What is Genocide? An Interview

Genocide_(1)

Today we bring you an interview with Dr. Marie Berry, a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and an affiliate of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver.

What is genocide? What are the sources of its definition(s)? Who defines it?

Genocide is a term created by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer from Poland, who combined the Greek term “genos,” meaning race or tribe, with the Latin word “cide,” meaning to kill. It was formally defined in international law in 1948 in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as a series of acts with “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” In the years since, scholars have debated the limitations of this legal definition, and today a more inclusive definition is generally used that encompasses the deliberate attempt to eliminate any social group.

What are the paradigm cases? Do all genocides look like Nazi Germany?

The term genocide was invented during the Nazi Holocaust, but Lemkin was also thinking about the genocide of the Armenians several decades before when he began thinking about the concept. Most genocide scholars see the Nazi Holocaust as the paradigmatic example of genocide, but also include Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Srebrenica, Bosnia on the list. Scholars also often debate whether atrocities in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Guatemala, Iraq, East Timor, and most recently, Darfur, Sudan, have comprised genocide. There are also many examples of other less known cases—such as the genocide of Baha’is in Iran—that deserve of further study.

Are there certain conditions or events conducive to genocide? What is the so-called “logic of genocide?”

Most genocides have occurred either during a broader war, or during periods of democratization. Broader wars—wither civil or interstate—are the most common prior condition for genocide. We saw how the Nazi Holocaust occurred during WWII, how the Cambodian genocide followed on the heels of the Vietnam War, and how Rwanda and Bosnia both occurred during each state’s broader military engagement. In these cases, the target group is often depicted as a threat or a danger to society that must be eliminated for the safety of the country. Further, the transition from an authoritarian, single-party regime towards a multiparty system can bring with it its own unique challenges. This is because different groups attempt to define who represents members of “the nation,” including some and excluding others.

In Rwanda, for example, Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana was pushed to hold multiparty elections after years of single-party rule. As different groups vied for political control, Tutsis (a minority ethnic group comprising approximately 14% of the Rwandan population) were depicted as foreigners who did not belong in Rwanda, and further, as a group that would return the country to its colonial past should Tutsis be allowed to have political power. The deliberate targeting of Tutsi civilians thus intensified during this period.

What are the warning signs? Can you give some examples?

There are a lot of warning signs that mass killing is about to occur. Such signs vary case by case, but can include discrimination against a social group, dehumanizing rhetoric directed towards a social group, polarization of political discourse, the arming of civilian defense groups, and small scale massacres. Organizations like the Early Warning Project also provide statistical risk assessments about the likelihood that state-led mass killing will occur.

What is the value of labeling something as genocide?

Labeling violence “genocide” ostensibly brings with it an international responsibility to intervene. Signatories of the 1948 Genocide Convention have agreed to “undertake to prevent and punish” the crime of genocide whenever it is occurring or about to occur. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine (or R2P) further commits states to intervene whenever another state fails to protect its citizens from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, or ethnic cleansing. Thus, the term genocide is a powerful one, because naming violence as such commands international attention.

How is it different from ethnic cleansing? Mass killing? War crimes? Other atrocities or state-led violence?

My answer would be that it in theory, genocide is different because it is the targeting of a members of a social group based on their membership in this social group, where as mass killing or other atrocities can occur for different reasons. But in reality, these various forms of violence often overlap, and how different episodes of violence are labeled often depends on who is doing the labeling. In my opinion, there is some danger in seeing these forms of violence as entirely different, as we then create a moral hierarchy of which is worse–the idea that killing civilians during genocide is more abhorrent than killing civilians during war. In my research I’ve seen how labeling some violence as “worse” than others can pose problems for rebuilding societies, transitional justice, and reconciliation in the aftermath.

Often genocide and civil wars are labeled in terms of ethnicity, can you speak a bit about ethnicity?

Great question. Over the past decades, social scientists have come to agree that ethnicity isn’t something fixed, unchanging, or “primordial”—instead, it refers to dynamic, fluid, and socially constructed categories of identity. What that means in practice is that ethnic categories must be made politically relevant—typically by politicians, religious leaders, or other ethnic elites—in order for them to shape action or behavior. For example, Rwandans didn’t kill each other because the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups had a long-standing hatred of each other. In fact, these ethnic categories had previously been more fluid and partially linked to class standing (in other words, occasionally a poor Tutsi would “become” Hutu). These ethnic categories then became more fixed as the Belgian colonialists used racial measures to classify people into an ethnic group, which was then marked on an individual’s ID card. Then, Hutu elites rallied constituents and gained supporters by blaming Tutsis for many of the country’s problems.

What can ordinary people do to stop genocide?

That is a great, challenging question. Right now in the world, there are many countries were mass atrocities are occurring, including places like Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Myanmar, and Syria. Of course this is not a comprehensive list. It is first and foremost important to have an awareness of what is going on around the world so that we can pressure our political leaders to take appropriate action.

Beyond this, it is also essential to look at how different conflicts around the world are linked—by weapons flows, cycles of grievances, power vacuums, economic deprivation, and so forth—and then to critically ask what role our own foreign policy or economic systems have played in facilitating these linkages. For instance, genocide scholars have detailed how the U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War facilitated the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, as well as how U.S. military aid to President Suharto of Indonesia facilitated the Indonesian military’s occupation of East Timor that ultimately left one-third of the Timorese population dead. Today, ISIS’s brutal killing and sexual violence against Yazidis and other groups in Iraq and Syria is made possible, at least in part, by the devastating U.S. invasion of Iraq. Better understanding how insecurity leads to insecurity—and violence to violence—is a critical step towards stopping genocide in the future.

What are some important works on genocide for those who want to learn more?

There is lots of important work on genocide. A few of the classics include “The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective” by Robert Gellately and Ben Kiernan, “The Dark Side of Democracy” by Michael Mann, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” by Samantha Power [current U.S. ambassador to the U.N.] and Benjamin Valentino’s book “Final Solutions: Mass Killing and Genocide in the 20th Century.”

Dr. Berry completed her Ph.D. in sociology at UCLA. She is a political sociologist with a focus on mass violence, gender, institutions, and development. Much of her research examines the political and social consequences war, genocide, or ethnic conflict, and seeks to understand how mass violence can impact gender equality, institutions and development in the long run. She is in the process of finishing her book “War, Women, and Political Power: Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Global Context,” which draws from over 230 interviews with women in both countries to investigate the impact of war violence on women’s political engagement. To learn more about Dr. Berry’s work, visit http://www.marieeberry.com/. Thanks to Dr. Berry for sharing her insights with us and to intern Annie Kraus for conducting this interview.