When It Comes to Stopping Genocide, There’s a Will But Not a Way

We Are More Committed to Ending Mass Atrocities Than Ever Before—We Just Don’t Know How

What does genocide mean? What are its causes? And what kind of actions can be taken—in the U.S. and elsewhere—to stem this horrifying, ongoing global problem? Kal Raustiala, director of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, opened a discussion about genocide, and how the world reacts to it, by posing these questions in front of a full house at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, at a “Thinking L.A.” event co-presented by UCLA.
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UCLA historian Richard G. Hovannisian, whose parents survived the genocide of Armenians that started almost exactly 100 years ago, recalled how his parents’ generation never grappled with had happened to their families or why. “There was no analysis,” he said. That began to change in the 1960s, with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel for his role in the Holocaust and, in 1965, the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.

But Jok Madut Jok, a historian born and raised in Sudan and co-founder of the Sudd Institute, said that the concept of genocide is still difficult for the world to wrap its head around—and thus address. Genocide “has gotten stuck in a very tight space between political activism on the one hand and scholarship” on the other, he said. And so it is caught between horror and fascination, war and criminalized massacre, emphasizing race and claiming shared humanity, political correctness and moral and legal obligations to act, he said. We continue to haggle over what is a genocide and what isn’t, said Jok. But at the heart of it is that a large number of people died for who they were.

Still, University of Wisconsin political scientist Scott Straus said that whether you’re looking at the long arc of the 20th century or just the last 20 years, “a lot of progress has been made” in terms of public awareness of genocide, and how national and international institutions address it. Genocide is “incredibly difficult” to stop, reduce, prevent—or rebuild from. Even if we can all agree that we should stop genocide on a moral and ethical basis, said Straus, we should appreciate what a challenge it is to do so.

Yet the word “genocide” itself remains freighted. Why, asked Raustiala, is the term so powerful, and what does it mean?

World Peace Foundation research director Bridget Conley-Zilkic said that the legal definition of genocide—which was crafted in 1948—requires the demonstration of the intent to destroy a group in whole or in part. What’s difficult is that this usage means that to get a legal finding of genocide, you must “get inside the mindset of the perpetrator” and prove intent to destroy a group, not just to push a group out of a certain area or defeat an insurgency.

Barack Obama used the term “Armenian Genocide” while running for president but has not done so while in office, including in his recent address on the hundredth anniversary. Hovannisian said that Obama the candidate did not understand the kind of political and economic pressures he’d be subjected to from Turkey as president. But Hovannisian noted that France officially recognized the Armenian Genocide a few years ago; the Turkish government withdrew their ambassador and cut off economic ties—but only for six months.

But even if crimes aren’t labeled genocide, Jok pointed out, they are still crimes. The challenge is how to make it difficult for a group—whether it’s a state, a political party, or an ethnic group—to kill another group. He also said that one of the difficulties in identifying genocide lies in the fact that it “happens under the cover of war.” And the ongoing power struggles and fighting can make it difficult to get to the bottom of genocide during these conflicts. Perpetrators can defend themselves with the fact that war involves killing people. But Jok said that there is a distinction between killing armed men and women—which is war—and killing women and children, which is not.

Yet most wars do not include genocides or mass atrocities, said Conley-Zilkic. The challenge is to figure out how to identify those conflicts that do—and how, exactly, to intervene. She said that there is no question, for instance, that the Syrian government is responsible for ruthless brutal violence against civilians. But, should the U.S. intervene, what is the endgame there? Should the current regime be removed? What do we think would happen in the aftermath of regime change?

These are not easy questions, said Conley-Zilkic. But what is revolutionary is the priority placed on posing them—and that has achieved real results. The number of mass atrocities around the world has declined, as has the number of people being killed.

Straus agreed, noting policy intervention improvements such as the creation of the U.N. Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and a U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board. Awareness of genocide is much greater than ever before, he said; “a kind of conscience that didn’t really exist 25 years ago” is now in effect—one that leads to political will.

Hovannisian said that intervention remains a stumbling block. If done incorrectly, intervention can lead to a backlash and reaction that are worse than no intervention as all. European powers put pressure on the Turkish government to implement reforms in treatment of minority groups before the genocide began. But then Europe stepped away, only to add to the suspicion of Armenians as a threat. Hovannisian pointed to recent history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East as reason for governments to take care before knocking out one regime after another.

In the audience question-and-answer session, the panelists were asked why the U.S. government has failed to intervene over and over again, from Armenia to Bosnia.

Straus and Conley-Zilkic said that the kind of miscommunications that plagued the government as recently as the early 1990s—where letters between agencies and branchers were lost, and different government organizations claimed ignorance of atrocities being committed in Bosnia and other parts of the world—would not happen today because there is more collaboration than ever before.

But Straus said that while people know and care about genocide a great deal today, stopping it is an entirely different issue. The will to stop genocide exists; the ability to do so does not.

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