Global Awareness of Genocide Is at an All-Time High, but That Hasn't Stopped It From Happening

Genocides have increased in frequency since the breakup of the Soviet Union and emergence of the “third world.”

Photo Credit: Everett Historical /

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Crime of All Crimes by Nicole Rafter (NYU Press, 2016): 

There was a time, not so long ago, when genocide seemed to have remained fairly static over time as a type of event. The model was set by a biblical story in the book of Numbers, in which Moses sends the Israelites to war against the Midianites. When the Israelites had slain all the males and captured their women, children, and flocks, they returned to Moses, expecting praise for their efforts. But to their surprise, he was furious: “Have ye saved all the women alive? . . . Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” In this telling (we might call it the biblical model), genocide begins with a leader who orders his soldiers to destroy all males in the targeted group while permitting them to pillage and keep surviving women (at least the virgins) and female children for themselves as slaves or other chattel.

For some people, the biblical model remains a dominant image of genocide, and in some respects, that image is correct. One consistent characteristic is that genocides rarely, if ever, result in total destruction of the victim population—even all of its men. Of the Poles in the Russian prison camps, about 395 survived the Katyn Forest Massacre, approximately 100 of whom were probably informants. One who was spared was the nephew of a Soviet film director. Another, who was wanted for interrogation by the NKVD, was led to the forest but pulled back; he ended up teaching economics in Canada. There are always some survivors who live to tell their tale. In twentieth-century genocides, as in the war on the Midianites, moreover, wholesale theft of property is common and may even be a central aim of the slaughter. And in more recent genocides, the victors often continue to evince great interest in the captured women’s sexuality, although they are more likely to rape than to kidnap and assimilate the virgins.

In the academic world, static models of genocide were abandoned as Holocaust scholars adopted the idea of genocide as a process. There followed stage models and, with them, sensitivity to internal dynamics in genocidal events. But scholars produced few broad overviews that might give a sense of changes over time in genocide itself—not in individual genocidal events but in the phenomenon per se—until the criminologist Susanne Karstedt began writing about the evolution of genocide. Even then, the changes remained difficult to detect because genocides differ so much among themselves.

Genocide Is Changing

The crime itself is evolving. From the arrival of the Spanish in the New World and well into the twentieth century, genocides often were precipitated by colonialism, with its hunger for land, physical resources, and the labor of the indigenous population. Later (and into the present) genocide was often linked to decolonization and efforts by postcolonial states to establish themselves as homogeneous nations. During the first half of the twentieth century, the crime tended to be committed by nation-states against other states. Both colonialist and interstate genocides drew on imperialism, nationalism, and grand ideologies of race and ethnicity to justify their atrocities. These justifications were still used to rationalize genocides at the end of the twentieth century, but they had lost their former power. Today, as Karstedt writes, contemporary genocides and other mass atrocities “typically occur beneath the level of the nation-state and independently of its boundaries. They evolve in the environment, social formation and the complex actor configurations of 'extremely violent societies.’ . . . Diverse groups of perpetrators participate for a multitude of reasons, ranging from state government forces to militias. . . . Perpetrators are located beyond borders, and recruited across borders.” One of the most prominent changes, then, is the fluidity and localization of recent genocides. That genocides now tend to be committed within a country, often as part of a civil war, helps explain why the pace of genocide picked up in the second half of the twentieth century. Genocide was simply not as big or costly an enterprise as it often had been in the past.

The location of genocides and their frequency by global location also changed over the twentieth century. Genocides in Asia declined; there was but one genocide in Europe (in the former Yugoslavia) after the middle of the twentieth century; and genocide in Latin America started to die out with the end of the Cold War, which was fought by proxy in countries like Guatemala. In contrast, Africa—which had little genocide through the mid-twentieth century—was thereafter beset by atrocities of this type. Many occurred in Central Africa, where they were tied to ethnic conflicts (especially between Hutu and Tutsi) and where the struggles flowed back and forth across borders. Victims and offenders sometimes exchanged roles in the process. “While genocide scholars routinely place people into categories such as ‘victim,’ ‘perpetrator,’ or ‘bystander,’” one research team observes, “these categories are not mutually exclusive in reality. Rather, a Rwandan may have killed a neighbor and saved the life of another neighbor, perhaps within the course of a single day.” In early twenty-first-century struggles in Central Africa, warring parties grabbed for whatever resources were available; some sold illegally seized goods such as diamonds and precious metals to organized crime groups, which supplied them with weapons in return.

Some political analysts have attempted to explain the global shift of genocide to Central Africa by arguing that globalization stimulated atrocities in this area. When one looks at the embeddedness of the conflicts in international networks such as those of arms sales and illegal trading, globalization may indeed seem to have been a culprit. However, globalization coincided with declines in genocide elsewhere and may even have encouraged them. So the role of globalization is at best unclear, and in any case, one needs to consider globalization in the context of ongoing regional conflicts. The most plausible explanation of the global shift in genocide is ethnic conflicts—themselves rooted in the racism of colonization—in newly forming (or re-forming) African states.

Is the rate of genocide increasing, or do states and other large-scale groups, perhaps constrained by the growth of humanitarian law since the mid-twentieth century, resort less frequently to mass atrocities today than in the past? A number of scholars claim that genocide is declining, a position reinforced by the high-profile erudition of Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist, in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. This is a comforting message, but if anything, the genocide scholar Robert Melson argues, genocides have increased in frequency since the breakup of the Soviet Union and emergence of the “third world.” My data point to the same conclusion—a conclusion reinforced by the tendency of twenty-first-century genocides to simmer under the radar as prolonged and episodic struggles among paramilitary groups in weak states and, thus, perhaps, to be invisible to those who are tallying genocides. Scholars should be able to reach a definite conclusion in this debate in another few years.

Among the notable changes in genocide over time is the apparent increase in the use of mass rape as an instrument of genocide, although it is hard to know whether the increase is real or simply a byproduct of greater awareness and poor records on earlier atrocities. In any case, there is less abduction of women and children today than in earlier periods, no doubt because slavery is now outlawed. Another change— although this impression is harder to prove—is that genocide today involves less deliberate dehumanization than in earlier decades. At the very least, there seems to be a falling off from the high-water mark of systematic victim degradation set by the Nazis, even though the decrease is ragged and broken by ugly exceptions. A final change is the spread in worldwide recognition of genocide as crime.

Responses to Genocide Are Changing

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler asked, announcing his decision to commit genocide against the Poles and trying, at the same time, to reassure his military. Hitler expected history to grant the Nazis impunity—freedom to commit genocide without consequences—and his expectation was not unfounded: at the time (1939), no group had ever been brought to trial and punished for genocide. But in the aftermath of World War II, nations mobilized to bring the Nazis to justice, and the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders marked the beginning of the end for impunity—at least for high-level perpetrators. Those who defeated the perpetrators tended to treat themselves to victor’s justice, even when they, too, had arguably committed atrocities.

It was not easy, however, to persuade nations to give up their traditional sovereignty—their autonomy and independence to do as they pleased, even if what pleased them was genocide. The world had to wait until the early 1990s for the next international challenges to impunity, which came from the United Nations in the form of two special courts, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (May 1993) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (November 1994), both established in response to conflicts that looked genocidal. Today, among those who are most concerned with human rights, everyone remembers the annihilation of the Armenians.

Another change in responses to genocide came with the 2002 establishment of the International Criminal Court, a court of last resort with jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. As of January 2015, 123 countries had ratified or acceded to its establishing document, the Rome Statute, which defines and prohibits these crimes. (The United States, reluctant to cede sovereignty, is not one of them.) Establishment of the International Criminal Court breathed new life into the global trend of holding leaders criminally accountable for human rights violations.

One of the most visible signs of that trend is the transitional justice movement—judicial and nonjudicial measures to redress massive human rights abuses and improve accountability, survivor support, and the building of democratic institutions. The transitional justice movement includes truth commission officials, genocide prosecution teams, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch), academics, and local judges (such as those of Rwanda’s informal gacaca courts). Extending far beyond formal criminal justice, its goals range from helping survivors of genocidal rape to putting shattered nations back together. The transitional justice movement is something new under the sun.

Changes in response to genocide have been made apparent through reportage and media, notably through treatment in film. Some of the earliest footage of the Holocaust, shot as Russian and Western troops opened up Nazi concentration and death camps, has been unearthed, processed, analyzed, and included in documentaries such as Alain Resnais’s monumental Night and Fog (1955). More recent contributions to this genre include films about genocides such as the Katyn Forest Massacre (Katyn, 2007, made by Andrzej Wajda, the great Polish director whose father was one of the victims) and the French genocide against Algerians (The Battle of Algiers, 1966, Gillo Pontecorvo’s shocking movie). Genocide films both reflect and promote a worldwide consciousness of genocide that did not exist a generation or two ago.

Another change is the emergence of genocide tourism, which raises public consciousness through creating memorials—not simply monuments but transformations of genocide sites into places where visitors can see what happened, mourn, and struggle to understand. Nazi concentration and death camps are now well-established tourist sites, with Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and others visited by millions of people a year, many of them German. (One scholar estimates that “as many people now visit Holocaust memorials every year as died during the Holocaust itself.”) Cambodia has established a “dark tourism” site at Tuol Sleng, the torture and extermination prison in Phnom Penh, and Rwanda is hoping to become a destination where tourists can visit its Memorial Centre and study its genocide. Such memorials are a byproduct of globalization. They are one of the most powerful of recent changes in the treatment of genocide because they are points where genocide narratives—those of victims, torturers, commandants, slaughterers, survivors, and bystanders—can converge. Even Katyn now has its monument, though it is hard to get to.

In a sign of the changing response to genocide in recent years, former president Bill Clinton traveled to Rwanda to apologize for not having done more to prevent the genocide there. “All over the world,” he said, “there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” Clinton had a lot to apologize for: timely action might have prevented the genocide entirely, and the lack of action possibly intensified the genocide by signaling that no one cared; but nonetheless, Clinton did, voluntarily, publicly apologize. The contrast of his apology with Hitler’s cavalier self-exculpation— “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”—is a measure of the changes in attitudes toward genocide over the past seventy years. Even the Soviets—albeit much more grudgingly—in 1990 apologized to the Poles for the Katyn tragedy.

The foremost change in response to genocide came in 1948, when the United Nations condemned genocide as an international crime and gave it a legal definition. The UN’s Genocide Convention was a milestone of the greatest significance in the struggle to protect human rights, and the UN’s definition of genocide in terms of “acts committed with intent to destroy . . . a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” remains the norm in international law.

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