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Deepening Divides and Unmitigated Suffering in the World’s Newest CountrySONY DSC


On July 30th, 2013, the AIPR Blog described a deepening ethnic conflict in South Sudan’s Jonglei state fueled by cattle-raids and retaliatory attacks. South Sudan’s micro-level conflicts were worrisome for a new country seeking to reconcile and move forward from decades of war, but far more worrisome– and–dangerous was the larger militia-based violence between the SPLA and Yau Yau rebels that was driving the country into ruin from the top down. Since July South Sudan has experienced a sharp escalation in the severity and scale of its internal conflicts, but in a different way. An attempted coup d’état last month has ignited an internal power struggle, which has galvanized the formation of military/political factions along religious lines.

What initially began as a struggle for power between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President Riek Machar has now resulted in a situation where civilians, including women and children, are attacked simply because they belong to the other ethnic group. The intimacy between political and ethnic identities in South Sudan has allowed the situation to escalate beyond a political rivalry in Juba into towns and villages across the country, forcing seemingly amicable Nuer and Dinka neighbors to fear for their lives. For the mass atrocity/ genocide prevention community, South Sudan represents a nightmarish confluence of ethnic, political and identity-based factors so reminiscent of past conflicts in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and Burma.

Only two years removed from its hard-fought independence from Sudan, stability has proved illusive. While inter-communal conflict and sporadic violence have plagued the country during this time, the recent outbreak of widespread violence is unprecedented and surprising to many in the international community given its scale and severity. The crisis was not wholly unpredictable either.

Rising tensions within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) have been public since mid-2012 when President Kiir, in a move characterized by many as dictatorial and unconstitutional, dismissed the entire cabinet as well as several democratically elected governors from neighboring states. These tensions reached a breaking point on December 14th when the top leaders of the SPLM criticized ex-Vice President Machar (who was dismissed in July) at an SPLM National Liberation Council meeting, prompting Machar and his allies to angrily walkout. What followed the next day­––and whether or not it was a coup––has been debated extensively. Nonetheless, political divisions within the leadership in Juba have split the country along political/ethnic lines and led to widespread atrocities and attacks on civilian populations. Although the immediate cause of the South Sudan crisis stems from political instability in Juba, there are many deep-seeded, long-standing grievances that need to be unearthed in order to understand how to bring the country back from the brink.

Growing Grievances Aimed at JubaSchool_children_in_South_Sudan

Serving as a foundation for the political crisis in Juba (and the eventual outbreak of violence) were a myriad of deeply entrenched political and economic grievances. According to Mehari Taddele Maru, a research fellow at the NATO Defense College, these included: the persistent, undemocratic nature of the government in Juba, increasing competition over the country’s resources, particularly oil, and low levels of delivery of basic services to the public. “It was a matter of time before the SPLM leadership had to face the mounting grievances of the population” according to Maru. Christopher Zambakari and Tarnjeet K. Kang at African Arguments also posit that the “SPLM dysfunction reflects itself the dysfunctionality of the South Sudan state.” Dr. Peter A. Nyaba, a South Sudanese leader and former Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research believes that the country’s problems (originating in the SPLM) stem from “failure of the leaders in Juba to organize functional government institutions sensitive to the concerns of the citizens, to develop distinct political ideologies [not based on ethnic affiliations] and the failure to institutionalize power relations within the SPLM.” According to Nyaba, these failures have amounted to an autocratic-like governance style that is supported by ethnic lobbies and backdoor business deals, thus turning state institutions into a “limited liability enterprise.”

This is partially due to the over-centralization of power in Juba since the formation of the South Sudanese state in 2011. With ethnically diverse communities outside the capital now being controlled from Juba and having their requests for constitutional accommodation denied by the SPLM, it is no wonder why tensions have finally boiled over. In fact, a 2011 Crisis Group report identified precisely the same problems and forecasted the danger of not reconciling grievances by failing to reshape political and institutional arrangements. The report warned of the dangers of the SPLM’s “politics of exclusion”, an overly centralized, authoritarian government in Juba, and stressed the importance of political accommodation over a “winner takes all mindset.” Furthermore, Crisis Group specifically pointed to the fact that decentralization had been championed in rhetoric but was being neglected in practice, and that the growing center-periphery dynamic in Juba would be replicating the model in Khartoum that the South had just escaped from. The premonitions many experts had in 2011 have been realized. The current leadership in Juba, by shifting their focus to winning political battles, ignored the growing discontent of its citizens and within the SPLM. They have not taken seriously the process of building an effective, transparent and responsive government in order to move the country forward.

Furthermore, according to Khalid Mustafa Medani at The Guardian, the SPLM has “stifled all criticism, delayed the implementation of badly needed constitutional and security reforms, and pushed through laws restricting the operation of non-governmental organizations.” The grievances directed at the SPLM also stem from the conduct of the state’s security forces that have unlawfully imprisoned journalists and activists and murdered numerous SPLM political opponents and rivals.

Another major factor behind the conflict in South Sudan is the battle for control of the nation’s oil producing regions, which has pitted factions divided along ethnic/political lines against one another, both in government and across the country. The fact that South Sudan’s oil industry accounts for 98% of the government’s revenues annually, making it the most dependent on oil revenues in the world, creates a highly politicized issue with a lot at stake within the SPLM. According to Medani, the government in Juba allocates 38% of oil revenue to military and security, and only 17% to education and infrastructure. Meanwhile, agricultural production has declined sharply over the last decade­––80% of South Sudan’s population relies on livestock and agriculture for their basic needs. Oil revenues have been used by Dinka and Nuer leaders (within the SPLM) to forge ties and cut deals with local leaders in the oil-rich Unity and Blue Nile states along political/ ethnic lines. It is no coincidence that control of Bentiu and Malakal, the capitals of two oil rich regions, has been fiercely fought over by rebel and government forces in the last month. Luke Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, believes that “the opposition hopes that by capturing the oil fields, they’ll gain the upper hand in cease-fire negotiations by halting the government’s main source of income.” While oil is not the cause of the conflict in South Sudan, one of the world’s least developed countries, Patey importantly points out that “oil is the prize at the conflict’s end.”

 SONY DSCRising Atrocities on the Ground

Since fighting began last month the toll on the people of South Sudan has been staggering. Witnesses and U.N. officials have reported severe human rights violations by both sides, including ethnic massacres, summary executions and widespread looting. The Satellite Sentinel Project, a human rights group, recently released images showing the destruction of civilian homes and markets in two South Sudanese towns, Mayom and Bor, by government and rebel forces. Furthermore, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, claimed that mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and sexual have all been documented. “Quite a number of child soldiers have been recruited in the so-called White Army,” he said, referring to the Nuer tribe’s militia fighting in Jonglei state.

The UN has repeatedly warned that it is documenting and collective evidence of atrocities committed in South Sudan and would hold to account leaders on “all sides” if they failed to stop them. Despite reaching a preliminary ceasefire agreement this week in Adis Ababa, recent reports indicate that sporadic fighting and atrocities are continuing in disputed areas. South Sudan is unlikely to see lasting peace come quickly and easily given the scale of atrocities and destruction that has taken place in the last five weeks. The United Nations believes that over 10,000 have been killed and more than half a million have been driven from their homes. In Addis Ababa, Getachew Reda, spokesperson for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desaleg, conceded that “there has been so much bad blood involved now, and there is so much misunderstanding and hard feelings already for the last month, so it would be foolhardy to expect the two parties to come together just at the snap of a finger.”

The Way Forward

The path to peace, from Juba all the way to Unity, Blue Nile and Jonglei states, will be long and require both sides to address the long-standing issues that have existed even prior the country’s independence.  Christopher Zambakari & Tarnjeet K. Kang at African Arguments recently stated, “Without resolving the societal issues facing South Sudan, democratizing the political party, opening up the political space, and addressing the root causes of the conflict, the country will only defer its problems to a later date.” Additionally, the authors at African Arguments  believed the biggest obstacles to preventing future violence is reform of political and security sectors. “This includes the transformation of the SPLM from liberation movement into a democratic political party in addition to the completion of the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of rebel groups and the professionalization of the national armed forces,” they noted. Princeton N. Lyman, Jon Temin, Susan Stigan at Foreign Policy warned about the dangers of reaching a weak and narrow agreement in Addis Ababa. “Such a deal would ignore the broader population and its needs, perpetuate the trend of exclusionary and corrupt politics, and do nothing to address root causes of instability.”

The future of South Sudan must be guided by an inclusive and wide-ranging agreement involving different segments of society that addresses the fundamental, long-lasting problems in South Sudan’s political system. The only effective and sustainable approach to ensure stability for the people of South Sudan is one that tackles political devolution/ decentralization, the oil issue, the reconciliation of long-lasting political-ethnic rivalries, and justice for those responsible for mass atrocities and crimes against humanity. The costs of failing to do so would be too steep.


Are We Finally Getting it Right in the Central African Republic?


On August 25th, 2013, I wrote about the slowly disintegrating situation in the Central African Republic in an attempt to join a growing chorus of voices seeking to sound the alarms that apparently weren’t being heard by the international community. Since then, as the crisis has grown more desperate, the world has started to take notice.

In November, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that “this cycle, if not addressed now, threatens to degenerate into a country-wide religious and ethnic divide, with the potential to spiral into an uncontrollable situation, including atrocity crimes, with serious national and regional implications.” Adama Dieng, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, added:

“We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion. My feeling is that this will end with Christian communities, Muslim communities killing each other which means that if we don’t act now and decisively I will not exclude the possibility of a genocide occurring.”

The concern so many had about the simmering risk of large-scale mass atrocities has unfortunately been realized in the last month. A new and dangerous dynamic of inter-religious hatred and violence has taken off in CAR that has catalyzed a brutal cycle of atrocities and targeting of civilian populations. Around half of the country’s population is Christian while about 15% is Muslim. The Christian majority and the Muslim minority have historically co-existed peacefully. In recent months, Muslim Seleka rebels, who ousted former CAR President Francois Bozize in March 2013, have reportedly attacked Christian communities all over the country. “The danger is that this polarization has taken place along religious lines, which has never really happened in the past and that people are self-arming themselves and carrying out back and forth attacks against each other,” said Kyle Matthews, the Senior Deputy Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.

In response, Christian militias have formed in an effort to fight back against Seleka militias. Due to newly formed fissures in CAR’s society, anti-Seleka Christians are targeting local Muslims whom they suspect are naturally aiding Seleka rebels. Furthermore, the conflict has attracted foreign jihadists from Chad and Sudan, set off targeted retribution by Christian militias on Muslim villages, caused the collapse of civilian authority and resulted in massive dislocation and food shortages.

Human Rights Watch reports that both sides are responsible for wonton acts of murder, rape, and looting. United Nations officials and the international community are deeply troubled by the sectarian tenor of the conflict, which is reminiscent of the early stages of past genocides in the region. In a briefing to the Security Council, the deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, called it “a vicious cycle that could very easily turn into mass atrocities.”

Reports out of CAR in the last several weeks have been so worrisome that international action became unavoidable. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2127 last week, authorizing a joint French/AU operation in the Central African Republic. This will help strengthen an intervention force of up to 6,000 African troops, to be aided by 1,600 recently deployed French soldiers with support from the African Union. In the medium term, a UN Security Council-approved peacekeeping mission with up to 9,000 troops operating under “robust rules of engagement” could be necessary, according to Ban Ki Moon. “Member States of the United Nations now have the opportunity, and I firmly believe the responsibility, to prevent what has the high potential to result in widespread atrocities,” said Ban.


This sudden disbursement of support to CAR comes amidst an apex of violence in Bangui since the crisis unfolded earlier this year. Fighting in Bangui since last Thursday claimed at least 400 lives, according to Amnesty International. But the accuracy of these estimates is unverifiable; as many as 1,000 people may have been killed with many bodies being buried and taken away before they could be counted. Furthermore, on December 10th, two French soldiers were killed after a gun-battle ensued following attempts to disarm several Seleka rebels. Most of the foreign press and journalists are reporting from the capital region, Bangui, where over 30,000 civilians are holed up in the city’s airport, too afraid to leave its grounds. Tens of thousands may have already died in the more remote parts of the CAR, a country the size of France, according to independent journalist Gwynne Dyer.

Western countries have begun to step up their efforts. The US recently pledged $40 million for Central African peacekeepers and its armed forces will deploy military planes to help transport international peacekeepers from Burundi to Bangui in order “to prevent the further spread of sectarian violence,” said a Pentagon spokesman. The UK also pledged support by lending supply planes to the French and earmarking $25 million to CAR for humanitarian aid. The European Union has also contributed $50 million.

Despite these crucial immediate measures, it’s doubtful that 1,600 French soldiers will be able to restore long-term stability in the Central African Republic. These measures are at best a stopgap measure that represents a minimum commitment to restoring security in the short-term. The French mission, will at the very least, help reinforce the poorly equipped AU’s International Support Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) as it struggles to bring order back to the streets of Bangui. The latest reports claim that the French forces had indeed restored some stability in the capital in recent days. The French, who have already intervened in a similar fashion in Mali this year, also hope that the UN will send additional peacekeepers as quickly as possible. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recommended 6,000 to 9,000 men to be added as soon as possible.

Many groups and organizations, such as the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International, have laid out potential next steps in CAR that will help ensure short-term and long-term stability (as well as critiques of recent UN efforts). The general consensus is that more needs to be done both in the short-term and long-term to secure CAR’s future. According to Human Rights Watch’s United Nations Director Phillippe Bolopion, “If the post Rwanda and Bosnia ‘never again’ means anything, the U.N. Security Council needs to go all in to halt the spiraling killing in the Central African Republic.” Hinting at the need for further UN forces in CAR, Netsanet Belay, Africa Director at Amnesty International, said that “Before it’s too late to make a difference, the UN Secretary General must speed up his assessment of the peacekeepers’ impact on the ground — within weeks, not months — he must immediately start preparations for the deployment of a robust UN peacekeeping force to step in if and when needed.”

Others in the international community are also pessimistic about both the ability of the AU-French mission to alleviate the risk of mass atrocities and the willingness of the world’s powers to commit the necessary resources. Ty McCormick at Foreign Policy believes that “Even if a more robust international presence can bring the fighting under control—a prospect that is far from certain in a country roughly the size of Texas, much of which is densely forested — rebuilding a semblance of state authority will likely take years, if not decades.” The challenge ahead for the international community in CAR is undoubtedly daunting. Former US Ambassador to CAR, Lawrence D. Wohlers, believes that the “difficulty will be what happens next; the CAR government structures have been largely destroyed, so a robust peacekeeping force will probably be necessary for years. This will be costly.”

With the United Nations already carrying out 15 peacekeeping missions worldwide and Western militaries more focused on counterterrorism missions in the region, it’s hard to imagine that the necessary financial and political commitments will be made quickly enough to get CAR the support it needs. And as we learn at the Auschwitz Institute’s Lemkin Seminar, time is of the essence in situations where there are ongoing mass atrocities. “In societies with histories of ethnic violence, the cycle of killing will eventually spiral downward into the vortex of genocide,” warns Gregory Stanton in his article, “The Eight Stages of Genocide.” UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow said six years ago that she felt CAR’s citizens were “the most abandoned people on earth.” If the proper short-term and long-term measures to bring CAR back from the brink aren’t made quickly and robustly, the observations Farrow made then will continue to ring true.

This past February, the Auschwitz Institute awarded the Raphael Lemkin prize to Dr. Barbara Harff, to recognize her contributions to the field of genocide prevention. Dr. Harff agreed to discuss via print correspondence some of her thoughts and positions on subjects related to the state of genocide prevention today, her past and current work, involvement with the Institute, and thoughts toward the future.
Dr. Harff is Professor of Political Science Emerita at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and has twice been a distinguished visiting professor at the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. She is a prolific author, whose work has been important for the crafting of genocide prevention policy, as well as academics. She co-coined the useful term ‘politicide,’ and her early warning framework for genocide prevention has been a critical component of many projects and programs.

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 KuperFrank 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 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

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 Dr. James Waller, Academic Programs Director for the Auschwitz Institute, as well as Curriculum Coordinator and Instructor for the institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention. He currently holds the position of Cohen Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State Collge. In 2002, he published the first edition of Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing and he is now working on his next book, titled Genocide: Ever Again? anticipated for publication in 2014. He has conducted fieldwork in Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Argentina.


Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. So far in these podcasts we’ve spoken with individuals doing amazing things in the field of genocide prevention. Today I’m taking a look inward at the Auschwitz Institute itself. Why it’s here, what it does in the field of genocide prevention, and how it uses the tools available to effect positive impacts. Speaking with me is Dr. James Waller, author of the book Becoming Evil, coordinator for the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, and the Academic Programs Director for the Auschwitz Institute. Thanks for talking to me today, Jim. It’s good to have you with us.

 Thanks, Jared, it’s great to be with you. I appreciate you giving me the opportunity.

So how was it, Jim, that you first got involved with the Auschwitz Institute?

My first connection with the institute came in 2007. I was at a conference of the International Association of Genocide Scholars in Sarajevo, and before the conference Fred Schwartz had sent out a note to everyone who was going to participate at the conference, explaining a little bit about his vision for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. And it happened that Fred and his wife, Allyne, came to a presentation where I gave a talk on my work on perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocity, and immediately after my talk Fred came up, and Allyne, and asked me to join them for dinner that evening with John Evans, and Deborah Lipstadt, and Tibi Galis, and a few other people, and at the dinner Fred talked a bit more about his vision for the institute.

And in some subsequent conversations over the next few months, he and I chatted about my work, and how it might fit within the institute itself. And I think really, for me, Fred opened up the next chapter for my work in perpetrator behavior, to think about it from a standpoint of how it might apply itself to prevention. And at the inaugural seminar, the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention we had in May 2008, I was honored to be one of several different instructors of that seminar. And since that time I’ve been able to participate in every single seminar we’ve had, with kind of increasing responsibilities that today have led up to the position of academic programs director.

 So it sounds like, in starting with the institute, it changed you as much as a person as it changed your work.

Yeah, I think it did very much. I think I really had not made a connection of what I did with issues of prevention. I think in my courses I talked about the need to make “never again” a reality, but I really didn’t know what that meant in practice, or even in theory. And so I think Fred’s great challenge, and I think really the genius of the institute, is to say that we have to marry all of the great work being done in academic research, with fieldwork, and policymaking, policy implementation, that we need to get this information outside of academia to the people who matter more than academics in this area, and that’s people who make policy and implement policy at governmental levels. And Fred’s push, and I think really the institute’s push to have that cross-boundary conversation, has really been the key to the success of the institute to this point.

What sorts of things has the institute done so far, in that sort of respect, in fieldwork and in effecting policy change. What has it done so far, do you think, that has contributed most to preventing genocide?

You know our legacy to this point, just about five years into it, is pretty remarkable in terms of the couple of hundred policymakers that we’ve trained through the Raphael Lemkin Seminars for Genocide Prevention, the several dozen U.S. military personnel that we’ve trained through the Fort Leavenworth program that has come through Auschwitz as well, I believe in three different seminars. So I think what we’ve done is bring to people who might not otherwise have had access to this information, some of the cutting-edge information on genocide prevention. And really, what I think broadly about what we’ve tried to accomplish at these seminars, it really is trying to help people understand what genocide and mass atrocity crimes are, from a legal perspective, from a ground perspective.

Secondly, trying to help them understand what the risk factors are for genocide and mass atrocity prevention. And thirdly, and this is most important whether it’s military or policymakers, trying to help them understand what leverage and responsibility they have in their unique positions, where they can make a difference in the face of this. And I think we’ve built a network of people who have some really fairly nuanced understanding of the challenges of genocide and mass atrocity prevention, who I think draw on each other for information as much as they draw on us. And I look at the development even of our Latin American Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, which developed from one of the participants in our very first seminar, who went back and recognized that the strength of what genocide prevention could be, would lie really in strong regional efforts. And the opportunity we have to work on that in Latin America, and now in an emerging program in Africa, to build capacity for regions, and states within regions, to make a difference here. I think that’s really been the legacy, an incredible legacy, of just the five years of this institute.

What do you think the biggest challenges are in achieving those missions as we currently define them?

Jared, I think the biggest challenge is that prevention isn’t as appealing as intervention. Intervention kind of has a heroic “something’s going on, we come in, we stop it.” Clear, concrete stuff that you can use for a newscast or a video clip. I mean it’s just something, for lack of a better word, heroic, about that kind of heroic, about that type of intervention that makes news. Prevention doesn’t have that same focus. When we do good prevention, people never hear about it. People never know about it because we’ve prevented something from occurring, or we’ve prevented a conflict from escalating into genocide and mass atrocity. So it doesn’t quite capture peoples’ imagination as much, simply because we’ve stopped something from occurring, as opposed to something like intervention.

So I think our challenge is trying to rise above that and say that the costs of prevention are so much less, in every way, than the costs of intervention. And while prevention may not seem quite as heroic an effort as intervention, that it just makes economic sense, it makes sense in terms of life and loss of life, it makes sense on every level for us to invest in prevention, rather than stepping in to stop conflict, once it’s escalated to this point.

Do you think that as a society, and especially as a Western society, we run up against the same sorts of hurdles, where we understand that it’s better to educate than to imprison, it’s better to have nutrition than to have open heart surgery. Do you think that we’re going to run up into those same issues where we just don’t want to think about the hard work that has to be done beforehand, and we prefer to just wait and see?

 Yeah, no, I think you’re exactly right. I think with some of the biggest problems, for instance, facing American society, we tend to focus on them once they become a problem, and we want to somehow stop the problem with some direct intervention, when much of the groundwork could have been done ahead of time. But again, it just isn’t easy if you’re a politician to get funding, for instance, to do things that are preventive. It’s easier to get funding to do things that intervene and stop a problem as it’s ongoing. But the question is, can we have a longer-range vision to help us understand the tremendous benefits of preventing these problems before they start, rather than responding to them once they’re in place. And I think we’re seeing changes in that. I think we’re seeing changes certainly at the UN level, and understanding issues of genocide prevention. Certainly in the U.S. with the Atrocities Prevention Board, that’s a positive step forward as it starts to develop. Other regions, other countries have started to take prevention seriously. So I think we’ve got to the point where people are starting to get the message. We just now need to keep reinforcing what do prevention policies and practices look like.

So if we could overcome all of the challenges, and if you could imagine the best possible outcome in five years, where would the Auschwitz Institute be, and what might it achieve?

 That’s a great question. I think that for anyone that works in the field of genocide studies or genocide prevention, part of your hope is that one day your field is obsolete, it’s no longer needed. I guess in some ways I think about that when I think about the work of the institute. I hope one day this institute’s not needed any longer, because we simply aren’t facing this problem. I don’t think we sit anywhere close to a world, though, where that’s a reality. I mean the pressing population growth, scarcity of resources, the increase in number of nation-states and contested boundaries, all of these things just lead us, unfortunately, to some pretty dire predictions about what the world will be like and continue to be like in terms of conflict, and also in terms of escalation into genocide and mass atrocities. So I think unfortunately the work of the institute is absolutely still going to be needed five years from now.

I think, for me, our greatest successes will be what capacities have we built for regions and nation-states. In other words, our seminars that they get involved in are meant to empower them to go back and make differences in their own communities and in their own regions. The more that we can enable people to do that work, rather than people coming to us for that work, or coming to the UN for that work, the more that states can build the capacity to do this work in their own state, I think the better off we’d be. So it is, for me, that would be a great point for us to be at five years from now, is to continue to point to programs like in Latin America, like in Africa, where we’ve built capacities for states and regions to engage in genocide and mass atrocity prevention.

You wrote a book called Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that book, and about the next book you’re working on?

Yeah, sure. Becoming Evil was first published in 2002 and a second edition in 2007, and basically the central thesis of the book is that it’s ordinary people like you and me who commit the vast majority of genocide and mass killing. And what I’m trying to look at there is how is it that ordinary people become transformed into people capable of committing these atrocities. And I argue in this book that very few perpetrators are born.

In other words, we don’t have people waiting to perpetrate these atrocities just as soon as they’re given permission. I think these are people who, by and large, could never envision themselves committing the type of atrocities we see in genocide and mass killing, but over time become involved by their own choice, by some limited circumstances, in situations that begin to transform their view of the other, the target group, begin to transform their sense of responsibility to their society. Begin to transform their view of the worth and sanctity of human life. And over time they come to think that it’s not just right to do the killing they do, but that it’s wrong to not do the killing. And so as a psychologist I try to understand, or lay out a model, for what are the forces that kind of transform, and influence, and shape people in this direction. While at the same time absolutely saying that these people still hold personal, legal, moral, philosophical accountability for the crimes they’ve committed.

So that’s the work in Becoming Evil. The next book I have contracted with Oxford University Press is a book on partly the history of genocide, but also a thematic book on themes like justice, truth, memory. There’ll be a large chapter on genocide and mass atrocity prevention, that’s part of the book as well. So really it’s a book to introduce educated readers, policymakers, college or university students, to what genocide has looked like historically, and then from that very specific picture to step back and say, what does the study of genocide tell us about justice, how a society rebuilds itself, about the role of truth in rebuilding, about the role of memory? What does it push us to to understanding prevention? And really it’s a book that, had I not been involved with the Auschwitz Institute, I don’t think I would have had that broad a view of understanding genocide, so really it’s in large part my work with the institute that’s led to this book, in many ways.

Do you think that it’s more helpful and more useful, when dealing with that sort of thing, to focus more on the beliefs and the ideological factors that come from things like ethnicity or ethno-symbolic identification, or do you find it’s more effective in finding the roots and causes to focus on economic and political factors?

Yeah, you know I’m going to follow in this book what I followed in Becoming Evil, which is to say that I’m very suspicious of monocausal explanations, or explanations that focus on one thing particularly, or maybe two things. I think in anything as complex as this there’s a variety of explanations, and the question is how do they go together, how do they influence each other? Is ideology a part of it? Absolutely so. I mean, belief systems, worldviews, cultural models are incredibly important to perpetrator behavior and understanding the outbreak of genocide and mass atrocity. But I do think there are other structural factors that put societies at risk that we need to understand, poverty being one of those, one of many of those factors. So I’m not wanting to reduce it to say that this is it, there’s just one or two things here we need to focus on. I’m really wanting to understand that multiplicity of factors, and then how those factors interact in these societies. And part of that is understanding that there are a lot of societies on the verge, possibly of genocide and mass atrocity, that don’t take that step. That don’t have that trigger that brings a society into that type of large-scale atrocity. So understanding the things that put a break on genocide and mass atrocity, I think, can be just as important as understanding the things that start to compel a society to think this is their only possible political, social, economic solution, is to exterminate a large group of its population.

Well, I think you’ve given us a lot of reasons for optimism. I hope you’ll come back soon and share a few more.

Thanks Jared, very much appreciate it.


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.



disarmamentIn November 2012, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs released a publication, Civil Society and Disarmament 2012 – Applying a Disarmament Lens to Gender, Human Rights, Development, Security, Education and Communication: Six Essays. Given the Auschwitz Institute’s mission, this post focuses on the essay, “Minimizing the impact of illicit small arms and diverted weapons transfers in the commission of atrocity crimes, human rights violations and other violence” by Hector Guerra of International Action Network on Small Arms and Robert Zuber of Global Action to Prevent War and Armed Conflict.

This piece centers on illicit small arms and the ways in which they contribute to mass atrocity crimes and community violence throughout the world. One statistic states that “of the 740,000 people who die each year as a result of armed violence, 500,000 are fatalities related to situations of violence other than armed conflicts, fatalities largely related to the use of small arms and light weapons.” The United Nations has endeavored to solve the problem of illicit weapons via various programs and protocols; this past summer, an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was negotiated. However, agreement on a final text was elusive and a new meeting will take place in March 2013.

According to the authors, “the irresponsible transfer of weapons and ammunition and the proliferation of illicit small arms have direct implications for our ability to secure our streets, deliver aid to unstable areas, prevent abuses of human rights and the commission of mass atrocities, and create environments conducive to full political and policy participation by women and cultural minorities.” Many ‘illicit’ weapons originate in the legal sector before moving through unregulated transfers into the wrong hands. The uses of such weapons have far-reaching dangerous impacts, including:

  • Illicit arms perpetuate conflicts that could otherwise be resolved.
  • Illicit arms undermine development and inhibit the flow of assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, and others in dire need.
  • Illicit arms in the hands of both State and non-State actors have been used to violate civilian populations’ human rights and impede efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. 
  • Illicit arms and ammunition hinder the ability of governments to carry out some of their most important functions, including the primary responsibility to protect civilians from violence.
  • Illicit arms “undermine the integrity of the security sector, creating or exacerbating levels of unacceptable risk for women and others seeking their proper place in society.”
  • Illicit arms “contribute to cycles of violence and criminality that reinforce structures of poverty as women and men continue to expend large amounts of energy on security needs that could more beneficially be spent on pursuing educational and economic opportunity.”

All of the above is in addition to the immeasurable physical and psychological damage suffered by civilians as a result of illicit weapons access by criminals, insurgents, or other non-State actors. One of the most serious aspects of the proliferation of illicit weapons is “related to the role those weapons play in the commission of mass violence, including the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999 and the massacre at Utoya, Norway in 2011.”

The UN has had the prevention of mass violence, both at the community level and within broader international legal frameworks, at the forefront of its agenda since its inception. Urgency in this area escalated in 2005 with the advent of the Responsibility to Protect norm. This is because the illicit trade in conventional weapons and ammunition severely complicates efforts to build State capacity and otherwise help governments fulfill their primary responsibility to protect their civilian populations. Moreover, their are staggering costs to fragile States from mass atrocity and other conflicts fueled in part by illicit weapons. For example, Africa loses ~$18 billion per year due to wars, civil wars, and insurgencies. Conservatively, armed conflict shrinks an African nation’s economy by 15%. 

In order to combat the multitude of problems outlined above, governments, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders must work together. Concrete steps include:

  • Exploring local and regional linkages between the presence of illicit arms and the threat of mass violence/human rights abuses.
  • Calling attention to and addressing the linkages between legal arms sales diverted to non-State actors and criminal elements, and “the commission of human rights abuses, the suppression of access to jobs and services, and the chilling impacts of a compromised security sector on women’s participation in political and social life.”
  • “Assist States, especially fragile States, to guarantee the security of existing weapons stockpiles (or remove them altogether), and help ensure marking, tracing and record keeping of arms that is cost-effective and sufficiently interactive with the highest international standards in this area.”
  • Restricting the illicit flow/diversion of ammunition for small arms.
  • Assisting States in promoting citizen disarmament.
  • Assisting States in implementing important responsibilities resulting from the illicit arms trade, e.g., provide victims’ assistance and flag potentially diverted transfers.

Other resources include the UN’s recently revised Disarmament: A Basic Guide, and voices from impacted communities.



The Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict recently published a policy brief titled “Operationalizing the Responsibility to Prevent.” What sets this paper apart from others of its ilk is the fact that it directly addresses the prevention aspects of R2P. Most importantly, the authors use what they refer to as a “crimes” approach to prevention. Within this framework exist three distinct dimensions involved in the commission of an atrocity crime: a perpetrator, a victim, and a permissive environment or situation. However, it is cautioned that one not be too rigid when labeling perpetrators and victims, as these identities can become fluid within a conflict situation.

The authors of the brief assert that, “Of the four R2P crimes . . . the legal category of crimes against humanity represents the best characterization of what the principle of R2P was designed to halt or address. [. . .] Research shows that crimes against humanity do not occur randomly, but often reflect a complex interaction of different actors over a long period of time.” The three stages during which conditions escalate to the level of mass atrocity crimes are 1) risk factors, 2) crisis & mobilization, and 3) imminent emergency. Systemic strategies, which are applied to the first stage, “seek to mitigate risk factors and build resilience in a broader group of states, which exhibit some of the so-called root causes of mass atrocity crimes.” In contrast, targeted strategies, which are necessitated by the second and third stages, “are designed to change either the incentives or situation of those contemplating or planning mass atrocity crimes, as well as the vulnerability of potential victims; they seek to shift the consequences of a potential course of action in a particular context.” (See page 9 for a table of targeted prevention tools.)

Lastly, when discussing mass atrocity prevention and the prevention of armed conflict, the paper makes two points: First, R2P crimes often occur in the context of violent conflict and second, “root causes” of genocide are similar to root causes of conflict. Yet it cannot be assumed that endeavoring to prevent, or even bring about an end to, conflict will necessarily reduce the potentiality of mass atrocity crimes. This is because

  1. While a large majority of mass killings since 1945 occurred within the context of armed conflict, at least a third of the cases did not.
  2. Some instances of mass atrocities occur under the “cover” of armed conflict, but are not directly linked to either the causes of that conflict or the conduct of the war itself.
  3. While strategies to prevent or resolve conflict tend to be aimed at eliminating or avoiding violence and the use of force, the prevention of mass atrocities—particularly at a late or imminent stage—may require military means.
  4. Armed conflict is regulated but not forbidden by international law, whereas mass atrocities are outlawed as crimes.

As such, it remains necessary to justify the need to act preventively and build generic capacity for prevention.


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