Raoul Hilberg’s work on the Holocaust introduced into historical analysis of atrocity a set of subject positions borrowed from the language of criminal law—perpetrator and victim—augmented with a term to capture those whose actions and inaction elude juridical distinctions, bystander. These “subjects” along with rescuer and survivor form the characterology of genocide as inherited from Holocaust studies. They operate as a set of archetypes that too often are applied to entire groups as static designators of moral status–as exemplified in this quote from Cynthia Ozick:

When a whole population takes on the status of bystander, the victims are without allies; the criminals, unchecked, are strengthened; and only then do we need to speak of heroes. When a field is filled from end to end with sheep, a stag stands out. When a continent is filled from end to end with the compliant, we learn what heroism is.

There is some value to this language, but it is not without its limits and harms. A friend from Bosnia told me one stark example of the disrespect that can be entailed in the search for archetypes that adhere to the accepted narrative of violence:

“Get out of my frame.” That is what the photographer said to Emir Suljagic, a survivor from Srebrenica, as he stood by his father’s grave. Emir’s father, like thousands before him, was being buried at the memorial site for Srebrenica, Potocari, the former headquarters of the UN forces who were sent to establish the town as a “safe haven,” and who handed over civilians to their shortly-to-be murderers. The ceremony usually receives international media coverage, and its annual rituals have taken on symbolic meaning for the brutalities of the war. And Emir apparently was in the way of the international image-producer capturing the moment when survivors would grieve and bury their dead. In this case, creating the visual symbolism of victimhood required that the survivor leave the scene.

These labels do harm when they set expectations that attach to all representations of the violence, functioning to shape and edit the record according to a pre-established narrative. How and why different groups and individuals select to self-identify as victim or survivor is yet another complex matter, with political and social ramifications, as well as deeply internalized personal consequences. This discussion is beyond the scope of my immediate focus, which is most concerned with how these labels are adapted for analyzing violence with the goal of prevention or ending or decreasing its magnitude.

When we speak of perpetrator and victim, it is important to recall that this is an adaption of legal language to historical or other narratives of violence and has serious consequences that are difficult to avoid. The characterology fails to capture the variations in vulnerability, nature, scale and duration of crimes that more commonly mark violence. Secondly, it can distort the very contribution that legal language makes by identifying the categories of “perpetrator” and “victim” based on individual actions, directly opposed to collective blame and guilt. Third, this language functions as moral categorization, which may accurately capture a snapshot of how political violence occurs, but may have no relationship to the considerations that might need to be taken into account to bring about an ending. Further, these broad sweep designations are exceptionally difficult to apply to a prevention agenda.

Darfur provides multiple examples of these challenges. First, is an example of variations in vulnerability to risks of violence based on social status—here gender and class play a role. In Tears of the Desert, Dr. Halima Bashir describes the process of female genital mutilation, a ritual she underwent as a child just before her eighth birthday. The brutal process left her fuming and in pain: “I was a terrified child with all of the adults in the world I trusted causing me unspeakable pain. The shock of betrayal was beyond imagining” (56).  It was not uncommon for young girls particularly in Western Darfur to undergo this process—and it placed females at particular risk during the procedure and later during childbirth. It is a violence that was part of their social existence, altogether different from the sexual violence many experienced during the brutal war in Darfur that began in 2003 and seemed intent on rending the social fabric. But these two forms of sexual violence interacted in ways that compounded each other: the experience of FGM intensified the injuries suffered as a result of rape.

As an educated woman, Dr. Bashir writes, and one who was able to escape the immediate threats inside Darfur, she felt that she had a particular responsibility to break the code of silence around sexual violence and tell her story. She managed to leave Sudan and sought asylum in the UK—a path of exit that eventually enabled access to an international public platform (1), through writing a book with journalist Damien Lewis, that was less available to others from Darfur who did not have her educational opportunities. She is keenly aware of the uniqueness of her situation. In discussing why she chose to speak out, she stated:

It was also because the women are the weakest part in Darfur, and didn’t get the chance to speak about the violence committed against them. It is not our custom for Darfur women to speak out, even when they are the victims. So, because I am a woman, I feel I have to do something for my people. And by writing the book, I feel I am doing something for the thousands of other Darfurian women who have suffered the same agonies.(2)

Her story exemplifies a shifting set of vulnerabilities and an avenue of escape based on gender, ethnicity and class that cannot be reduced to the simple Zaghawa victimhood narrative that—while unmistakably a part of her story—does not encompass all of it.

The path of another Zaghawa, Minni Minawi, follows a different trajectory, illustrating the shortcomings of ethnicity as a designator of status as perpetrator or victim . He led a large armed faction of the rebel group the Sudanese Liberation Movement and was the only one to sign the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement. As a result of his signing, he switched sides and joined the government from 2006, and since then has formed, broken and re-formed alliances multiple times. Reports of human rights abuses in areas he controlled are rampant; Human Rights Watch wrote: “In 2007, Minawi’s men have been responsible for numerous attacks on civilians.” They continue to detail these reports, quoting from a statement by UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan, Sima Simar, “’In particular harassment, extortion, torture, and sexual violence in Tawila and Shangril Tobayi, North Darfur…I also received information about forced disappearances and killings in Gerida, South Darfur” (Darfur 2007: Chaos By Design, 25).

Yet another illustration from Darfur: the majority of the Arab tribes in the region had stayed out of the violence for the early years of the conflict. But by 2009, fighting amongst these groups was the primary cause of conflict-related deaths and was contributing to new upswings in displacement. How should these groups be treated: bystanders, perpetrators and victims? With the benefit of hindsight, we can ask if there would have been ways of engaging these communities at earlier points in the conflict, even points during which others because of the violence they were suffering understandably received more attention, that would have contributed to stabilization rather than the continued unraveling that has characterized the Darfur conflict in its later years?

As my colleague, Alex de Waal has argued in relation to Darfur, the availability of simple language to define groups has appeal not only for international actors but also for those engaged in or affected by violence. The alternatives are “subtle and complex,” perhaps not well suited to emergency response. But ignoring such nuances means that the complexity of how individuals are embedded in groups and how these groups co-exist on a social, political and economic landscape is lost. He writes: “Hopefully there will be a counter-process, which allows for Darfurians to carve out a space in which to reflect on their unique history, identify what they share, and create processes whereby identities are not formed by violence” (203).

These complications shouldn’t obscure the reality that sometimes accurately understanding patterns of violence necessitates identifying a primary perpetrator, if there is one, as well as primary victims. All of the above variations in risk and agency occur on the backdrop of the overwhelming force that the government of Sudan had at its disposal—but they are nonetheless significant not only in terms of how victimhood is understood but also in terms of how one might conceive engagement and protection. The label of victim cannot be assumed to adhere equally across an entire group, describe vulnerability to the same types of violence, or function as an absolute, unchanging category. These labels are incomplete and awareness of the conceptual gaps is just as necessary as timely identification of dominant trends at any moment. Asking the right questions is crucial. In terms of atrocity prevention and response, one of the most important questions that needs to be posed is: how to engage in ways that de-escalate violence against those who are most vulnerable without further fragmenting and hardening social divisions? This requires political and social analysis to understand how discrete measures will have long-term effects.

We do not have vocabularies to describe the “subjects of mass atrocities” that adequately capture the fact that vulnerability to violence and agency are differentiated across and within various ways of grouping people. These variations are dynamic and situational, even as they emerge out of historically constructed social and political hierarchies.

Our conceptual limits are further exposed when we try to take the current incomplete paradigms and vocabularies and shift them into a prevention framework. For preventative engagement to work, it must eschew attempts to finalize the status of the actors it aims to engage—it must be conceived differently from post-violence analytical frameworks as the “worst” has not yet happened and might be avoided. Engagement at any point must also recognize that in all such situations, there is a risk of renewed violence.  Preventative discourse requires a way of thinking about both risk and agency in ways that complicate and extend across multiple identity markers, like groupness, victim, perpetrator, bystander, rescuer or survivor, and yet do not lose sensitivity to the dynamics of differentiate risks and agency as can be the case with more general terms like civilian or population.

Fionnuala Ni Aolain’s concept of communities of harm, while not presented as a preventative model, might be instructive.  She argues firmly that harms are differentiated within groups, focusing on the different ways that gender exposes women to particular risks. However, rather than remaining at the level of a itemizing the risks for an individual or subset group, she also theorizes a way to think how these risks connect to the integrated social, political and cultural communities which women inhabit. She argues that harms [pdf] “destabilize those members of a wider circle whose own autonomous entitlements are precariously balanced with the well-being and safety of others” (Ni Aolain 2000, p.235). In the idea of precarious balance of rights across communities, we begin to catch a glimpse of how preventative actions must be conceived as embedded within social and political contexts.

This way of thinking both differentiated risk and networked communities suggests that preventive engagement must include astute political and social analysis of how power operates in a society such that the factors of differentiated risk and agency (both within and across groups) are acknowledged, while nonetheless situating them in the context of interconnected communities.  This does not produce a static picture or new set of characters as subjects of atrocities, but instead gestures to a different way of thinking about the implication of individuals within the violence of atrocities.

To harken back to Jacques Ranciere’s essay that sparked this series, the crucial question for prevention as well as engagement to reduce violence is not how to label subjects, but rather how to examine the dynamic political processes in which risk and agency fluctuate.


(1) Bashir’s ability to gain access to this public stage is also due in no small part to the work that Aegis Trust undertook to advocate for Darfuris in the UK. They also recognized the power of Bashir’s personal story and helped bring it to a wider audience.

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