Scott Straus, Winnick Fellow at the Committee on Conscience at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, recently wrote a working paper entitled, “Identifying Genocide and Related Forms of Mass Atrocity.” The central issue addressed by the paper is how members of the atrocity prevention community (his terminology) label crisis situations and identify emergent patterns of violence. Straus says conceptual analysis matters because:

  1. The atrocity prevention community must have a working definition of what class of events is in its domain of response.
  2. It is objectively difficult to know in the midst of the crisis whether or not it will escalate to a level that would trigger a response, that is, to genocide or mass atrocity.
  3. Conceptual analysis can help outside observers to identify and categorize different types of situations of atrocity and to recommend policy responses on the basis of those distinctions.
  4. Conceptual analysis and rigor will help organizations use language that over time will maintain or enhance their credibility.

Straus first endeavors to define/conceptualize the term “genocide.” He writes that the core consensus is that “genocide refers to violence that is extensive (deliberate, large scale, organized, systematic, sustained, widespread), group-selective (targeted at groups), and group-destructive (designed to destroy groups in particular territories under perpetrators’ control). Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide in 1944 to mean the “destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group” and as the “destruction of human groups.” The 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention defines genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such.” Five methods of genocide are then specified:

  1. killing members of the group;
  2. causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and
  5. forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The next part of the paper focuses on indicators and questions of genocide. In addressing group-selective patterns of violence, Straus poses four questions to help determine if genocide is taking place or about to occur: Does evidence exist of isolating and separating out specific identifiable social groups, whether those groups are ethnic, racial, religious, political, economic, or even regional? In the course of violence, does evidence indicate that perpetrators are identifying individuals for the commission of violence on the basis of those individuals’ ostensible membership in groups? Are civilians being deliberately targeted? Does evidence indicate that the violence is conforming to a logic of attacking groups, that is, are symbols or stereotypes of specific groups being targeted?

Straus goes on to say that in addition to groupness, genocide is extensive violence. To assess extent, “outside observers can look at deliberateness, at scale (are substantial numbers being targeted?), at systematicity (organization, coordination, patterned regularity), at time (repetition and sustainment, which are implied by systematicity), at geography (widespread breadth), and at capacity (ability to inflict violence, involvement in violence-specialized institutions). Lastly, another method of evaluating whether or not genocide is taking place is to ask if the pattern of violence is consistent with a logic of group destruction: Do the patterns of violence in genocide include acts that are consistent with group destruction? Does the violence target not only those members of a social group who pose an immediate threat (according to the perpetrator), but also those who are essential to a group’s reproduction, notably children and women clearly not engaged in combat? Is the language used to justify the violemce consistent with a logic of group destruction? Genocide exhibits a logic of “final solutions.”

Straus uses Darfur and Kenya as case examples, then discusses sources of conceptual disagreement. These include whether or not genocide should be the gold standard for intervention, determining how much group destruction needs to occur to cross the threshold to “genocide,” and whether the Holocaust should be the model for genocide. Observers also have conflicting objectives in when and how they use the term. There is a moral or ethical objective, the fact that genocide is also a legal concept, and a more empirical usage as a concept that identifies a specific type of violence.

Because of both the limits and ambiguities of the term “genocide,” more general umbrella concepts are gaining popularity, namely mass atrocity, crimes against humanity, and mass killing. Writes Straus,

The most common emerging general concept in the atrocity prevention community is mass atrocity. Mass atrocity has no formal, legal definition, but in most usages the concept aggregates other legal (or commonly employed) concepts, in particular genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing… Ethnic cleansing has no formal legal definition, but in general ethnic cleansing might be thought of as a set of actions designed to remove forcibly specific civilian groups from a territory… War crimes are defined in Article 8 of the Rome Statute. Although many different kinds of cases are covered under war crimes, in general, war crimes refer to significant violence against civilians in wartime. War crimes include killing, torture, hostage-taking, depriving prisoners of war rights, destroying shelter, and generally attacking civilians deliberately in war.

Three other important umbrella concepts are mass killing, mass violence, and democide (the murder of any person or people by a government). Then there are the parallel concepts of politicide, classicide, and gendercide. Politicide refers to the destruction of political groups in the way that genocide in the Convention refers to the destruction of ethnic, racial, national, and religious groups. Classicide refers to the intended mass killing of social classes, and gendercide refers to systematic destruction of gender.

To conclude, Straus recommends

that those in the atrocity prevention community should choose a standard that is reasoned, transparent, and, if response is the goal, of a high threshold. The standard should also be flexible enough to allow for ambiguities as events unfold. The net sum of the conceptual analysis in this paper is effectively a choice between two standards. One derives strictly from an analysis if terms that are broader than genocide… The second standard hews more closely to genocide but is broader and tries to avoid some of the problems with the way genocide has been incorporated into international law… drawing from the scholarly literature that emphasizes groups beyond those protected in the Convention, the conceptual standard does not limit itself to ethnic, racial, religious, and national groups. The standard applies to any social group that the perpetrator targets. The standard does not focus on intent per se, but rather reorients attention to issues of extent and scale, in particular the proportion of the target group that is affected by the violence.

Photo: krieger.jhu.edu

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