Open Democracy, UK
Feb 1 2007
Genocide: rethinking the concept
1 – 2 – 2007
An understanding of the term "genocide" that draws afresh on the
experience of the last century is needed to ensure greater human
security in the next, says Martin Shaw.
A routine feature of public discussion of large-scale, anti-civilian
violence is that it is so important to protect the victims that time
should not be wasted on arguing about how the violence is described.
Indeed, this view is often voiced by aid workers, as well as
politicians and officials – amid the assaults perpetrated by the
Sudanese government and their janjaweed militia proxies, to take but
In such circumstances, calls to recognise these attacks as "genocide"
are often seen as quibbling about language while people die. The
hypocrisy of the powerful seems to reinforce this argument: after
all, in 2004 the then United States secretary of state Colin Powell
did recognise the sustained atrocities in Darfur as "genocide", but
promptly evaded the corresponding international duty (under the
United Nations genocide convention of 1948) to "prevent" the violence
and "punish" the perpetrators.
The right label, then, is not enough. At the same time, using the
"wrong" words offers a potent opportunity to perpetrators and
bystanders to confuse and defuse effective international responses.
For a long time, the preferred terminology for Darfur in UN circles
was "humanitarian crisis" – but this implied that humanitarian action
(such as providing food, shelter and medicines) would be enough to
save the victims of violence. It was not: however necessary such aid
was, it couldn’t stop them bombing and burning villages or killing
and raping civilians, and indeed the Sudanese government has
deliberately disrupted humanitarian efforts.
When the centrality of violence is recognised, the Darfur events is
often described as a "civil war". There certainly is civil war in
Darfur, and the policy of destroying the black "African" peoples of
the region has been part of Khartoum’s response to armed rebellions.
Yet the idea that this was "only" a civil war, in which civilians
unfortunately got in the way, has been the prime notion that the
regime (like many génocidaires before it) has used to obfuscate the
genocide. And international authorities like the UN’s international
commission on Darfur also bought into this idea (as the UN did in
Rwanda in 1994), because it enabled the UN to avoid the demanding and
controversial task of intervening to fully protect the victims.
A narrowing focus
The other term used by politicians, officials and journalists was
"ethnic cleansing". Certainly forced migration, for which "cleansing"
is a euphemism, was from the start the central policy of Khartoum’s
There were three problem with this usage. First, "ethnic cleansing"
implied that there was a crucial difference between what was
happening on the ground and genocide: if people were "only" being
"cleansed" (forced to leave their homes) rather than "exterminated"
as the Jews were by the Nazis, the harm was somehow not quite so
Second, "ethnic cleansing" was not legally defined and alleging its
existence carried no clear international obligation to act. Third,
the distinction between it and genocide was in any case spurious,
since killing, rape and other violence were used to expel the
targeted groups, and these were all means of "destroying" them as
peoples – which is how genocide has been understood since it was
first defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944.
These flaws notwithstanding, the idea that "ethnic cleansing" is a
lesser form of anti-civilian violence than genocide has been
prevalent since the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early
1990s. It followed, moreover, the longstanding trend f to narrow the
definition of genocide itself. Lemkin had originally argued that
genocide was comprehensive social destruction, attacking the
economic, political and cultural foundations of the life of
particular nations and groups as well as, often, their physical
In the adoption of the genocide convention, however, this idea was
narrowed to groups’ physical and biological destruction, and attacks
on social and cultural forms were only seen as genocidal when they
led to killing and physical harm. To reinstate a broader
understanding, lawyers have had to interpret the convention’s
terminology creatively, for example seeing a reference to "mental
harm" as outlawing expulsions.
Many academic commentators only accentuated the narrowing trend,
until for some genocide became simply and solely "mass killing".
Often this narrowing is exploited for political reasons – the idea
that genocide only occurs when there is an attempt to murder all the
members of a group both helps to make the Nazi holocaust "unique" (a
useful point for some Zionist advocates) and enables the dismissal of
"genocide" to describe other targeted anti-civilian destruction (a
favourite argument of all those who wish to defuse international
It is therefore very important to clarify the meaning of genocide for
our times. Lemkin was right to see that "social" and "physical" group
destruction were not different processes or phenomena, but two sides
of the same coin. His broad concept of genocide, rather than the UN
definition, is in this sense the essential starting-point.
Raphael Lemkin’s legacy
Yet Lemkin made two serious errors. First, he assumed that genocide
was practiced against straightforwardly defined types of groups
(nations, or ethnic groups); later scholars have pointed out both
that other types of group (class, political) are targeted, and that
in any case the point is not whether the attacked people fit into a
particular category (they sometimes don’t), but that a perpetrator
organisation defines them as a group to be destroyed.
Second, Lemkin rather mechanically presented physical attacks on
targeted populations as only one "element" of genocide. We can see
that the destruction of societies, groups and populations must
involve extensive violence against them, even if this takes many
forms, including wounding and rape as well as murder.
Thus genocide studies need theoretical clarification, as well as the
comparative historical analysis that currently dominates the field.
Indeed a clear general idea of genocide is the necessary basis for
evaluating and comparing cases – you can’t decide whether Darfur or
Bosnia constitutes genocide by comparing it to one other case, even
if that is the holocaust.
In addition, thinking about genocide has been hampered by rigid
interpretations of other ideas in the convention, such as the idea
that it must be the "intentional" action of perpetrators. This aspect
has been understood as meaning that the perpetrators have to have a
single, consistent, racist intention to commit extensive mass murder.
Yet studies like Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy:
Explaining Ethnic Cleansing have shown that perpetrators’ intentions
evolve in response to events: the most extreme policies are never
Plan A, or even usually Plan B, but Plan C that is adopted after
other policies have failed.
Moreover, understanding genocide only or mainly through the
perpetrators’ intentions leaves out the conflictual dynamics of
genocide. Genocide generally arises out of political and armed
conflicts, and of course genocidal attacks on populations inevitably
produce new conflict. Attacked groups always resist – not necessarily
with arms, because civilian populations cannot always improvise armed
resistance – but through individual and collective acts of civilian
resistance that do their best to frustrate the enemy.
Relationships between "victim" populations and armed groups are a
general feature of genocide. Victims both look to armed bodies, as
the Bosnians did to the Bosnian army, the Rwandan Tutsis to the
Rwandan Patriotic Front and the "African" peoples of Darfur do to the
Darfur rebel organisations, and also sometimes fear the effects that
their campaigns have in provoking genocidal attacks. Largely civilian
populations also look to international military intervention as a way
of evening up the power imbalance between themselves and their
usually highly armed enemies.
Sociology, not legalism
This suggests that we need to understand genocide not just as
one-sided violence, but as uneven conflict. I therefore argue for a
"structural" concept – genocide is a distinctive structure of armed
conflict that is also linked closely to other types of armed conflict
such as war.
This, of course, is a sociological rather than a legal approach to
the question. Political discussions of cases like Bosnia and Darfur
often get tangled up trying to interpret historical situations in
terms of a legal definition (which was itself the result of political
compromises in the 1940s). While the legal definition is still very
important, because it lays down obligations on states, a broader,
more coherent sociological approach to genocide can clarify the
public debate and cut through some of the problems that have arisen
from an excessive reliance on the law.
Thus the politics of genocide demand that we move away from the
obsessive legalism manifested in attempts to legislate how people
talk about historical events (e.g. the attempted French law against
Armenian genocide denial, the proposed European law on
holocaust-denial). Instead what we need is open debate that –
learning from evolving historical understanding – focuses on present
dangers, galvanising the public to demand action wherever civilians
are attacked because political leaders see particular groups as
"enemies". The idea of genocide cannot be confined within the bounds
of 1948: it must develop to help us meet the challenges of our times.
Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at
the University of Sussex, where he teaches on the MA in war, violence
and security. He is the author of Dialectics of War (Pluto, 1988),
War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003),
The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq
(Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide? (Polity [forthcoming, December
2006] ). His personal website is at
From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress