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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.

Photo: http://www.keene.edu/news/stories/detail/1345061541160/

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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.

Photo: fletcher.tufts.edu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To conclude, Straus recommends

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

Photo: krieger.jhu.edu

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