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Answers and Analysis: Theories of Genocide

After discussing genocide prevention and leadership, early warning, early prevention, preventive diplomacy, military options, and international action and the Genocide Prevention Task Force (GPTF) Report, we took a step back to discuss theories of genocide. If we are going to discuss how to prevent genocide, how do we understand it? What is genocide? How does it happen?

In 1943 Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide, which the UN defines as: “Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
    physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • …Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

 How do ethnic groups move into conflict? Why? Are there common threads seen across cultures in various conflicts which can serve as a blueprint for understanding conflict itself? Is conflict a unique phenomenon that is always specific to the place it happens, or are there themes and concepts which are applicable to many or most cases? Gaining an understanding of the process of groups entering conflict can then serve as a foundation for developing an early warning system and prevention mechanisms to deter violence and to save lives.

          Democracy, some say, is a way to deter violence from breaking out. Stanton says that “…structural factors such as totalitarian or autocratic government or minority rule correlate substantially with the incidence of genocide” (Stanton, Early Warning 318). Fein writes that while the Democratic Peace Theory might be accurate in saying that democratic governments won’t enter into external war with democracies, this theory has nothing to say about internal wars and genocide within national boundaries (Fein 322).

            Another such theory involves the concept of modernization. In a contemporary society in which developed nations have industrialized and modernized, there is pressure on the developing world to catch up and to compete in this new world. States which are too far behind to be competitive, but which are not so far behind that they are disinterested, are susceptible to internal conflict. In a state’s frantic and frenzied attempt to “attain the unattainable” (Levene 275), a state is likely to engage in policies like genocide.

  Not having the essentials of daily living, anxieties and frustrations amongst individuals cause people to identify more strongly with the group. In times of hardship, it is through this support that people can cope. When there are difficult life conditions, and when leaders and institutions are not effectively in place to help people cope with the stress and psychological affects of deprivation, individuals will turn to radical leadership (Staub 104). Staub notes that material life conditions are not enough to provoke genocide, but that they create an atmosphere which, with other important factors in place like leadership, can explode into violence.

            Horowitz, criticizing economic theory, notes that it does not provide an adequate explanation as to why there is such strong antipathy in ethnic conflict. Economic hardship does not explain the strong sentiment behind the call to war or the call to commit genocide, nor does it explain why the masses would follow the leaders in that call to war. There must be a theory, Horowitz writes, which notes “the sheer passion expended in pursuing ethnic conflict” and which “does justice to the realm of feelings” (Horowitz 139). This fundamentally subjective quality, of what it feels like to be a member of an ethnic group engaged in conflict, is one whose importance is agreed upon by several scholars of conflict and genocide. The concepts of group sentiment, categorical identities, legitimacy, and survival in a world fearful of extermination are of utmost importance in the theory of group entitlement.

            The power of group sentiment must not be underestimated. Staub says, “because people define themselves to a significant degree by their membership in a group, for most people a positive view of their group is essential in individual self-esteem—especially in difficult times” (Staub 99). It is this idea of belonging to a group, of gaining a feeling of worth and value from group membership, that provides a foundation for understanding why ethnic groups enter into conflict.

            Further, when discussing post-colonial societies, which, it may be argued, are more susceptible to internal ethnic conflict than other societies, the importance of imposed colonial identity and categorization is extremely relevant in the discussion about conflict. Horowitz discusses the idea of “advanced” and “backward” groups. Colonial powers, favoring one group, deems the seemingly more educated, refined, and modern group advanced and treats the group differently. The backward group is the one in which members are seemingly barbaric, uneducated, indigenous. In colonial times, when advanced groups receive disproportionate colonial attention, backward groups of course feel threatened, less worthy. Even in non-colonized societies, the concepts of backward and advanced groups have a powerful hold on states.

            Finally, when considering group entitlement, the notion of survival and fear of extinction is perhaps the most powerful concept to consider. The competitive, discriminatory nature of the simple act of division into groups paired with the insecurity of the challenge of more “advanced” groups, which might not even be legitimated with the land, can fuel anxiety and desire for homogeneity. This desire becomes a projection; a group’s desire to create a homogenous society by any means becomes a fear that other groups have the desire for homogeneity. From this a group derives a fear of extinction (Horowitz 180). Levene notes similarities between the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust by citing the same fear and anxiety that “the state itself was on the brink of destruction” (Levene 288). The state in this context includes the group with legitimacy rooted in the land. The others, after all, have seemingly no claim to the territory, and are therefore outsiders, invaders, and not nationals. Genocide in these two cases was conducted with the belief that the nation and its identity as an Aryan or Hutu society was at risk of extinction. Kiernan also notices this factor in genocide and ethnic conflict. He cites a quote directly from Hitler emphasizing this point. Hitler once said, “‘We are faced with the harsh alternative of striking now or of certain annihilation sooner or later’” (Kiernan 247).

             Because of the monumental importance of emotion and sentiment in ethnic conflict and genocide, it seems as though the theory Horowitz proposes, with which several other scholars are in line, is a more accurate view of ethnic conflict than those based on rational cost and benefit like economic theory. The power of group sentiment when divided into categories, the concepts of advanced and backward groups, legitimacy through association with the soil, and the fear of extinction, make for a deadly combination.

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