In an earlier post from March 7, I proposed a typology of genocide, ethnic cleansing and other types of mass violence. I want here to visit again the question of the point of such typologizing or making distinctions. I am prompted to do so by the insightful discussion of Adam LeBor in a review of several recent books related to genocide (Taner Akcam’s A Shameful Act: Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, Benjamin Lieberman’s Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe, Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, and Mark Levene’s Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: Volumes I and II) in the March 19, 2007 issue of The Nation.
In addition to evaluating and discussing the books in question, LeBor also expresses exasperation with international proceedings related to genocide, whether with the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or the continued lack of real coordinated international efforts to end the slaughter in Darfur. Much of his frustration is aimed at hairsplitting over the definition of genocide, for example arguments over whether this or that person was guilty of genocide or ethnic cleansing at Srebrenica or elsewhere, or rulings that genocide occurred at Srebrenica without as yet finding anyone guilty of the charge in that case.
LeBor also insightfully writes of some of the consequences of this style of hairsplitting in a passage I would like to quote at length (parenthetical note added):
“This endless hair-splitting greatly aids states that perpetrate genocide. If nobody knows what genocide is, then how can anyone be guilty of committing it? It detracts from the more important debate of how to stop the ongoing killing in Darfur. Wrongly viewing Darfur through the prism of the Iraq War, much of the left, both in the United States and Europe, seems paralyzed by the fear of being seen to support another overseas adventure. For all its complications (some of which are skillfully laid out in another article in the same issue of The Nation, “The Wars of Sudan” by Alex de Waal) – pre-existing conflicts over water and agricultural land, desertification and arbitrary international borders – the crisis in Darfur is also simple. The Sudanese government is waging a sustained campaign of murder, ethnic cleansing and displacement against the people of Darfur, a campaign extensively documented by the UN, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others. The slaughter could be curtailed or even brought to a close without Western military intervention. Such steps might include: deploying UN troops inside Sudan; deploying peacekeepers in Chad to prevent cross-border raids; targeted sanctions on Sudan’s oil industry; targeted sanctions on Sudanese government ministers, army and intelligence officers; using US trade as a weapon to pressure China, Sudan’s main sponsor, to stop the carnage; and even threats to boycott the Beijing Olympics.”
In light of LeBor’s discussion I want to revisit the question of the utility of making distinctions about genocide, ethnic cleansing, and similar phenomena. In short, I will argue that in some contexts, making fine distinctions is important, in other settings largely irrelevant, and in other cases a problem insofar as making distinctions becomes an act of hairsplitting as an end in itself in lieu of acting.
In the case of historical or social science analysis of genocidal or ethnic cleansing contexts, acts of classification and making distinctions are quite useful in coming to the fullest possible understanding of complex phenomena, whether in relation to the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the current slaughter in Darfur, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the historical displacement of Native North Americans, the “Killing Fields” of Cambodia, or any other case of genocide, ethnic cleansing, ethnocide, “classicide” (a term introduced in one of the books reviewed by LeBor, Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy), or other mass violence.
As I argued in my earlier post, it is also crucial to be able to make distinctions with regard to ongoing events if the international community (if it in any case ever decides to act before it’s too late) is to act effectively. I argued there that since different mass violence events are organized in different ways, understanding the important details and structural elements of an ongoing event is important if intervention is to be useful. For example, a genocide strongly orchestrated and coordinated by a central state government might be stopped effectively via strong military action to eliminate the government coordinating the genocide (e.g. military success by Rwandan Tutsi rebels was the main thing that stopped the Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda), whereas a genocide only promoted by and loosely orchestrated by a centralized government might not be ended, or could perhaps be made worse, by the same style of intervention.
Similarly, LeBor says “While the term genocide is modern, the annihilation of one human group by another has occurred at least since biblical times.” True enough, of course, but as LeBor also recognizes, modern genocides occur via modern technology and infrastructure, and that changes at least the scope of potential genocides and the ways they can be organized – Genghis Khan put whole cities to slaughter in some of the most spectacular instances of pre-modern atrocity, but nothing on the scale of the Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, or Armenian Genocide happened, or could have happened, before the Modern Era.
In one particular sort of way, distinctions between genocide, ethnic cleansing or other mass killing are irrelevant. For those directly or indirectly affected, it might not matter much why they are killed or otherwise affected. I can’t imagine it makes much difference to the slain victims or survivors of Srebrenica or other Bosnian massacre sites whether they suffered through genocide or ethnic cleansing.
As I previously argued, though, when we make distinctions between types of genocide or between genocide and ethnic cleansing, this need not and should not be taken to imply that one sort of phenomenon is more serious than another. All types of mass killing involve the murder of many individual human beings. The fact that genocide and ethnic cleansing might have subtly different motivations or that different genocides are organized and implemented differently doesn’t in any way make one sort more or less serious a crime than another.
So, I’m also exasperated by the sorts of things LeBor mentions. In particular, the act of splitting hairs in lieu of action I find disturbing. Further, I find it problematic to make distinctions between types of mass killing for the purposes of judging one more seriously than another or to judge one incident worthy of action or intervention and another not. That is, what’s wrong with making distinctions between genocide and other phenomena at the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or with regard to Darfur is not the act of making distinctions, but using such distinctions as an excuse to not take action in Darfur or to judge one set of killings more leniently than another for Bosnia.