In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks to Bridget Conley-Zilkic, lead researcher on the How Mass Atrocities End project. Conley-Zilkic did her Ph.D. on cultural responses to humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Haiti, has been research director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, and currently serves as Research Director for the World Peace Foundation.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. With me today is Bridget Conley-Zilkic, research director for the World Peace Foundation. She’s also lead researcher for the How Mass Atrocities End project. One year ago, she and two others published an article bearing the same name. It challenged some of the connections between idealistic goals and on-the-ground realities in genocide prevention. In June, she put out another piece, exploring and explaining the complex and challenging nature of the field of genocide prevention, which can become problematic even at the definitional level. Hello, Bridget. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Thank you for having me.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you’re working on and how it got started?
The project How Mass Atrocities End is a sort of multifaceted research project. We’re looking at trends across 50, possibly more, cases from the 20th century, trying to get consistent information about how atrocities ended in each of those cases, so that that can inform our analysis.
The second part of the project is a seminar series. We regularly host seminars — we’ve done several already, and will continue — on places and themes related to the ending of mass atrocities. We bring together key experts, regional experts, thematic experts, researchers, for two days of intensive closed-door discussion, trying to explore the political dynamics around ending atrocities.
The third part: engaging in in-depth research on five, possibly six, cases of mass atrocities. These are from more recent history. We’re not going back to colonial or World War Two-era cases. And in these cases we’re asking our researchers to start studying their case from that question of what caused the violence to decrease, and from there, hopefully unearthing not only answers to that new question, but also unearthing new information about the cases that they’re working on.
And from that information, or from that data that you’ve gleaned, what are the implications of what you’ve found for the field of genocide prevention and perhaps for the international community?
We’re fairly early in this research. It was conceived as a five-year project and we’re one year into it. So we don’t have direct policy recommendations by any means, at this point. Some of the trends, though, of what we’re seeing I think are interesting. For one, just the comparative historical basis. In the study of cases across the 20th century, for instance, we had to come up with a way to have a consistent case selection. We decided to go with a numerical threshold of 50,000 or more civilian deaths within a five-year time frame.
Now, interestingly, in the study of genocide, for instance, that is a fairly low number, if you look at the cases that are within the genocide canon, most of which get over 100,000 quite easily — over a million in the most notable cases. However, we found with those high numbers that we could not include almost any of the contemporary cases that, for instance, the anti-genocide movement is working on. The thresholds are so much lower today than they were at previous times.
So that prompts a series of questions that we continue to explore, about whether or not some of the insights and research that have been done on genocide and really high-level targeted civilian killing, do they adhere to lower levels of killing? Might we maybe be looking at the wrong patterns? Might we need to set our sights on slightly different criteria, and understand and try to anticipate how violence unfolds in new and different ways? So that is one question. Another one is we’re trying to get a better sense of the political context that enables mass atrocities to take place — or what you might call the permissive environment — and trying to understand that larger context and logic that governs violence.
Now this is something that a lot of researchers are doing. They’re looking at more strategic uses of violence and then trying to understand how that intersects with the dynamics of ending violence. So how are goals met? Are there other ways that one could potentially intervene — and numerous ways, I don’t mean [only] military — that might hasten ending? If we start from a study of that political dynamic, then we can potentially unearth a different range of options than starting from an assumption that the violence is inevitably going to escalate to total killing for the sake of killing a particular group.
It sounds like you’re talking about a paradigm of outlook for the actors involved. How do you think that we got to there, and how do you think we can make these attitudinal changes at the levels that are necessary to do so?
I think at this point, like I said we’re at the very early stages, so I don’t know exactly what we’ll find overall . The one thing that we are finding, though, is somewhere in between a really structuralistic approach that looks at conditions in sort of an inevitability into how killing will evolve — that on the one side, and then the other, the idea of complete individual agency. Of actors who fully own their acts, in the sense that they have all options open to them and simply choose to kill for whatever strategic reason.
But we also have to understand the political systems and the ways in which power operates, and then the ways in which violence takes place within that system. And I think somewhere in there, in the political organization of society, and the place that violence— how it operates within different political system — I think we will end up understanding the phenomenon better. Now, how that will lead to changing approaches, I’m not sure yet.
Are you optimistic that one day state actors are capable of changing that approach?
I think without question. I think if we start looking at that question that I mentioned earlier, about scale of violence, and how the cases that we see ongoing today — even the worst cases, the ones that I think most demand our attention and new innovations in civilian protection — they are just nowhere near the heights of violence that we have seen over the past century.
Now, we know that violence against civilians has the capacity to spike incredibly vicious rates, so we’re not saying to be complacent, but I think that we can see change in the degree to which states use violence — and non-state actors, although I think that needs a lot more work. And because we can see change over time, I think that we should remain optimistic that further change can occur.
It’s interesting. You’re talking about how maybe they were getting a little bit more into non-state actors, worrying about the sorts of systematic violence they can be capable of. Do you see that as a particularly worrisome trend evolving? It’s not something we have seen so much in the past — the threat of potential mass atrocities from non-state actors.
You know I don’t know. There’s a lot of talk that it is increasingly a threat, and I’m not sure if it is increasingly a threat, or if, given the decline in state-based violence, if it is a threat that is increasingly visible. That remains a big question for me, so I don’t want to make statements about momentous change in terms of what is actually happening. I’m not sure. It might be the case, but I just don’t know. Or momentous changes in how we’re perceiving, in our expectations, for what violence constitutes internationally meaningful violence. So I’m just not sure about that, and I think there’s a lot of work that’s being started on non-state actors, and there definitely needs to be a good deal more to understand those patterns.
Do you think that there’s a problem with how we define genocide? Do we need to be more inclusive, accounting for instances of mass killing based in economic, social, or political criteria? Or do you think we need to focus more on traditional understandings of what that means?
I think in part this is why we chose to frame our project with the term “mass atrocities,” rather than “genocide.” Because beyond any specific alteration to the legal definition [of genocide] — whether you wanted to include, as you mention, economic or political groups or gender groups, for instance — there are those questions about what it includes or excludes simply by being such a specific legal guideline for understanding political violence. But I think there are other challenges with the term as well.
I think it is often employed not as a descriptive or legal term, but more as an ethical term. And the debates over whether or not genocide has or has not occurred get mired down, I think, in debates about whether and how we should treat the demands of violence. The term becomes almost an exclamation point or a highlighter for saying, “This is violence that demands exceptional attention, exceptional response.” And in that sense, in working on it in an analytical research project, I find it’s not helpful. That’s why we’ve chosen to work with mass atrocities, and to give it a definition that is much more objective.
Thank you so much for joining me today, Bridget. It was a pleasure having you.
Thank you very much.