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By JARED KNOLL
Cullen Hendrix and Henk-Jan Brinkman authored a candid but comprehensive report in September 2012 for the HLEF forum on Food Insecurity in Protracted Crisis, to compel greater focus on the interdependent forces of food insecurity, violence, and genocidal processes. Last month, they expanded their findings and published them in a revised paper, Food Insecurity and Conflict Dynamics: Causal Linkages and Complex Feedbacks, in which they focus on salient and emerging cases in the Sahel region of Africa. The questions which need considering are, “What lineages exist between food insecurity and conflict?”, “What role can food security interventions play?”, and How can food security-related international policies be crafted in such a way to prevent genocidal processes?” The authors argue for the possibility of responsible interventions and effective policy to transform violence and insecurity into stability and peace, given the international community’s willingness and commitment to encouraging peacebuilding with mindfulness to food security.
Food insecurity, violent conflict, and genocidal processes are interconnected and each support and exacerbate the others, the report argues, with conflict itself being a cause of food insecurity, and food insecurity potentially causing and increasing conflict. The real complexity comes into play when, in some cases, a food security intervention can resolve and even transform conflict by alleviating grievances and desperation, but in other cases it can escalate the violent efforts of a rebellion that would otherwise have insufficient resources to wage war.
- Chronic food insecurity: a persistent lack of food, either due to empty markets, or food prices too high for a population to afford it. Can lead to grievances against the state, which may lead to rebellion and open conflict.
- Acute food insecurity: sudden lack of food, such as from a draught or crop failure. Can be a direct cause of rebellion, especially when scarce resources are distributed unfairly, but can also reduce a dissatisfied population’s capacity to rebel if militants cannot maintain logistics.
- Strategic denial: deliberate disruption or blockade of food, either from local sources or foreign aid. The report focuses on the case of South Kourdofan as an example, where two years ago the Sudanese army closed off the World Food Programme’s stockpiles, and somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 refugees were displaced to surrounding states.
These variances each require an entirely different approach; the report urges that interventions may have positive or negative impacts in each circumstance, depending on steps taken. Any policy-based solution is further stymied by the type of conflict. In a communal conflict with acute food insecurity, an intervention may be likely to transform the conflict, but in a civil one it can reescalate. In chronic situations, the opposite results can be true. Intervening in food prices can have a very different effect if the state in crisis is democratic, or non-democratic. This is all before taking into consideration cultural, historical and sociopolitical factors specific to a region.
Recommendations to “The International Community” for Peacebuilding and Prevention
- Act as a third party to negotiations, encouraging inclusive political processes and DDR.
- Ensure food security interventions address issues of inequality on as permanent a basis as possible, through measures such as school feeding programmes and agricultural extension services.
- Support development capacities and public administration systems by empowering access to social services in vulnerable communities.
- Take an outcome-centric approach with safety net systems, like food-for-work programmes, that focus on (re)building infrastructure and improving sustainable livelihoods.
- Aim to improve social cohesion by working closely with communities and encouraging participatory programmes, which can help reintegrate IDPs.
The Hendrix-Brinkman report and subsequent publication may not be breaking new ground or providing revelation, but it achieved what it’s meant to – comprehensively break down a highly complex set of factors contributing to violence conflict and genocidal processes, and make a call to policymakers in the international community to integrate a food insecurity lens. The authors’ recommendations aren’t complex or revolutionary – their stark simplicity should be a challenge for all members of the international community to turn knowledge into action.
By JARED KNOLL
Much of your work has focused on ethnic aspects of conflicts, genocides and politicides… do you feel the role of this sort of lens has changed since you started out in the field? Do you see or foresee any potential challenges or problems in the way of this approach?
I co-authored a book on ethnic conflict and suggested that these types of conflicts have the potential to escalate into genocide (as in Rwanda), but so do other conflicts such as revolutions (see Cambodia) and adverse regime change (such as in Chile, which turned into a politicide). During the late 70’s and early 80’s, most genocide scholars (meaning all approx. 10 of us) thought that any combinations or a single factor such as ethnicity, race, or religion were a necessary condition in most genocidal situations, given the wording of the Convention. However, when I began collecting information on the 46 cases that eventually became the data set used by State Failure (now Political Instability Task Force), it became apparent that victims sometimes were members of mixed ethnic groups and that perpetrators targeted them because they belonged to political opposition groups. Cambodia was a classic example, where most victims and perpetrators were ethnic Khmers — only a minority of victims belonged to different ethnicities, such as the Chams, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Cambodia was a reason that I coined the term politicide, which suggests that victims not only could be members of multiple identity groups but were primarily targeted because of their political affiliation. Of the 46 cases that I identified post WWII, many are mixed cases. For example, the Kurds in Iraq and indigenous Maya that supported the left in Guatemala.
Your work has been seminal, influencing an indeterminably wide swath of policy and scholarship… have you been particularly disappointed with any of the frameworks, policies, or concepts that have been built upon your ideas?
There are other scholars who have contributed more. I am especially thinking of my friend and mentor Helen Fein, the late Leo Kuper, Frank Chalk, and others. We have listened to each other, critiqued, cited, and supported one another’s efforts. We have built a discipline and it is now possible to get jobs in good universities, which was not a necessary truth in the 1980’s. As a Northwestern PhD, (according to my professors) I should have been at a major research university but the most frequently asked question at the time during interviews was, “What is that stuff you are doing?”.
How could I be disappointed? Systematic analysis is flourishing in Australia, Canada, Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US—the Albright/Cohen report mentions my risk assessment and early warning efforts as something that needs doing and risk assessment is done routinely not just by me but in the US government and others. The UN (I had provided them with a framework and regular risk assessments) is a bit behind despite their talented personnel. That probably has much to do with antiquated opinions about quantitative analysis, as well as politically motivated leadership in related UN offices. When Juan Mendez became Adviser to the UN, he and his two associates visited me at my home in Annapolis to see how we could work together. I am not just a number cruncher but also a case study person and a specialist on the Middle East. Moreover, having been born into a leftist German family, I am also quite familiar about European affairs. A genocide scholar is/should not be bounded by either discipline or approach. My dissertation focused on prevention using legal philosophical arguments, but grounded in international law, and it also included an empirical exercise in which I tested empathy in different societies using fictional scenarios that had a historical base.
My/our work has caught on beyond expectations. Genocide is a household word — we have seen action in many situations and the recognition that systematic risk assessment and early warning are ever more needed is apparent. Aside from an African initiative, other governments have proceeded to establish their own centers. Why not indeed emulate the hard sciences instead of dabbling in case study-based analysis of specific situations? We do it globally based on accepted wisdom regarding dozens of cases. It is not too hard to generate good data, develop hypotheses based on theory, and then test assumptions. We/I have tested dozens of variables (including economic and environmental variables) that purport to support escalation to genocide. In addition, I developed a complex early warning model that used dynamic factors to track that evolution. For example, we tracked hate propaganda, small arms deliveries, etc. on a daily basis.
Your term and idea of politicide has not caught on as much as it perhaps could have in the international community. Are policymakers and scholars hamstringing themselves from potentially greater efficacy by not considering the targeting of political groups as a more important factor? Where would you like to see this focus brought to bear in today’s climate of conflict?
Why is there not more international action? Because, to use my old mantra, we do not know what remedies that tap state capacity and interest work in what situations at what time. What worked in Macedonia does not work in Syria. I made that argument many times and have developed response scenarios based on my early warning analysis, but much work remains. Just think of Burma—in the past, it was one of the worst case scenarios. I had argued for lifting sanctions to incorporate that country into the international community of states. There was a huge black market, and sanctions did not work—they more often make it harder for the already poor—and the West had zero influence but ASEAN, China, and Japan did—things are getting better.
Are you optimistic that the genocidal trends you’ve studied for three decades are diminishing? Can you realistically envision a world where we have early warning systems adequate to the task of completely circumventing mass atrocities?
For the time being, the occurrence of genocides are diminishing. But over the long run, I am pessimistic. The West may have a learned a few more lessons after Bosnia but Africans will be challenged by Muslim radicals—see Mali, Northern Nigeria, the 10th century maps of Islamic expansion. I am deeply disturbed by the emergence of right-wing movements in Europe that occasionally spout anti-Jewish rhetoric. In addition, there are indigenous peoples still under threat of annihilation, ethnic cleansing, and extreme discrimination, such as the indigenous peoples of West Papua.
What role do area experts have to play?
Experts need to both show compassion and distance themselves from quick judgment. Most of us are driven by a belief and desire that it is possible to build a better world, based on mutual respect and tolerance. However, given the unequal distribution of resources, lack of access to education, and re-emerging medieval ideas about how women should be treated, I am a profound pessimist. Especially disturbing for me is re-emerging anti-semitism in its most primitive form (blood libel, the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, etc). Are we regressing to superstitions and the caveman mentality that drove Nazis? I see a dangerous trend evolving in the Muslim world—tribalism, sectarianism, radical forms of Islam (Salafis), indoctrination of their unemployed and undereducated youth. Where will it lead?
Regarding Syria, is there an onus on Western actors to intervene, or otherwise impact the conflict? What sorts of missteps are we in danger of making?
It made my list of extremely high-risk cases before the outbreak of violence. The UN was informed—we had pictures of mines on the border with Turkey—their aim was to maim refugees. But the West is tired and sees the Middle East as a cauldron of ever re-emerging conflicts. There is a real lack of enlightened leadership. You cannot build democracies by relying on networks of families, clans, tribes, sectarian and/or religious loyalties. We have always underestimated the strength of these ties. Countries running out of energy, water, having extended droughts and exploding birthrates are endangered to descend into chaos. Of the few that have functional educational systems, meaning they educate their young in the sciences, there are no opportunities. Maybe these countries have to go through these convulsions to find their way into the modern world. It is possible that Yemen, the poorest and most vulnerable (running out of water), has a chance of success through inter-tribal dialogue that includes women to build a stable autocracy or semi-democracy. Syria as of now may divide into Sunni, Alawite, and Kurdish regions under the influence of Iran/Russia/Saudi Arabia, and/or aligned with Salafis in Egypt. Of course, this is speculation.
How did you come to be involved with the Auschwitz Institute? Has your time as an instructor impacted any aspects of your scholarship or views?
What AIPR does is laudable, to put it mildly. As to my two lectures and one interview, the interview went well but the Jagiellonian University’s information system had too few subscribers. One lecture went well; the other, nowhere. I expected the participants to read and they did not. Well, a lesson learned—start on a more basic level. My suggestion is to be bold—challenge re-emerging anti-semitism wherever you find it. Some of our young hosts (Jewish students from Poland) told me that they keep a low profile—it deeply upset me. And then there is Auschwitz—as a German born non-Jewish scholar, it provides all the answers about why I am doing this kind of work—but this place is hell on earth and am I bothered that some visitors show a lack of respect when they walk over one of the largest cemeteries on earth.
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Dr. Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, a scholar and activist on the topic of gender and gender-based violence in the context of genocide and mass atrocities. Last year she published an article titled “Gender and the Future of Genocide Studies and Prevention” in the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention, and in addition to having been an instructor at the Auschwitz Institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, she will be contributing to a forthcoming volume on the prevention of mass atrocities, edited by the Auschwitz Institute.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. Today we’re looking at an often overlooked and under-discussed aspect of mass atrocities: gender. Joining me is Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, a prolific speaker on the subject and author of an article last year called “Gender and the Future of Genocide Studies and Prevention.” Hello, Elisa. Great to have you with us.
Thank you so much. Great to be here.
Why do we need to consider gender and gender-based violence as factors in the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities?
Well, there’s several ways to answer that. I think the primary reason it’s important that we look at gender-based violence when we’re thinking about the prevention of mass atrocities is that it is a very early warning signal when a conflict is underway. There are specific types of gender-based violence that I believe have a high correlation with genocide down the road, and when we see them used by a certain perpetrating group — whether it’s a state, or a political party, or a cadre within an armed force — when we see them using these specific forms of gender-based torture and patterns of killing, and sexual violence in particular, we can predict with some accuracy the spread of this sort of violence to greater and greater numbers of people down the road, if it’s left unchecked. And that is if there isn’t any diplomatic, political, economic, or, as a last resort, military intervention.
It isn’t talked about very much, rape and violence against women, or at least they aren’t much focused on. What do you think that says about our concerns?
There seems to be an intellectual block, in a sense, in the study of genocide to considering rape as an integral part of genocide. Of course there are many scholars who do. But in policymaking circles, frequently the widespread presence of rape or mass rape in a conflict, when it’s not attended also by co-ed massacre sites, is seen to be a special category that we call mass atrocity but not genocide. So in other words, you have several cases where the existence of gender-selective massacres of men, alongside the mass rape of women who were allowed by and large to continue living, you see that pattern used as a way to argue that genocide had not taken place, but rather war crimes, or crimes against humanity, or this much less specific term, “mass atrocity.”
What roles do you think that culture and religion play in these occurrences? Do you think there’s anything to arguments for cultural relativity, cultural sensitivity, or are we dealing with human rights that transcend those borders?
Yeah, that’s a very interesting question, and I think it’s an important one. I see these as universals, simply because they occur in similar formats throughout most of the cases of genocide that I’ve looked at, and then also cases that aren’t commonly considered to be genocide that I would include within an understanding of genocidal processes, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, or the current conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. So there is a kind of a universal dimension to these, in that genocide expresses itself very similarly across cases. Where I think cultural sensitivity is really important, and where it becomes very interesting, is, you know, the differences in patterns. Why in certain places one kind of atrocity is more pronounced than another, for example. And what cultural factors lead to that, and whether or not those cultural factors then themselves have contributed to this genocidal process, or are they just being drawn on or implicated in the genocidal process because they exist. So those sorts of questions are very important.
I think genocide is a universal crime and that it is universally frowned upon, and should be, and so we can be safe to say that if there’s a culture that’s caught up in a genocidal logic over a long period of time that humanity needs to respond, that there needs to be some response to that. Where I think cultural relativism becomes problematic is when it treats different cultures in a kind of ossified and rigid way that actually shares some characteristics with genocidal thinking by imposing strict trenches between different groups that can’t be bridged through human conversation or dialogue. And I think that oftentimes one will find people retreating to that type of cultural relativism, when it appears, when the persons promoting the prevention of genocide are not investigating genocidal dynamics in their own societies. Where I’ve gotten questions related to cultural relativism is often in situations where it’s felt that Americans are always going around the world telling people to be aware of genocide and how to prevent genocide, without sufficient awareness of our own history of genocide and lingering patterns within our society that emerge from that history, as well as red flags that we have in this country. So to avoid that I think it’s very important that whenever we’re talking about genocide prevention, and in all of our studies of genocide, that we seek to be truly universal in the cases that we look at, right, and universal in the societies that we target for long-term prevention of genocide. And those should and have to include Western countries, including the United States.
In cases where we can identify those cultural causes that contribute toward genocide or can lead to that, do you think that it may be necessary, or do you think it may be justifiable, for the international community or for international actors to take a stand against those practices, against those factors?
Yeah, that’s a very interesting and sensitive question, and I’m glad you asked it. This question was very relevant of course to the debate about and the struggle against female genital cutting, right, or what’s often called female genital mutilation. And it was actually very harmful when there appeared to be a unidirectional command from on high that certain societies stop this practice. What was much more effective was when local NGOs — often aided by training or funding or dialogue with international bodies — but when local NGOs began initiatives to speak with the practitioners of this, to speak with parents, to speak with young people and leaders within communities to try and change the way that this practice was seen, and replace it with other practices that could ritually or culturally attain the same goals without actually harming young girls.
So I think that when we’re looking at long-term factors that contribute to genocide, one of the most important things we can do is be in dialogue with local human rights groups, local civics groups, local intellectuals, obviously — in a truly dialogic and equal fashion, where everybody’s laying out a set of ideas about what can lead to genocide. And so that you have, internally within a society, a genocide watchdog that is going to be much more sensitive and much more aware of the meaning of certain cultural practices and their potential dangers down the road than any outsider could ever be, unless of course they spent a great deal of time there and speak the language.
You’ve been talking a lot about Syria lately. There’s been a lot of concern in the international community about the possibility of genocide of the Alawites. Do you think that horse is already out of the stable?
Yes. I do. But it depends on how you look at it and how you’re defining things. Since we all agree, I think, that genocide is a process, I think we’re in the genocidal process. But perhaps we need to make a distinction between the process of genocide and the fact of genocide after the end of hostilities. It’s only of course in retrospect that we can be absolutely sure, right, or close to 100 percent sure, that something we would call a genocide happened. The Rwandan genocide looked very different at the beginning of the hundred days than it did at the end. And this was one of the problems with garnering international support for some kind of effective intervention there. And so it’s similar in Syria. However, what we do see in Syria is focused attacks on children. So not just killing by shelling, not that kind of impersonal killing, but very personalized, ritualized, torturous killing of children, both in front of their parents at the site of massacres, but also in detention, then I think that says something about the intent of the regime, or certain groups within the regime.
Can you tell us a little about your contribution to Deconstructing Prevention? Are there pertinent situations or issues you think we need to focus on that have cropped up since your 2012 article?
Yeah, that’s interesting. I think the rise of the use of the term “mass atrocity” is a very interesting thing, and it comes out of the despair that many felt during the genocide in Darfur, where it felt that a lot of the tension was taken away from the horror going on in Darfur and instead devoted to a very useless and highly politicized debate about whether or not this conflict conformed to the UN legal definition of genocide. So “mass atrocities” grew out of that sense of frustration. Who cares if it’s genocide, let’s just call it mass atrocities. But I think one of the reasons that could happen, that we needed to replace this powerful term “genocide” with “mass atrocity,” is that Darfur followed a very gender-selective pattern of genocide. And so you have men routinely massacred, whereas women were raped and allowed to continue living. And it was the fact of their continued existence that often was the reason that people were unwilling to call what was going on in Darfur genocide and instead wanted to call it ethnic cleansing, or civil war, or counterinsurgency. And so it’s out of a very gendered idea of what genocide is that this term “mass atrocity” has been created. So I think that we need to interrogate that. We need to look at why it is that we needed to create a term like “mass atrocity,” whether or not it’s effective to have an even more vague and debatable term, in a sense.
Gender and genocide was a long-term interest of mine. I didn’t know that’s what it was, but I’d always been interested in women’s Holocaust testimonies and the ways that the National Socialists sought to destroy women as women, and use children against them to do so, which is a common theme in testimonials and memoirs from the Holocaust. So I brought those two together and was doing work on gender and genocide, and then it was only through a fluke, in a sense, that Adam Jones, whose work I find to be wonderful and has been very influential on my own work, suggested me to the Auschwitz Institute to get involved in these genocide prevention — the Raphael Lemkin workshops and seminars that you guys hold. And so it was through that path, and it was really the Auschwitz Institute that got me thinking about how I can utilize my research on gender and genocide for genocide prevention.
Well, I hope you’ll continue to push our definitional outlooks on genocide and mass atrocities, and keep gender a part of the conversation. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you very much.
Photo: Courtesy Elisa von Joeden-Forgey
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Jurgen Brauer and Charles Anderton about the role of economic factors in genocide and mass atrocities. Both of them have been instructors at the Auschwitz Institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention. We spoke just two weeks before a panel at the World Bank on how to apply a mass atrocity prevention lens to economic development policy, co-organized and moderated by the Auschwitz Institute.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. Today we’re looking at an often-ignored element of genocide prevention: economics. Joining me to discuss this complex subject are Jurgen Brauer and Charles Anderton, two professors hoping to produce a handbook on the economics of genocide and mass killing. Both prolific authors, they work out of Georgia Regents University and Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, respectively, and have served as instructors for the Auschwitz Institute. Charles, Jurgen: Thanks for joining us today.
JB: Yes, thank you very much for the invitation. This is Jurgen Brauer. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this.
CA: Jared, thank you very much for contacting us. We’re delighted to have the opportunity to share some thoughts.
Would you like to start by telling us a little about how you think we need to approach the ways economics and mass killing play into one another?
CA: Jurgen and I have been kind of going back and forth on what we see as critical interdependencies between genocide and mass killing, and economics. So we’ve highlighted several areas where they intersect, and one of those is that genocides and mass killings have huge economic consequences. A second way that they go together is that economic conditions, poverty and other types of economic conditions, are potentially risk factors for genocide and mass killing, and might affect the severity as well.
We also have seen cases, certainly the Holocaust and other cases, where there’s a kind of business organization to the genocide. They’re very systematic and they require leadership and logistics and coordination and hiring people to do certain terrible tasks that are involved. There’s a kind of business of genocide that needs to be better understood. And of course there’s looting that goes on in many genocides and mass killings, and that’s a form of wealth appropriation and a loss of wealth to the victims, and obviously security is undermined, and economists see security as a very fundamental service that every society should provide.
I think the last one that we thought about is this idea of genocides and mass killing being choices that people actually are choosing, are in some sense weighing costs and benefits when they’re thinking about perpetrating such things, and economics is a social science of people making choices. So those are the ways that we see the genocides and mass killings and economics being interdependent.
JB: What we would like to add, as we continue to think about the topic, is how one may use economics to generate insights into the prevention of genocide and mass killing. There’s an increasing amount of work done, several Nobel Prizes in fact have been awarded to think about how does one design a society, how does one design structures within which incentives for behavior are guided or changed to a beneficial social outcome, so that we avoid that which we do not want to have and foster that which we do want to have.
So do you perceive an omission or a gap in the literature and body of work in the economics of genocide and mass killing?
CA: There’s a need for multidisciplinary perspectives. We’re hoping to see economics step up and professional economists take more of a role in understanding genocides and mass killings. We think that the social psychologists, the historians, the sociologists, and the political scientists have been working really hard in this field for decades, but we economists have not really contributed what our share should be, in a sense.
Why do you think economic issues haven’t been tackled as much in academia, awareness campaigns and other efforts, compared to aspects of mass killing like social ideology, ethnic conflict, things like that?
JB: Well, I believe that part of it has to do with the public image of economics. Economics is about money, economics is about financial markets, economics is about the value of your home, economics is about how much money you get from your boss. But in fact the discipline of economics, I would say, money is 5 percent of what we do and the other 95 percent is really interesting stuff that the public doesn’t hear about. People ordinarily don’t think of economics as contributing to larger social issues beyond the finances of a household or a firm, or maybe the government. So I think it’s in part a perceptual issue. Economists over the years have made great contributions, in environmental economics, public policy, the evaluation of cost-benefit of, let’s say, publicly funded research and those sorts of things.
CA: The textbooks in economics focus on production and exchange and consumption, and of course this is what they should focus on. But of course in many parts of the world there can be serious degrees of insecurity and there can be what Paul Collier, an economist, has characterized as economic development in reverse. I think a lot of our economic textbooks look at economic progress and economic growth in societies where institutions are pretty strong and stable, but there of course are many parts of the world that have really serious forms of insecurity, and the standard textbook approaches don’t really fit well in those areas, and so I think economists have to step up and do more in thinking about issues of war and peace and insecurity. I think another issue here is that economics perhaps is the most quantitative of the social sciences. It can be very mathematical, very statistical-oriented, and that can present some obstacles in the sense of trying to communicate to a broader audience.
Is it just simpler to focus on things like ancient hatreds, in terms of public attention, instead of economic realities? Or do you think it’s also harder emotionally for people to look at cases as terrible as genocide through cold, but also I think very relatable financial terms? Does that relatability actually make it harder?
CA: You know, it’s very interesting. Right after the end of the Cold War there was a kind of ramp-up in the number of civil wars that were out there, and a lot of the media portrayal of these civil wars was that they were driven by ethnic animosities or some ancient animosities that now resurfaced at the end of the Cold War, and there probably were valuable insights into looking at it that way, but some economists also looked at problems of underdevelopment, of contests over resources within countries, and these other economic factors became important. It did become a kind of cold, cost-benefit analysis approach to looking at issues of underdevelopment and resource contestation, but there was some empirical weight that these economic factors mattered. So I think in a similar way we’ve got to try to bring economics to bear in thinking about cost and benefit issues regarding genocide and mass killing.
The World Bank and IMF, coming up, are going to be putting on a working group for developing a genocide prevention lens to incorporate into their development project criteria. How optimistic are you that efforts like these and the future of turning public attention have of getting to a point where addressing mass atrocities and genocides through that economic lens?
JB: I think the degree of optimism may depend on the expected time frame. Sometimes when these sorts of things are put in place in an institution and there’s a press communication made, people may have unrealistic expectations that things will be better in two years or five years, and in fact you’re just setting in motion a process, and that process may take 10 or 15 or 20 years to work out. It’s probably unrealistic, not optimistic, to say something will happen within a year or two, but it may be much more realistic and optimistic to say that over a longer time period, the process is put in place and measures are being taken, observations are made, discussions are held, and that aid and assistance ultimately will be tied through criteria that are presumably yet to be developed. So I think if you take a less urgent, urgent as the matter is, but a less urgent perspective, then perhaps in 10 years’ time we will have the result that we want.
Well, I hope you keep making strides toward making the economic aspects of mass killing and genocide an important part of the discussion. Thank you so much, Charles, Jurgen, for speaking with me today.
CA: Thank you.
JB: Thank you very much.
Photos: Courtesy Charles Anderton and Jurgen Brauer
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Andrew Feinstein, former South African MP for the anti-apartheid African National Congress, and a writer, speaker, critic and campaigner in the effort to better regulate the global arms trade. His most recent book, The Shadow World, looks at the connections between political corruption, the arms trade, and the atrocities that result. His work is especially relevant right now, as the UN is on the verge of adopting the first ever international arms trade treaty.
Welcome. I’m Jared Knoll for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. On Thursday, the United Nations began the process of adopting the first international treaty to regulate the global arms trade, a $70 billion business. It was blocked by Iran, Syria and North Korea, who complained the treaty failed to ban sales to rebel groups, and the General Assembly has plans to put the draft to a vote on Tuesday. What isn’t talked about much is how political corruption in wealthy, developed countries may be the most important factor involved, even half a world away from the mass atrocities it can lead to.
Joining me to speak on the complex issues and implications involved in the international arms trade, and where it all originates from, is Andrew Feinstein. He’s the founding co-director of Corruption Watch in London, and a former South African parliament member for the African National Congress. They’re the political party born out of the anti-apartheid movement; he was known as “Mr. Clean” when he was with them. He’s also a prolific author, speaker and critic on government corruption and the transnational arms trade. Hello, Andrew. So good to have you with us today.
Hi, Jared. Great to be with you.
You have a tendency to tackle some pretty bold intellectual targets — government corruption, illegal arms trading, backroom bribery — pretty large, systemic issues. What has led you to take these “big” approaches?
Well, I think that what struck me while a member of parliament in South Africa, was that the trade in weapons has the ability to have effects not just on conflicts, on their brutality, sometimes their longevity — but also on issues of governance and the rule of law, in both buying and selling countries. And having experienced this first hand in a very young democracy like South Africa, just four years after our first democratic elections, I became interested in how this manifests globally, and was shocked to discover that South Africa was just one of countless examples of the iniquitous impact of the global trade in arms. But rather than looking at isolated cases, it’s really the way in which the trade works on a systemic basis that’s really important. So that meant looking at issues like the very highest levels of governance, global financial systems and money laundering, and how they work. So certainly not by choice, Jared, but by necessity.
What do you think the implications of that kind of approach can have for finding solutions and finding options for prevention?
I think the two approaches need to be married, to find solutions and to look at issues of prevention. The first is the systemic picture. I don’t think one can actually develop meaningful solutions without an understanding of how these things work, perhaps at the most exalted level, if one can call it that — the systems of governance, the systems of international trade. But at the same time the reality is that any particular circumstance will have a very unique context. So one has to look at both of those aspects to be able to develop solutions that could be meaningful and practical on the ground.
What have you found to be the relationship between government corruption, or the seeds of government corruption, the international arms trade, and the occurrence of mass atrocities?
Let’s deal with each of those, very quickly, on their own. The first is, in terms of levels of government corruption, one needs to understand the extraordinary figures that were extrapolated from information gleaned by a wonderful researcher called Joe Roeber, from national treasuries and intelligence agencies of the world’s most powerful nations. He calculated that with figures up to the end of 2003, the arms trade accounted for around 40 percent of all corruption, in all global trade. Which is an astonishing figure, and if one looks, for instance, at the world’s biggest arms deal to date — between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, a deal worth 43 billion British pounds — British police have estimated that 6 billion pounds of bribes were paid on that deal alone. And this included to some incredibly powerful individuals. So the scale of the bribery and corruption is massive. Those impacts, as I have mentioned, are not just on the exchequers of those countries, but on the way they’re governed and on the rule of law, because the corruption leads to decisions that are often not in the national interest, or even in the best defense interests of the buying country. So that’s the one dimension of it.
The second dimension, how does this feed into mass atrocities? Well, the other characteristic of the global arms trade that makes it fairly unique in world trade, is that everything that happens in the trade takes place behind a veil of national security-imposed secrecy. So even when there is criminal conduct or illegal conduct taking place, it is hidden from us, the public. I have made I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of freedom-of-information requests around the world, and I never get any information from them because I’m always told that the matters fall under national security. So that secrecy allows extraordinary things to happen. Together with an academic from the University of British Columbia, I’ve managed to identify 502 violations of UN arms embargoes since they were introduced. Two of those have led to any legal action of any sort. One led to a conviction.
So, taking the corruption, taking the secrecy, this means that things can happen in the trade in weapons that we know nothing about, that can enable the commission and execution of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. Let me give you just one example. You know, when we think of the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide, people have the sense of crazed citizens in a state, a mental state, that is inexplicable to us. Running around and murdering their fellow countrymen with machetes. The reality is far more complex than that. The reality is that for many years leading up to the genocide, the then-regime in Rwanda engaged in a massive, massive process of weaponizing and militarizing one ethnic group in the society, against all sorts of legal sanctions. But this weaponization — which led from Rwanda being a complete minnow in the African arms trade to, over a period of a couple of years, being amongst the highest spenders on weaponry — this took place clandestinely, but with the active facilitation of the governments of France, South Africa, and Egypt, amongst others, with the intimate involvement of large arms companies and individual arms dealers. And this happened in spite of arms embargoes, in spite of attempts to police what was going on in Rwanda. So the nature of the arms trade directly impacts the way in which situations or conflicts can be weaponized that increase the likelihood of those conflicts leading to mass atrocities or crimes against humanity.
So then with these things coming up from every aspect, from every angle — the individuals in the buying country, the systemic issue between countries, and the complete lack of any enforceable mechanisms for the selling countries — it sounds like the only way to tackle this is from a systemic approach, from that large-scale angle that you take it. How do we start to make headway with such a prolific situation?
The key at a systemic level is clearly regulation. Because the reality as we sit here today, and we are just a few days away from the United Nations trying to agree an international arms trade treaty, a process that has been fraught with difficulty because of a lack of political will amongst the biggest players in the arms trade to actually change the current regulatory regime, where the global trade in bananas is more highly regulated than the trade in weapons. So yes, the solution is dependent on creating a far tougher, strongly enforced regulatory regime for weapons of all kind, for ammunition of all kind. Because we’re fortunate in that advances in technology, which have as an unfortunate by-product made killing easier, also have the by-product of making the tracking of weaponry and ammunition far easier. So at not much additional cost, we could actually be tracking every single piece of ammunition, let alone every piece of weaponry, and where it is in the world at any time. What is lacking at this point is the political will to say, “This is what we have to do, every country has to do this, and the sanctions for not doing so are so profound that it will happen.” But the lead on that has to be taken by the biggest players in the weapons trade, bearing in mind that the United States of America currently buys and sells almost as much weaponry and ammunition as the rest of the world combined.
And before people get too depressed, let me repeat again — and this is really based on something that the American anthropologist Margaret Mead said many decades ago — it is small groups of committed, thoughtful citizens who change history. Never doubt that that is the case, and that it has always been so. So while the challenges are huge, I do believe that if enough people are prepared to engage on this issue, it is possible — and I say this as a former politician myself — it is possible to change political will. And on this issue that’s what we have to do.
Well, I’m inspired. I hope you’ll keep inspiring people with that very active approach to making people understand that they have the ability to effect some of that momentum.
Thanks, Jared. Thanks very much for your time in doing this.
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Dr. Ekkehard Strauss, who has published extensively on protection of minorities, prevention of human rights violations, post-conflict peacebuilding, and human rights responses to mass atrocities. Strauss has been an instructor at the Auschwitz Institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, and was a member of the Task Force on the EU Prevention of Mass Atrocities, which earlier this month released a report assessing Europe’s capabilities to respond to threats of genocide and other mass atrocities.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. In late 2011 the Budapest Centre for the International Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities established the Task Force on the EU Prevention of Mass Atrocities, to look at Europe’s capabilities to respond to threats of mass killings and genocide. They released a report a few weeks ago, which lists four core problems for the capacity to prevent, including issues with coordination and policymaking, and six recommendations to strengthen capabilities, like improving cooperation with other actors and applying a prevention mindset to trade and development policies.
Speaking with me today is a member of that task force, Dr. Ekkehard Strauss. He has worked with the OSCE in Bosnia-Herzegovina, served under the UN High Commissioner, and established himself as a mainstay in the development of peacebuilding, Responsibility to Protect, and atrocity prevention practices. He is currently working as a consultant and researcher in Rabat, Morocco. Hello, Dr. Strauss. Thank you for being here today.
Thank you very much.
Could you start by telling us about the Task Force on the EU Prevention of Mass Atrocities: where the idea came from, what its purpose is, who is on it, and how they arrived at their list of recommendations?
The idea of reviewing mass atrocity prevention capacities of the European Union really came at the time when the U.S. task force started to review the U.S. capacities. And there were different individuals and organizations who tried to convince them to actually undertake a similar exercise. People like David Hamburg, for instance, who was chairing the UN secretary-general’s advisory board on genocide prevention; the Budapest Centre, which was an initiative at that time; the Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide; and other people. Unfortunately, none of us succeeded in convincing the European Union. So we basically took this initiative forward as a citizen initiative and initiated a process where we invited 12 people with very different experiences, from different European countries, to form a task force and to review these capacities using a methodology which was mixed. First, by a desk review of what is out there on reviews of EU capacity to react to conflict, violence and crisis. And the content you find in the report is basically an analysis of this task force, of the interviews, plus our own experience in crisis situations, and with different European institutions, and what is the state of play in the discussions on genocide prevention today.
How did you personally get involved in atrocity prevention? Can you tell us a little bit about your start in this?
I think one very important part for me was, while I was still undertaking my law studies, to start the basis of an internship with the UN and there being exposed to what it really means to be a victim of systematic violence and state-sponsored, large-scale violence. For me, this was a different dimension to the work on human rights violations due to individuals, due to exceptional situations, and so on. This is serious as well, it’s important to work on it from a human rights perspective, but for me, this other dimension, that states really systematically get after their own people, was like a new encounter. So I wrote a doctorate thesis on prevention of human rights violations, looking at legal standards and trying to look at how they are not reflected in the different institutions we were in the process of creating in the early ’90s, the international ad hoc tribunals and so on. We were basically hoping that some of them would have a preventive effect. And then I had the great opportunity of somehow field-testing many of the things I had worked on in Bosnia immediately after the war, and I moved on to Kosovo and Serbia while the crisis was unfolding there. Then in 2004 I had the great chance to work with Juan Méndez and support him in establishing the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. And this was somehow the coming full-round from my different theoretical and field experience to do something that I still find very fulfilling.
And how did you become involved with the Auschwitz Institute?
The Auschwitz Institute, actually Fred Schwartz came to see Juan Méndez, I think back in 2004 or 2005. And he presented his idea of having trainings in Auschwitz. And I think we were — at the beginning, after the first meeting — I think we were a little bit skeptical among ourselves whether this is something that would work and whether people wouldn’t just go home with a lot of overwhelming impressions about the Holocaust, an almost perfect system of destroying people that you are confronted with when you visit Auschwitz. Then when this idea evolved, and we got also our own experience with training of government officials, I think we got more and more fascinated by the idea. And I think it’s a fascinating experience. I think the concept has proven that our skepticism was unfounded. I think it’s a very good concept to actually have people making the transition from looking at the Holocaust, experiencing Auschwitz, experiencing being there and being exposed to this, and going through an experience where you think, “This is exceptional and it cannot happen anywhere else,” to then slowly making the experience of “No, it could happen somewhere else. No, these are average people who committed it. Yes, there was a lot of preparation, ideology, and anti-Semitism and so on that existed,” but I think that for me, this experience from an observer, and then from a teacher’s point of view, was fascinating how it worked for the people who participated.
Do you find yourself optimistic, based upon your experiences doing that and based upon your experiences in assessing the United Nations to stop genocide and mass atrocities, do you find yourself optimistic for the future?
I do. I mean, I’m very optimistic. But I have to say that I’m not optimistic that there will be a world free of genocide. From working on this for quite some time and having visited many of the countries which experience genocide, I think each time and each century has its own genocides, and we might witness genocides while we speak and we will only find out in a couple of years based on legal findings and so on, and say, “Okay, Darfur was a genocide,” and so on. So I’m not optimistic that we will prevent all of them, but I think we can be much better in detecting signs very early and taking them seriously, and intervening at a point where we still do not have these exceptional numbers of victims. I don’t think that long-term prevention will really work in all of the cases. We can educate and train and establish institutions and so on, and this will hopefully do a lot of good with regard to human rights. It might make it more difficult to convince people to participate in systematic killings of particular groups, but for each of those you find historic examples where they had the same and they had a genocide nevertheless. But I think by making mass atrocities something that is possible, something that is a plausible conclusion to developments on the ground, I think we will contribute to preventing, hopefully, more of these cases. But still I think there are genocides in the making that we don’t even know about. There are situations that we will not capture with our early warning methodology, but nevertheless we should continue and learn, and I’m very optimistic that we get better every day and every month.
Well, I hope the recommendations that you and the task force have given will be a shot in the arm toward that improvement. Thank you very much for talking to me.
Thank you very much—and I’m so glad it finally worked out.
In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks to Kate Doyle, a senior analyst for the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, whose work has been key to putting together the facts of the genocide against Guatemala’s Mayans under the country’s military dictatorship in the 1980s. She went into Guatemalan records and tracked the chain of command that allowed lawyers representing victims to get a ruling in Spain classifying the case as a genocide. Last year she received the ALBA/Puffin Award for Human Rights Activism last year, and currently she is conducting new research into mass atrocities in Guatemala.
Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute. Today we’re looking at the criminal trial of Efraín Ríos Montt, who is considered to be at the center of culpability for the mass killings in Guatemala, which came to a peak under his dictatorship in the ’80s. He faces charges for 15 massacres in the Ixil region, and the deaths of 1,771 unarmed men, women, and children during his reign in 1982 and 1983. The trial opened at the end of January with Montt facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Speaking with me now is Kate Doyle, a forensic archivist working for the National Security Archive in DC. She played a major part in tracking down the chain of command that allowed lawyers to get a ruling in Spain that the case amounted to genocide, which has led us to the ongoing trial. Hello, Kate. It’s good to have you here with us.
Hi, Jared. Thanks for having me.
Can you tell us a little bit about the factors leading up to this historic trial and the work you’ve done contributing to it?
Sure. The efforts on the part of Guatemalans to bring Ríos Montt and the senior military command, and many others, to justice, since the end of the long, 36-year civil conflict in 1996, has itself traveled a very long road. The initial filing on the charges of genocide and charges against humanity against Ríos Montt and seven of his co-conspirators, in Spain, took place in 1999. So, many years ago, the case was filed by a well-known Mayan activist in Guatemala named Rigoberta Menchú, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize many years ago. Rigoberta filed the case shortly after the Spanish court had indicted General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, in an effort to try him under the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes committed in his country. That took place in 1998. So Menchú and the organizations and massacre survivors that she represented decided to file a case based on the same model of international human rights justice in 1999. And that case began to work slowly, slowly through the system of the court in Spain.
And in the meantime, in 2000, the following year, again, a group of survivors that belonged to an organization called the Association for Justice and Reparations, and another group, the Centre for Human Rights Legal Action, inside Guatemala — these are Guatemalan activist organizations — filed a case in the Guatemalan national court, charging Ríos Montt and his senior military command with genocide and crimes against humanity in, again, the year 2000. That process, that parallel process, has brought us to the point we are today, with the Guatemalan case actually going to trial finally, earlier this year.
What significance does it have for the victims and their families?
Well, this is an extraordinary development, obviously. The survivors of the massacres and the family members of those who did not survive have been working to see this day for 30 years. So you can imagine that there is a tremendous amount of sort of supressed excitement — sometimes not so suppressed; people do shout out and applaud sometimes in the courtroom — but in general, people are there to observe and listen, and there is a tremendous amount of hope. People have come on buses from all over the country in this particular trial, since it focuses on an area of one of the rural departments of Guatemala known as the Quiché. The Ixil communities that were affected by the massacres in that region in 1982 have sent representatives down to Guatemala City to observe the hearings: the various presentation of evidence, and the arguments of the defense and prosecution to this point.
So it’s really been a very emotional experience for many, many people to watch this unfold, as slow and considered as it has been. And it is a very, very important victory, I think, for those communities. Just to see this man, and in this case his senior military intelligence chief, José Rodriguez, have to sit in the courtroom and listen to the presentation of the case by the prosecution. That alone has been really quite an extraordinary experience for people.
So it’s quite important, then, that this case is being tried in a national court, rather than an international tribunal?
It is. I mean, I think it’s the international case, the case introduced by Rigoberta Menchú and many others, in 1999 in Spain, has been a critical catalyst, pressure, prod for the national case. So in no way would I want to diminish the importance of that effort and that process, because that has had a very particular and powerful effect on getting this national case to move along.
That said, of course it is especially resonant for people, and powerful for people, to see Guatemalan lawyers in a Guatemalan courtroom, arguing before a Guatemalan judge, on the outlines of these terrible crimes that were committed by the Guatemalan military against its own citizens. So yeah, it has a special power, the fact that this is being held in a national court, and I think it’s important to recognize that there really isn’t another case we can think of around the world where a country has been willing and able to try one of its own former heads of state on charges of genocide, in its own court, without international support and contribution, and the presence, usually, of international judges. So this is really groundbreaking, I think, all around the world, in terms of international justice.
How do you think that Ríos Montt has been able to escape this for so long and remain immune, immune to these charges?
Ríos Montt’s ability to avoid prosecution on human rights crimes is the result of a confluence of all kinds of factors. First of all, the war didn’t end until 15 years after the crimes in this particular case were committed. So you had an armed internal conflict continuing all this time, and the Guatemalan military was an absolute front, center player in Guatemalan politics, government, security, the economy, every aspect of Guatemalan life until very, very recently. Another reason is that Ríos Montt in the early 1990s created a political party and became a member of congress. And that gave him immunity, for years and years, from prosecution of any kind related to the wars.
And that, I think, is linked to a third reason why it has taken so long for Ríos Montt to be tried, and that is the Guatemalan justice system was severely damaged during the civil conflict. The military stocked it with judges who were either former military people, relatives of military, or just friends to the military: very conservative, very supportive. Also, the judiciary system was systematically targeted for intimidation, threats, attacks, murders. There were a number of judges that were murdered both during and after the conflict.
So all of these factors — the ongoing war that lasted well into the 1990s; Ríos Montt’s own immunity that he managed to get by becoming a member of congress, even from the worst, most heinous crimes imaginable, such as genocide or the crimes against humanity with which he’s charged now; and the weakness of the justice system in Guatemala — all of that, plus the just across-the-board lack of political will to try members of the military for human rights crimes, conspired to delay and obstruct the process of justice for decades.
What implications do you see this having in the field of human rights law, specifically dealing with cases of mass atrocities?
One of the reasons this trial happened is because of the pressure that was brought to bear on the Guatemalan justice system, and the government in general. Internally, there was an incredibly sustained, committed amount of work that went on, on the part of the survivors’ organizations, the human rights groups, and the organizations committed to human rights justice there. But internationally, the role that the Spanish case played in continuing to push this on, and continuing to focus international attention on this case was also critical.
Is there anything exceptional about this particular case of these 15 massacres that allowed that to happen?
One of the elements that has been exceptional, and I think this is also critical for these trials, has been the identification of evidence. In the case of the Guatemalan Ixil region, where these 15 massacres — as opposed to the hundreds of other massacres that took place during the conflict — were carried out, is that number one, there have been multiple exhumations done: the unburying of the massacred dead over the last 15 years. And those exhumations have been done almost exclusively by a nongovernmental organization called the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala.
They have been able to compile extraordinary, powerful evidence of the identification of the people found in these mass graves, hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children. They’ve been able to put together profiles on the kinds of people targeted, and clearly these were not all men carrying weapons. These were people of all ages, down to infants, who often had their hands tied, or had been blindfolded, or otherwise constrained before killed. So this kind of data, matched with a DNA laboratory in Guatemala City, where the office has its headquarters — that has been crucial for the development of the evidence in this case.
And the other piece of evidence that has been central to the case has been the appearance of documents from inside the Guatemalan military command. These are records that were provided to the National Security Archive by sources that have requested anonymity, but we’ve been able to, over the course of many months, verify the authenticity of these materials. And these are basically both the commands — on the part of the Guatemalan senior military command, back in 1982, to carry out the scorched-earth operations that targeted these Ixil communities — and the reports from the field, as the patrolling units were walking through the villages and encountering civilians and killing them; encountering fields of corn and burning them down so people wouldn’t have food to eat; encountering peoples’ homes and schools and churches, and razing them to the ground. These reports were sent back up the chain of command to the army chief of staff in Guatemala City, and we now have these reports, and they are at the heart of this case.
Sounds like this is just the beginning. Do you think there is a possibility that U.S. officials could end up being charged in connection with the crimes?
Well, who would charge them, Jared? I think that’s the problem. It is certainly going to be a closely examined question as to precisely who within the U.S. government supported, aided, abetted the doctrine and the strategy behind these counterinsurgency operations. It will be a closely examined question whether or not the United States provided material assistance of any kind. And it will be an equally closely examined question as to what extent U.S. officials were responsible for how that war was waged and the civilian deaths that resulted. The problem with that line of inquiry is what comes next? Who is going to take on an indictment of U.S. officials for the crimes of genocide in this case, or for aiding and abetting the human rights violations that took place?
I know that in Spain, Balthazar Garzón, the judge in the Pinochet case, did try to open an investigation, and I know that U.S. officials — we know through the Wikileaks documents — flew to Spain to pressure the Spanish government to drop that case. So I think that’s a fascinating and worthy investigation to carry out, and I will be very curious to see how that would be implemented, and in what court, under what legal jurisdiction.
Well, thank you so much for being here with us, Kate. It was a pleasure to have you.
All right, Jared. Thanks for the invitation. It was great talking.
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.