This essay is part two of a series on “The subjects of mass atrocities.” Part one can be found here.

Studying violence under the rubric of genocide offers one contribution above all others: attention to the ways that violence is targeted at and experienced as a group. The term was coined in 1944 for precisely this reason—to chart how the Nazi forces crafted a hierarchy of groups and developed diverse means of targeting these groups depending on their location in the hierarchy. In contrast to many of the other frameworks we have for understanding violence, in “genocide,” the group is the subject.

During the Holocaust, there were multiple front page stories about Nazi atrocities against civilians that failed to note that the selective targeting of Europe’s Jewish population. Blurring together all of the victims of the Nazi warfare, such reports did not capture the particular group logic behind the assaults. Few, if any, efforts were spared from the war effort to help this group that was at particularly acute risk across the continent. The core insight “genocide” extracts from this experience is that not all civilians are equally at risk during times of violence. Further, that various social hierarchies can be married to violence in ways that produce existential risk for entire groups of people.

Less compelling, at least for me, are the two other elements of genocide that derive from the legal definition, as found in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNGC). First, is the nature of the group, which the UNGC limits to national, ethnical, racial or religious. Much ink has been spilled over what groups are left out from this definition—especially political groups. Second is the tricky qualification of “an intent to destroy” said groups, per se. Bracketing both motive (counter-insurgency, desire to acquire land, etc.) and observable facts of how violence takes place, in what forms, against which people and where, intent goes one step further to require evidence of the state of mind of the perpetrators when acts were carried out.

Buried within the logic, therefore, of the “name” of the subject in the legal definition of genocide, are assumptions that the group is targeted because of its identity not its behaviors, and that the violence, if not halted, will inevitably progress to total destruction as intended.

There is a tendency today to refer to “genocide” in the context of a more loosely constructed idea of groupness. See, for example, the work of the Genocide Prevention Task Force, which describes its focus on “‘genocide and mass atrocities,’ meaning large-scale and deliberate attacks on civilians. The victims of genocide and mass atrocities are typically targeted because of their identification as members of a group” (xxii). The text makes a subtle move away from the strict legal definition as articulated by the UNGC for understandable reasons, not least of which is the burden of proving the specific genocidal intent, but also in light of how understanding of groups has changed.

The GPTF states that one should not get caught up in defining the groups as that can impede action and distract policymakers. However easily distracted policymakers are, there are also conceptual difficulties in the restriction of the UNGC groups. For instance, in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, some 2 million people were killed, providing a glaring example of how the UNGC’s definition of the types of groups that “count” is incomplete. Further, there have been shifts in how we understand “groupness” in general away from fixed categories and towards social construction of identity. Contemporary understanding of the processes of identity construction challenge the UNGC’s straightforward assertion of which groups matter and how. There are good reasons to soften adherence to such legal definitions.

But there are consequences of keeping from the UNGC that what one likes and attempting to be rid of the other portions. Characterizing the subject of atrocities by a vaguely defined “groupness” opens as many questions as it closes. Among them are two primary issues: the place of ethnicity (or religion or nation) in relation to the politics of violence, and the repetition of perpetrators’ stark categories of difference.

Grandfathered into usage of “groups” as defined by either a strict or loose definition of the UNGC are assumptions that group victimization will follow other patterns from the Holocaust both in terms of the groups’ status and the path violence will take. During the Holocaust, Jews had no military or other armed force associated with them. They were not divided into a combatants and civilians; they were civilians. Further, Nazi plans envisioned the death of all European Jews without reprieve.

But atrocities most frequently occur in the context of armed conflict where the group that is targeted for violence is also associated with armed combatants, however much weaker they may be. Group identity in these conflicts does not follow a single trajectory. As Rogers Brubaker and David Laitin write: “That political violence can be ethnic is well-established, indeed too well established; how it is ethnic remains obscure,” (p. 427).

A compelling exploration of the function of ethnicity in genocide is Lee Ann Fujjii’s work on the Rwandan genocide. She specifies that the strongest metaphor for understanding the role of state-sponsored ethnicity is a script. She writes:

If ethnicity operates as a script, then we would expect actors’ performances to vary. We would expect performances to vary between actors such that some actors would adhere to the text more faithfully than others. We would also expect performances to vary by individual, such that the same actor’s performances might be more convincing in some instances than in others. We would also expect actors to know the difference between the world of the play and the world outside the play (Fujjii, 13).

In other words, when positing that an ethnic group (or any other group designator) is the subject of concern, one must be wary not to expect that ethnicity is asked to: 1) be the cause or sole explanation for violence; 2) substitute for political analysis; or 3) describe absolute, immutable categories.

Even if one is attentive to these caveats, posing the group as the subject deploys the very terms that perpetrators of violence use to rationalize it in the first place. For example, in Bosnia, there were multiple identities that many people claimed: ethnic, religious, political, urban or rural among others. The ethno-nationalism that sparked the war sought to erase these layers of self-identification. A famous story from Sarajevo during the war illuminates this point. Graffiti sprawled across the wall of a post office in contested terrain stated: “This is Serbia,” claiming the area for one side. But someone else had painted underneath it: “No, you fool, this is the post office.” Bosnian cultural theorist Ivan Lovrenovic describes the changing nature of identity in Bosnia after the 1992-1995 war as one of the most sorely felt losses: “The fine Bosnian multiplicity of perspectives has been reduced today to the crude sway of three cultural paradigms” (210).

While we cannot erase or forget the significance of the group in group-targeted violence, we would do well to ask: when we describe assaults primarily in terms of ethnic group, might we underline, rather than dispute, the very terms underwriting  the violence?

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