This post is written by Michael Mansheim, STAND Programs Intern, who is a senior at American University.
No country is immune to a genocidal period. However, there are many factors that raise the possibility of a genocide occurring in a country during any one period. For the purposes of this post, we can define genocide 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 : (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Here are five of the most potent factors:
1. A non-democratic government. Democratically elected governments have committed very few acts of genocide, due to the responsiveness to public pressures felt by democracies. Autocracies, totalitarian states and communist governments have committed the most deadly acts of genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries.
2. A state of war or rebellion. War creates the perfect cover for genocide. Add in the fact that many times rebellions and insurrections in the modern world are often fought by ethnic minorities in their country, and wartime becomes a dangerous time for potential ethnic cleansing and genocide.
3. A bipolar social structure. One of the most dangerous ways a society can be socially structured is into two opposing groups, which creates an “us and them” mentality. A bipolar social structure is often a socially constructed. In Rwanda before its genocidal period, the concept of ethnicity was used to establish a social order that encouraged Tutsi hegemony over a Hutu majority. This is especially apparent in post-colonial societies; colonizers structured societies to gain greater control over territory during the colonial period. The problems that stem from colonial legacies remain for many decades after independence.
4. Dangerous language and symbols. Your high school English teacher isn’t the only one who knows the power that symbols and symbolism can have over people. Symbols can effectually dehumanize groups of people, one of the steps on the road to genocide. In the Holocaust, Jews were forced to wear a yellow star, something that became central to how they were viewed. If you don’t think symbols are important, think of how much power the swastika still holds almost 70 years after the fall of the Third Reich. In more recent times, Tutsis in Rwanda were called cockroaches leading up to the 1994 genocide, and there has been widespread hate speech against the Rohingya in Burma as well as the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments.
5. Societal polarization. Moves towards the extreme end of the political spectrum in a country should be a warning sign that something bad could be occurring. This can manifest itself in arrests of well known moderates, or silencing of voices urging cooperation and restraint. Media outlets play a major role in this factor, as they are the ones putting out both moderate and extremist views. In late March of this year, newspapers in Burma were asked to no longer report about violence visited against the Rohingya people.
Knowledge of the factors that make genocide more likely to occur can mean prevention of future tragedies. When these elements exist within a society, advocates should be more vigilant, and call on those with the capacity to make a change to do so.