC and The Hague also lives through them. Hence the ICC building, always in the background.

And yet, for Schwӧbel-Patel, and despite the glossy magazines, there is much that should make the ICC professional squirm. It isn’t that marketing practices will come back to bite them, but that these practices and the project they shape, are the teeth. And to the professional’s good fortune, the bite is rarely personally felt, but somewhere else, thousands of miles away, where people get turned into bureaucratic forms, where peace settlements get undermined, and where the cries of ‘ICC!’ actually come from its employees. Schwӧbel-Patel, though not centering the victim, is keenly aware of the temptation – too often given into by some – to speak on behalf of the subaltern. Instead, she directs us to re-politicise, re-historicise, and decolonize the visible and the invisible, our knowledge and our desire for it, within a spectacularized scene that grotesquely and violently plays on mass death and human suffering. This requires us not to walk away but the opposite – to ‘occupy’ global justice (242). ‘Unplug’ global justice – refuse to take the magazine and online clickbait, stop saying ‘justice dividend’, start talking about what global justice is for (254). ‘Despectacularise’ global justice – consider the slow, quiet, plus ça change banalities that keeps churning out the same results even while Prosecutors bag the front page (254). ‘Unmask’ global justice (258) – do not resist the urge to laugh at the end of the Diplomat article. Not because one is cynically superior, but precisely to acknowledge the shear disconnect between the world as they see it and the world as others live it. And finally, ‘resist’ marketized global justice (262) – discomfit the comfortable and constantly posit that it need not be this way. Why shouldn’t we imagine EU leaders in the dock for the Greek crisis? Or for their refugee policy? Or no dock at all? These only seem ridiculous from a position of comfort, but from Barthes’ Eiffel Tower, they look perfectly reasonable.

I do not think it will be possible for me to read global justice in the same way again after having read this book. But it will be possible to read many a judgment, press release, or magazine op-ed with fresh questions, stakes, and alternatives in mind from here on, and with the possibility that they might be made to signify something else.


  1. Thank you for this fascinating piece!

  2. Fatou Bensouda is in talks to retain Patrisse Khan-Cullors as co-counsel in their discussed prosecution of Donald Trump for his 2 September 2020 Exec Order, naming Miss Bensouda as a “specially designated national” by the United States government; and also for, as Cullors stated in 2017, Trump being “literally the epitome of evil, all the evils of this country — be it racism, capitalism, sexism, homophobia.”


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