Scott Straus: Making and Unmaking Nations

On October 20, 2015, the World Peace Foundation and Tufts Initiative on Mass Atrocities and Genocide invited Scott Straus to present the key findings from his book. Straus started his presentation by laying out the research puzzle. Why does mass violence develop in some cases but not others? He tackles this problem by systematically comparing cases in post-Cold War, sub-Saharan Africa that experienced genocide with those that did not, despite the presence of similar risk factors: Mali, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Rwanda and Sudan (Darfur). He finds that deep-rooted ideologies—national founding narratives—play a crucial role in shaping strategies of violence.

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An invitation withdrawn: two Srebrenica dilemmas

The real dilemma concerns what must be excised from international genocide and mass atrocities agendas in order to produce the kind of lessons learned that are palatable to powerful international actors. When truth telling aligns with the interests of power, it invariably softens its demands. If you bring together people from key international decision-making institutions to discuss a historical event that can only be deemed a colossal failure, the lessons will inevitably be focused on how the different actors did not coordinate their efforts behind a single, guiding ethos or policy. This is invariably true and it evenly distributes blame. It is also invariably true of many international failures, mistakes and faux-pas: it may even describe the “international community” rather than a problem within it.

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A Challenge to Those Working in the Field of Genocide Prevention and Response

Not everyone will agree with this presentation of the challenges facing the field or how the field of genocide and atrocity prevention should respond to its challenges. However, the strength of a field is not measured solely by its points of consensus, but also the vibrancy of its debates. This paper attempts to outline both areas of consensus in the field and the knowledge base that informs it, as well as areas of contention. To this end, it aims to be provocative in highlighting debates that are already underway in the field of genocide and atrocity prevention. The questions raised in this paper do not lend themselves to easy answers nor necessarily to consensus, and this may not be desirable. Instead, it is a hope that they contribute to the field’s capacity for self-criticism and reflection, while also challenging it to reach out to other fields to share insights and join forces.

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