You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Sierra Leone’ tag.

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



The Genocide Prevention Advisory Network recently issued a conference report from their advanced workshop at The Hague on March 14-15, 2012. Focusing on the emerging global and regional architectures aiming at the prevention of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, the conference addressed the following questions:

  • What guiding principles are emerging to shape the architecture and community of genocide prevention and its relevant fields?
  • What can GPANet offer to articulate those principles and strengthen these emerging capacities?
  • How can GPANet work in partnership to support and facilitate local, national, regional and international prevention networks?

The papers presented at the conference dealt with the topics of early warning and data gathering and verification systems, case studies on Somalia, linkages with terrorism, and lastly, perspectives on genocide prevention. This final subject is what we’ll focus on, given the work of AIPR.

Discussing Holocaust education and genocide prevention, Yehuda Bauer spoke of the “problematic” text of the Genocide Convention and the resultant inefficacy of the United Nations to prevent or halt instances of genocide post-World War II: two examples being Rwanda in 1994 and Sudan at present. Given the structure of the Security Council, geopolitical interests often trump those of the humanitarian variety. Moreover, Bauer argues that race and ethnicity are modern social constructs, given the singular origin of the human species. This leads to the common “us vs. them” framing that serves to precipitate genocide. All of this is compounded by the fact that, “There is a dialectical development one can discern in international politics, reflecting two contradictory global trends: a tendency towards greater unification on the one hand, and an opposing tendency towards greater autonomy and independence of ethnic and/or national groups on the other hand.”

Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch and formulator of the Eight Stages of Genocide model, noted Genocide Watch’s early warning system and how “[r]apid response by regional alliances has prevented or stopped several genocides: in East Timor, Kosovo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia , and Sierra Leone.” He also spoke of the success of international tribunals and the creation of the ICC. Having worked against genocide for 30 years, Stanton says he has learned two things about genocide prevention. He states:

  1. The first lesson is the direct result of our own human incapacity to comprehend or feel sympathy for large groups of people halfway around the world. Because individuals cannot do that, we need permanent institutions established that will watch out for precursors of genocide, take action to prevent it, intervene to stop it, and arrest and prosecute those who commit it.
  2. The second lesson I have learned is that genocide prevention must start and be led by people from countries at risk. It cannot be led by an American organization in Washington, DC, led by a pacifist director, that is unwilling to advocate the use of force to stop genocide. Prevention must especially begin from the ground up in countries at risk of genocide. A true International Alliance to End Genocide can support such local efforts and create an international mass movement to end genocide.

Daniel Feierstein then offered “A Critique of the Hegemonic View of the Current Genocidal Conflicts: A Perspective from the Latin American Margin.” His understanding of genocide seeks to dismantle a simplistic “Good People vs. Bad People” scenario and instead puts forth a perspective where genocide is “a technology of power used very successfully to destroy and reorganize social relationships and identities.” He believes “this would be a better explanation of why it continues beyond our collective calls of ‘never again.'” He went on to point out three different initiatives as possible alternatives to the military intervention model:

1. The UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) Experience

Since the UNASUR Constitutive Treaty was signed on May 23, 2008, UNASUR has helped four countries in the region that have experienced the possibility of new violent conflicts: Bolivia (2008), Honduras (2009), Ecuador (2010), and the conflict between Colombia and Venezuela (2010). In each case there was a major crisis with strong potential to trigger atrocity crimes.

2. The Regional Fora on Genocide Prevention

Writes Feierstein, “The idea was to meet all the governments of a region to create an open exchange and debate on how to prevent possible genocidal conflicts. As every government is involved in the discussions, there is a possibility (only a possibility, but we should have little utopias, which are more possible to achieve than the big ones) that the real problems of the regions will appear. It is even possible that some approaches to resolve them will emerge, as there are few instances in which the governments are invited to debate on regional perspectives to analyze and prevent genocide.”

3. The Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation

AIPR has organized several meetings with mid- and low-level representatives, with the idea that governments change but there are some kinds of officers who continue in their key positions as professionals and/or bureaucracy. The objective of the AIPR is to train those people in early warning and genocide prevention as a challenge for the future.

The  workshop concluded with a concept note by Alice Ackermann on emerging genocide prevention structures in Europe and Liberata Mulamula discussing the same in the context of the Great Lakes region of Africa.

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

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

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

Photo: RFI English

Twitter Updates