Some snapshots drawn from the wake of mass violence reveal that to some extent, speaking of endings is always hasty:

  • In The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, Katherine Verdery describes how in August 1991, for example, a mass public funeral was held for “Three thousand [Serb] victims of the Ustasa genocide [that is, the World war II pro-Nazi Croatian regime], whose bones were recently removed from ten caves in Herzegovina” (101). These dead bodies, witnesses and proof of previous genocide, would then participate in new nationalist agendas  that produced even more dead bodies within a few short years.
  • In 2004, ten years following the genocide, there were Rwandan women still dying from the genocide—those who had contracted HIV during rapes and who could not afford life-saving drugs. I met one such woman in 2004, suffering the late stages of AIDS.

But one might expect a debate over endings on matters of intergenerational impact, political deployments of history, and survivor health, access to power and wealth, in addition to legal proceedings for crimes with no statute of limitations, or the social impact of demographic change.

What is surprising is that even in terms of recognizing the termination of acts of mass violence, the debate is a minefield.

An example: On June 17, 2009, U.S. Presidential Envoy for Sudan, General Scott Gration stated that Darfur was experiencing “remnants of genocide,” and thereby touched off a bitter disagreement within the Obama Administration, notably with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Two days earlier, Rice had described the situation as “genocide,” as had President Obama earlier that month. Journalists’ accounts of the disagreement used the adjective “furious” to describe Rice’s response to Gration’s comments.

By 2009, the scale of systematic assaults on civilians had significantly decreased and mortality rates in the refugee and displaced persons camps were largely back to normal levels.  Yet there remained an enormous, vulnerable population of displaced civilians beset by a range of acts of violence in a context of civil war between fickle rebel groups and a government that retained the capacity and had amply demonstrated the will to conduct organized campaigns of violence against civilian groups. Could this be defined as the genocide ended? How would the answer to this question frame the policy options that leaders might entertain?

On October 19, 2009, the debates within the Obama administration were resolved with the announcement of a new Sudan policy. They retained the Bush Administration’s use of “genocide” to describe the situation, and the policy consisted of three simultaneously–and apparently equally weighted–priorities: a “definitive end to conflict, gross human rights abuses, and genocide in Darfur,” implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan’s North and South, and efforts to ensure that Sudan would not again become a haven for terrorists.

The debate between Gration and Rice was neither simply semantic nor was it purely a disagreement over policy options. It related to a question that neither policy experts nor researchers have adequately engaged: how does one recognize when genocide or mass atrocities end? This question, let alone the equally, if not more complicated, question of how such violence ends has been caught up in normative assumption about how they ought to end: international armed interventions that rescue the innocent from certain annihilation.

The historical record reveals a potentially surprising and insightful array of forces that impact when and how mass atrocities end. The significance of these insights becomes clearer when one recognizes that:

1)   Armed interventions are not always possible;
2)   Nor are they always desirable;
3)   Nor can they deliver on all the promises ascribed to them.
4)   Further, we must note two significant trends in the broadly-defined field concerned with studying and engaging with large-scale violence against civilians. The first is a shift from response to prevention that results in engagement with unfolding situations at lower levels of violence, while retaining the language of exceptional crisis. Second, a shift from a vocabulary of “genocide” to that of “mass atrocities,” thereby also increasing the number of cases that might be considered within the response rubric. Defining and developing strong policies for successful prevention or response will rely on greater clarity in understanding what constitutes an ending to mass atrocities and how this has and might come about.

The essays in this blog series develop some of these questions in reference to Guatemala, Sudan, and Congo, as well as in reflections on the nature of genocide and how it relates to other forms of violence. They build on a series of seminars organized by Jens Meierhenrich, Alex de Waal and Bridget Conley-Zilkic in varying capacities. Select essays from the previous seminars can be found here  and an overview of the analytical framework is available here.

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One Response to New Blog Series: How Mass Atrocities End

  1. […] month, the World Peace Foundation launched a new blog series, How Mass Atrocities End, which seeks to address the question of how one recognizes when genocide or mass atrocities end. […]

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