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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 Preventionin 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

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Tensions have erupted in Liberia during an initially peaceful protest outside the headquarters of the leading opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), in the country’s capital of Monrovia. The exact circumstances surrounding the violence are still unknown, but there is a general consensus regarding the chain of events.

Various reports agree that the CDC originally called for its supporters to gather peacefully outside the CDC headquarters to protest and boycott the second round of elections, set to take place tomorrow, following CDC opposition leader Winston Tubman’s loss to sitting president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the first round of voting. It has been agreed that Tubman had little to no chance of winning the second round. The Huffington Post said, in an article this afternoon, that international observers approved the first round of elections, and consequently this move by Tubman is seen as an attempt to discredit a fairly run election that did not turn out in his favor. These elections mark the second time voters have gone to the polls since the end of Liberia’s 14-year-long civil war in 2003.

The Huffington Post reported one death today, saying, “It was not immediately clear what set off the violence, but it appeared to have degenerated when security forces opened fire on demonstrators.” Meanwhile the Liberian Journal reported five people killed in the violence, writing, “The Liberian police, without any provocation, began to fire in the air, even after they barricaded the main entries to the opposition facility, provoking further tension and the chaos that followed.”

On today’s violence, the International Crisis Group’s West Africa Director said, “It’s motivated by the fact that they (Tubman’s party) think they don’t have a chance. It’s a way to stain the election. To create a problem of credibility for the president.” A Liberian Church leader offered another version: “I think members of the Liberia police force are provoking a problem, to justify their premeditated actions against a party that has chosen to exercise its full political and constitutional rights.” U.S. photojournalist Glenna Gordon, who is in Liberia, reported that she witnessed a confrontation between the Liberian riot police and UN peacekeepers. She also said she heard CDC supporters chanting “Tonight, tonight there will be a massacre.”

Ellen Margrethe Loj, the UN Secretary General’s special representative and head of the UN mission in Liberia said today, “Peaceful, credible, and transparent elections are important to ensure that peace in Liberia is maintained.”

Photo: http://www.scarlettlion.com/2011/11/riot-in-monrovia.html


UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated that Libya’s aerial bombing of civilians and use of heavy weapons on city streets must be investigated as possible crimes against humanity, Reuters reported. Pillay confirmed that “she had received accounts of executions, rapes and disappearances in the north African country.”

French president Nicolas Sarkozy told an emergency EU summit in Brussels that air strikes against Libya may soon be justified, the Guardian reported. “The strikes would be solely of a defensive nature if Mr. Gaddafi makes use of chemical weapons or air strikes against non-violent protesters,” Sarkozy said. The French president qualified his remarks by saying he had many reservations about military intervention in Libya “because Arab revolutions belong to Arabs.” David Cameron, the British prime minister, further commented at the EU summit: “I think it is the moment for Europe to understand we should show real ambition about recognising that what’s happening in north Africa is a democratic awakening and we should be encouraging these countries down a democratic path.”

Charles Taylor’s lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, made his concluding statements in Taylor’s trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Griffiths stated that the trial of the once-powerful Liberian leader was “politically motivated’’ to ensure he does not return to power in Liberia and he branded the war crimes case “neocolonialism’’ built on circumstantial evidence, calling on the judges at the trial yesterday to acquit his client on all counts, Boston.com reported. Verdicts in the case are expected later this year.

To celebrate International Woman’s Day on March 8, CNN published an article titled “To empower African women, turn words into action.” The article states that “urgent work is needed to address the ills of gender inequality, marginalization and social injustice currently endured by women in places like the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence against women is rife and rape has become a weapon of war.”

Photo: Foreign Policy Magazine

A Report by the Physicians for Human Rights from Cambridge shows that the Burmese military regime commits human rights abuses like forced labor, torture and religious and ethnic persecutions against the Chin in western Burma, as reported by Eurkalert. The authors carried out a population-based assessment of health and human rights in Chin State where multiple reports of human rights abuses were documented.

The trial of Charles Taylor, former Liberia president, was expected to conclude this week but was delayed as Taylor’s legal defense lawyers boycotted the final stage of the proceedings, contending the court was unfair and driven by politics.  The NY Times reported on February 8 that the source of their anger was the rejection by the judges of a 600-page trial summary by Mr. Taylor’s team that, despite frequent warnings, had missed a deadline.

Foreign Affairs reported on the recent succession of South Sudan by analyzing whether the South can part from the North without war. “One way to avert violence might be to encourage the two sides to cooperate in the name of their economic co-dependence” even though the state is still incredibly fragile, the authors stated.

Photo: RFI English

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