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This post marks the Auschwitz Institute’s inaugural podcast. Jared Knoll, based in Saskatoon, Canada, speaks to Samuel Totten, a pioneer of genocide studies in the United States, a co-founding editor of the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention, and, in 2004, an investigator with the U.S. State Department’s Atrocities Documentation Project, interviewing refugees along the Chad–Sudan border to ascertain whether genocide had been perpetrated in Darfur.

 

Good day, I’m Jared Knoll, with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. Joining me is Dr. Samuel Totten, genocide scholar and professor at the University of Arkansas. Last year he and 54 other experts in genocide prevention petitioned the United States government to take action in Sudan’s Blue Nile State and South Kordofan where they beheld a humanitarian catastrophe. Last week Dr. Totten returned home from an on-the-ground fact-finding excursion to this affected area.

Thank you, Sam, for taking the time to share with us today.

Thank you for the opportunity to do so. I greatly appreciate it.

I’d like to just jump right in and ask you: What are the biggest threats facing the people there on the ground right now?

There are basically three. One: Antonov bombers are being flown overhead every single day by the government of Sudan. Those bombers frequently end up bombing areas where people congregate, such as souks (the open-air markets), schools, and other areas such as that. And a lot of people are being severely injured and killed as a result of those bombings. Secondly, there is constant fighting in the area. Right now it’s concentrated around Kadugli, the capital of the state of South Kordofan, where the Nuba Mountains are located.

So people are at risk of being killed by the ongoing fighting between the rebels and the government of Sudan as well. Third, there is the problem with food in the area. That is, there’s a lack of food. People have been unable to work their farms out of sheer fear of being killed by the bombs from the Antonovs. Also, the rainy season was shorter than usual this year, so the people did not end up producing as many crops as they usually do and so their food stores are down dramatically. So those are the three main concerns and problems facing the Nuba Mountains people today.

Is there any of those that you feel is the most urgent factor for the international community to address, or is a multifaceted approach what is needed here?

Actually all three issues are major, but I think that, one, if the international community could halt the Antonovs, that would be a real boon for the people of the Nuba Mountains. Also, right now, experts are projecting that this coming rainy season, which starts in late April/early May, could be disastrous if the international community does not get food up to the Nuba Mountains right now, while they can still traverse the roads. Once the rainy season sets in, it’s virtually impossible for any type of vehicle to get up there, and the government of Sudan has established a no-flight zone in South Kordofan, so no planes, either now or in the rainy season, will be able to fly in. So this is the time to get stores of food up there, so that the people do have food. There are individuals who are claiming that if such food is not transported up in large quantities, and I’m talking thousands of tons, there could be widespread starvation this time around.

Do you still believe that the Sudanese regime is attempting to take out those that the government suspects of supporting the liberation movement?

Oh, there’s no doubt about it, yes, they’re definitely focused on that. Now where I differ from a lot of people is this: There are a lot of individuals—scholars, activists, and others—who are calling this a case of genocide. After being on the ground and talking with people, going from village to village, speaking with rebel groups, rebel commanders, it’s not a case of genocide at this point in time. It’s a civil war between the rebel groups and the government of Sudan.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the government of Sudan is perpetrating crimes against humanity against the Nuba Mountains people, particularly in its indiscriminate bombings of them. But at the same time it’s a situation that could quickly morph into at least genocide by attrition if the food is not gotten up there. Because there’s no doubt in my mind, as well, that the government of Sudan’s bombings are preventing the people from producing the food that they need, and at the same time preventing humanitarian groups from entering the Nuba Mountains to provide aid to the people in need.

Do you still support the recommendations that you and others gave to the US government last summer? Has your last trip made you reconsider anything, or made you want to change or advocate different policies?

No, actually I pretty much stand on what we wrote last summer and what we sent to the U.S. State Department, to Princeton Lyman, who at the time was the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, and to the U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board. Everything that we addressed still stands as far as I’m concerned. I guess the only thing that I would emphasize is that there is a greater urgency to get tons of food up there, otherwise the situation, as I said, could prove disastrous.

Do you have anymore that you’d like to add, to say to the people listening, what they should do?

Yes, I do, thank you. Frequently we read about situations where bombings are taking place, but I must say that, once on the ground, one’s awareness of what that means changes radically. So number one I would say that anybody interested in the fate of the Nuba Mountains people really need to voice their concern and interest about the fate of the people as these bombings continue daily, because it is a form of terrorism, there’s no doubt about it. I saw people who absolutely refused to leave the caves of the Nuba Mountains because they feared that they were going to be killed. I heard regularly stories about children and adults who had been hit by the shrapnel and had legs sheared off, arms sheared off, even heads sheared off, and those who were not killed, many ended up bleeding to death. So it’s a horrific situation that’s happening there every single day that these people are living with.

Second, I would say it truly baffles me why during the early part of the crisis in Darfur—and I’m talking 2004, ’05, ’06—both students in this country, university students in particular, as well as activist groups forming coalitions, were so active, so vocal about what was happening in Darfur and are so silent today about what’s happening in the Nuba Mountains. It makes absolutely no sense to me, and I really do not want to believe that people gave of their time, showed avid interest in the fate of the people in the Sudan for a number of years, and then decided Well, we’ll move onto something else.

People need to realize that the crisis in Darfur continues, but this new crisis in the Nuba Mountains is something altogether different when it comes to the issue of food. People really need to step up and they need to reflect on why they were active, say, a few years ago and not today, and I would hope that a new generation of students, who maybe were in high school during the Darfur years, would follow in the footsteps of their predecessors at their particular universities and become active today and speak up on the behalf of these beleaguered people who are leading very, very difficult existences in the Nuba Mountains.

Well, Sam, I hope that your experience and the experiences of other scholars doing the same sort of work, and the sharing of that, can help all people to raise their own awareness and have some sort of positive impact on the situation.

Photo: uark.edu

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In their article, How Mass Atrocities End: An Evidence-Based Counter-NarrativeAlex de WaalJens Meierhenrich, and Bridget Conley-Zilkic examine the narrative frameworks that inform today’s agenda of “protection of civilians” in conflict:

 1. A teleological assumption that the occurrence of attacks against civilians will, unless halted or deterred from outside, inevitably escalate towards genocide.

2. An epistemological assumption that privileges coercive military operations conducted on humanitarian grounds by international forces.

3. An ethical imperative based on the above teleology and epistemology that forecloses the historical and political discussions of how mass atrocities actually end.

Using comparative evidence from a variety of cases, beginning with the Holocaust and continuing through Libya, they then provide “a counter narrative to the dominant civilian protection agenda by returning to the historical record of how mass atrocities end.”

As to the first point, Jens Meierhenrich (pictured above) has put forth a general framework for studying genocide termination that contests this teleology. He argues for separating genocidal acts, campaigns, and regimes to better distinguish between different endings and, significantly, how each informs different policy options. In addressing the aforementioned epistemological assumption, the authors divide the ending of mass atrocities into five categories: 1) violence halted by the perpetrators once goals are met; 2) elite dissension or exhaustion within the perpetrator regime; 3) victims of violence flee or otherwise resist; 4) interventions waged by interested outside parties; or 5) humanitarian intervention.

Finally, questioning the ethical imperative, the authors relate a question that they deem to have been inadequately engaged by policy experts and researchers alike: How does one recognize when genocide or mass atrocities end? As they explain, “This question, let alone the equally, if not more complicated, question of how such violence ends has been caught up in the normative assumption about how they ought to end.”

While an optimal ending of mass atrocities is outlined as one in which vulnerable civilians are rescued, perpetrators are punished, and the state is justly reconstructed to address the conditions that enabled violence to occur, actual endings can rarely be described as optimal. But it is important to pay attention to what forces have played a tangible role in ending violence in order to garner a better understanding of how to interact with complex situations, what tools might achieve which exact goals, and a realistic expectation in terms of ending mass atrocities when this objective is obscured by competing agendas.

The authors describe some endings as being “the successful completion of a genocidal campaign, called off when the perpetrator regime is consolidated or when the political landscape alters such that the political rationale for mass violence against civilians is reduced. Other endings occur when the genocidal regime is removed from power, through successful resistance or invasion, or is fought to a standstill . . . Some endings are simply respite—a gap between genocidal campaigns conducted by a regime with an intact apparatus of mass violence.”

The article concludes by contending that the current undertaking of preventing genocide seeks to go beyond this singular aim to decisively resolve conflict and achieve transitional justice. Instead of the sole and default response of establishing a new regime “with ethical credentials commensurate with the horror that preceded it,” the authors’ approach “[. . .] eschews arguing from ‘ought’ to ‘is,’ and instead addresses the complexities of real politics and develops a rich comparative evidence base.” It seeks practical responses in the details of particular circumstances as opposed to deriving analysis and policy from universals that stem from moral impulses. Ultimately, such an approach should result in more effective prevention policymaking and reactions.

Photo: lseinternationalrelations.wordpress.com

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