Swans Commentary » swans.com November 6, 2006  



The Unbanality Of Genocidalism


by Aleksandar Jokic





Note from the author: This is a summary of a lengthy essay, "Genocidalism," published in The Journal of Ethics 8 No. 3 (2004), pp. 251-297, which is available in full on this Web site.


(Swans - November 6, 2006)  
1. Introduction

"Genocidalism" is (stipulatively) defined as follows: (i) The purposeful neglect to attribute responsibility for genocide in cases when overwhelming evidence exists, and as (ii) the energetic attributions of "genocide" in less then clear cases without considering available and convincing opposing evidence and argumentation. We may call the first manifestation "genocidalism of omission," while the second represents the genocidal use of the word "genocide" or "genocidalism of commission." If we were to explore the relationship between the two manifestations of genocidalism we would find out that the latter often functions in the way that strengthens the former. Namely, the outcome of a genocidal use of "genocide" may lead to omission of attributing appropriate responsibility for genocide in some related cases.

Also one may want to point to a connection between the genocidal use of "genocide" and the process of globalization. The former enables, justifies, and in some cases forcefully advocates various forms of intervention, including military, while the latter can spread faster if all kinds of interventionism are maximally facilitated. Interestingly, genocidalism and globalization are co-occurring phenomena. Both are spreading at a faster pace in the post-Cold War period. However, while genocidalism is quintessentially a Western phenomenon (e.g., Mozambique does not go on talking about alleged genocide in, say, Northern Ireland) globalization in the economic sense of the word affects virtually all countries. Where genocidalism and globalization coincide is in their effect on diminishing sovereignty in general and that of weak and poor countries in particular.

2. Genocidalism

2.1 Genocidalism as a social phenomenon

The genocidal use of "genocide" is a more widespread phenomenon in the contemporary discourse on international affairs than one might initially think. The parties guilty of genocidalism can be found in a broad range of partakers in this discourse among journalists, human rights activists, celebrities, politicians, international law experts, and other academics such as psychologists, historians or political scientists. While genocide is undoubtedly the highest crime of which humans are capable, quite a bit of harm can be achieved by morally irresponsible uses of the word "genocide."

In this respect perhaps the saddest and possibly most dangerous form of genocidalist activity resides in (what poses as) academic scholarship. For, academics are by way of their training uniquely positioned to provide credence to this malignant intellectual attitude and pursuits that genocidalism represents. Academics have the skills and prestige needed to successfully package propaganda to appear as scholarship, emotions as good reasons, dogmatic belief as well supported claims, and prejudice, bigotry, and even racism as respectable viewpoints. They can turn lies into truth (or "truth"), fiction into fact, sick imagination into historical events, total ideological blindness into insights of a visionary, and, last but not least, they can turn apologia into a veritable art form. However, academics are just one group in the larger community of genocidalism peddlers. In fact, in order for it to be effective this practice cannot be done in isolation. We must, therefore, learn to appreciate the importance of the point that in order for genocidalism to manifest itself as a social force, and inflict real damage on its targets, a relatively tightly knit network of players supporting each other's endeavors is needed.

2.2 Genocidalism as a deliberate epistemic failure

The key to understanding genocidalism -- and indeed, many other forms of fanaticism -- is the identification of an inherent ingredient of the discourse, that may be called the attitude of ideologically based epistemic arrogance (for short, ideological arrogance). This epistemic failure, while easy to detect and reject when analyzing issues at home, seems to function with effortless impunity when it is applied to events abroad. Foreign markets, in particular in poor or developing regions of the world, attract predatory financial and economic practices; similarly, in the marketplace of ideas, these far-flung locales are the frequent settings for bafflingly effective displays of mendacity and contortions of logic. I shall introduce this phenomenon by way of an example.

Consider a report entitled "Journalist admits lying to the viewers" published by a Web-based news outlet theaustralian.news.com on February 28, 2002. The story is about a veteran 60 Minutes reporter, Richard Carleton, who admitted he had misled and lied to viewers by showing footage from another massacre site to illustrate a story about the alleged massacre of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite this admission, however, Mr. Carleton denied he had behaved unethically as a journalist and said, "the footage had enhanced viewers' understanding of the 1995 massacre of Muslim residents by Bosnian Serbs." One may wonder at this point how lies can serve the purpose of enhancing anybody's understanding of anything. But more importantly, we could ask what exactly is this understanding? It is the conviction that one "got it right," and in this case it is Mr. Carleton's conviction that the Serbs are the villains as far as the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina was concerned, and spreading that conviction by any means possible must be just fine. The Carleton-like attitude that the job is "enhancement of understanding" or "education of the audience" that is accompanied with utter disregard for true representation fails the epistemic reliability requirement for owing respect to a position held by such persons. (1) All we have here is evidence that a journalist has taken the role of advocating in favor of a side in a conflict, we do not even know whether he sincerely believes the position he has chosen to proliferate, and we see preparedness to use any means possible to accomplish this. So, we may wonder, why stop there? Why not fully engage the whole spectrum of one's own imagination and play it out, (2) particularly if there is not only no cost to oneself but even prospects for (professional) glory. (3)

Those engaged in the genocidalism of commission are on a similar mission of proliferating blame for genocide through "education," and cannot afford to be choosy as to what they will present as evidence in their exciting endeavor to "enhance understanding" about what "really" transpired in some far away place. So, the question arises about what is the proper way to present historical episodes of genocide.

2.3 Avoiding genocidalism by presenting all dimensions of a genocide

When it comes to determining what would count as a proper discourse about an episode of alleged genocide one must pay attention to all four dimensions of genocide:

(i)  Historical time and place of the pertinent events;

(ii)  Perpetrators;

(iii)  Victims; and

(iv)  The number of people killed.

There is an ambiguity here in the notion of "number" invoked in the dimension (iv). The number may mean the absolute number of people killed in an episode of genocide; it may mean a percentage of the population lost as part of the total number of people prior to the episode; or it may indicate the number that was deemed sufficient to endanger collective survival of a group. The last notion, if sufficiently fine-grained, and taking into account genocidal intent, should prove most relevant for determinations of whether genocide occurred in the context of a violent episode. So, such difficult questions would have to be entertained concerning whether a loss of, say, 20% of pre-war population is equally bad for a nation of one hundred million or for a nation of just seven million. What about a much smaller percentage and absolute number of killed for a population that has become significantly impaired in the prospects of long-term survival? Since genocide -- in its broadly understood meaning, synonymous with extermination -- is accomplished and absolutely clear only when 100% of a given population is killed and everything else is attempted genocide, the question arises, "At what point can this attempt be said to start?" These and similar vexing questions aside, what is clear is that the number of people killed in a violent episode -- whatever its proper understanding -- represents a very important dimension of genocide.

This dimension is crucially important not only for the purpose of appreciating the impact of genocide as a practice, but also when it comes to understanding what genocide really is, as well as for discerning where genocidalism of commission goes wrong. Namely, without giving proper attention to this fourth dimension of genocide any claim that genocide took place in some social context amounts to unequivocally attributing a specific intention to a group (or individual) on insufficient grounds, and constitutes irresponsible use of language. Furthermore, it stands to reason that the ratio of people killed among those who count as victims, and those who count as perpetrators in an episode of genocide must be such that the former considerably outnumber the latter. (Without this one-sidedness we would have an entirely new category of "crime," which we may even call "mutual genocide," however, it would be one with its own, very different, logic of normative assessment than what we encounter when we consider genocide.) Of course, we face again a similar puzzle over what should count as "considerable" in this context. We can take it as clear, however, that if the sides in a conflict suffer roughly the same casualties, or the side that counts perpetrators suffers more killed than the side that counts as victims in a pronounced episode of "genocide," then this criterion for genocide is not met and in the former case, there cannot be talk of any victims of genocide on one side while on the other there are the perpetrators, while obviously something has gone terribly wrong in the latter case. (4)

Let us consider on two examples (that I will come back to again later) -- former Yugoslavia and Rwanda -- of how things, indeed, can go terribly wrong. The standard figure that was widely used in the 1990s discourse on casualties regarding the conflict in the former Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was the number of 200,000 Bosnian Muslim victims. However, the only thorough study available in the 1990s suggests the range of 25,000 to 60,000 fatalities on all sides to the conflict. (5) Robert Hayden makes an interesting point about fatalities in Bosnia. He cites the estimates by "Bosnia's State Health Protection Office," an organ of Bosnian Muslim government, that 278,000 people were killed or went missing in the period 1992-95: 140,800 Bosniaks (that is Muslims), 97,300 Serbs, and 28,400 Croats. If we took these numbers as the correct estimates of the fatalities, Hayden calculates that this would mean that the "ratio of casualties to the prewar populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina of Muslims and Serbs are almost the same: 7.4 percent of Muslims, 7.1 percent of Serbs." He concludes, rightly in our opinion: "This similarity of ratios would make it very hard to argue that what took place in Bosnia was "genocide," unless there were two genocides there." I take his invocation of "two genocides" as in fact a reductio ad absurdum of the claim that genocide took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (6)

Things are much worse in the case of Rwanda. The standard figure given in the Western media about Rwanda is that some 800,000 Tutsi and "moderate Hutu" died at the hands of "extremist" Hutu. However, more serious studies of the distribution of casualties among conflicting groups during this episode of violence paint a very different picture. (7) After assembling available data and testimonies, James K. Gasana (8) estimates the number of victims of the Rwandan conflict (which began in October 1990, with a war of aggression carried out from Uganda by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, now in power) to close to 2.5 million, broken down as follows:

IN 1994
All ethnic groups
From 1990 to 1995
Byumba 845.000 470.000 56
Kigali 1.250.000 360.000 29
Kibungo 700.000 349.000 50
Butare 830.000 330.000 40
Other prefectures 4.125.000 961.000 23
All prefectures 7.750.000 2.470.000 32

The total of 2,470,000 dead includes approximately 600,000 Tutsi, killed by civilians, and common law criminals of all kinds. (9) The difference (2,470.000 - 600,000 = 1,870,000) represents Hutu victims of the conflict, many of whom were murdered by RPF combatants.

These numbers suggest that the casualty rates between those who in the customary narratives count as victims and perpetrators are roughly equal in the case of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina while, absurdly, the killed among the "perpetrators" outnumber by three times those of the "victims" in Rwanda. Yet, we continue to hear just the old numbers. The continued uncritical use of the old numbers about conflicts in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda clearly represents an attempt at a "nazification" of the Serbs and Hutu as peoples. But the real outcome, albeit perhaps unintended, may in fact be the "de-nazification" of the Nazi. What is more, however, to the extent that genocidalists through their narratives in effect "de-Nazify" the Nazi, they in fact ultimately "Nazify" themselves! (10) A cynic might observe that even in this day and age one can be essentially like a Nazi and enjoy it, but only when the ideological targeting is properly directed under the cover of geopolitically guided "political correctness."

3. International Criminal Law and Genocidalism

3.1 Genocide

According to Article II of the Genocide Convention, "genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

   (a) Killing members of the group;
   (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
   (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
   (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
   (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

Consequently, for a situation to fit the definition of genocide, three essential elements are necessary: (i) an identifiable national, ethnic, racial or religious group; (ii) the intent to destroy such a group in whole or in part (mens rea); and (iii) the commission of any of the listed acts, (a)-(e), in conjunction with the identifiable group (actus reus).

For a situation to be considered an instance of genocide there is no minimum number of fatalities required. However, the intent to destroy a particular group in whole or in part is probably accessible epistemically only when intent is associated with mass crimes. Discussing whether the U.S. were guilty of genocide in Vietnam, Jean-Paul Sartre correctly points out that the Genocide Convention "was tacitly referring to memories which were still fresh," that is to Adolf Hitler's "proclaimed...intent to exterminate the Jews." (11) Sartre asserted the obvious, that not all governments would be as stupid as Adolf Hitler's and proclaim such intentions as to eliminate a people. The question then is, if the intent is not explicitly proclaimed how is it discovered? Our contention would be that this process of discovery would have something to do with the scale of killing and massive disproportion (one-sidedness) of fatalities between the parties involved.

3.2 The impossibility of the primacy of international law over domestic law

Genocidalism can, and indeed does, pose the greatest danger when deployed in the legal arena. The consequences are real, as is arrest, "transfer," detention, conviction, and the stigma attached to charges -- even unproven -- of genocide, whether against an individual, or against a collective. While it could be expected that subjection of a litigious issue to competing advocates to establish legal and factual truth (12) would guarantee an objective and reliable process of discovery, this expectation is only valid if the legal process in which the question is examined is itself valid, that is, legally constituted, independent, impartial, and respectful of evidentiary and procedural norms. The Security Council of the United Nations has established two ad hoc bodies (in 1993 for the "former" Yugoslavia, (13) bearing the acronym ICTY, and in 1994 for Rwanda, known as the ICTR) to which it has afforded jurisdiction over the crime of genocide. Although I will not debate in detail here the legality of the Security Council's resolution, there is one element that I think has great philosophical significance. It relates to the fact that while the Tribunals remain subordinate to the Security Council, their statutes provide them with primacy over national courts (including the authority to demand the surrender of the accused). There is a paradox here, and it comes out quite clearly when we generalize the question to "How is it possible that international law could have primacy over national or domestic law?"

A complaint, not uncommon any more, that a specific domestic law of some country is inconsistent with international law (especially human rights law) is often taken to render that domestic law somehow invalid (or morally unjustifiable). This implies a view that might be expressed in the statement that international law, strictly speaking, enjoys a primacy over domestic law. What sense could be made of this? It follows that consistency with international law is a condition of validity for domestic laws. Now this idea is either plainly mistaken or in need of clarification (in order to imply anything of real relevance in the world). It is mistaken in the sense that per assumption domestic law has a clear source of validity, which determines its relevance in a precise manner: it is a decision of some collective about its own matters. It is in need of clarification, however, in the sense that it is obscure how something with a clear source of validity could depend in any way on something that is not clear what it is or whether it even exists. Hence, the assumption that the relevancy of domestic laws is conditional on their consistency with international law does not appear at all legally applicable.

On the contrary, international law, whatever its final shape, must start from the assumption that all applicable (domestic) laws have their relevance; that they express certain social facts that are simply there. For, if the relevancy of specific domestic laws were to be measured by their consistency with international law (or whatever other supra-national basis), then this would be tantamount to treating all domestic laws as irrelevant. Conditionality of the binding force of domestic law on consistency with international law, which is something that cannot be known in advance, would mean a question mark for every domestic law whether it is institutionally binding or not. Therefore, the enforcement of any domestic law may ex post facto turn out to be, strictly speaking, illegal activity. Thus, the primacy of international law, explicated along these lines, rendering it as the only law with relevancy would, of course, be quite undesirable and dangerous. I doubt, however, that it is even possible to express this view in a coherent way because it appears to be an absurdity. What is possible, however, is for a powerful state to take the doctrine of the primacy of international law "seriously" as a ground for pronouncing at will various laws in other countries as (domestically) non-binding. There is great practical danger in this doctrine, for he whose judgment of (in)consistency counts, has the power over others. This same problem plagues the newly established International Criminal Court (ICC), for the court theoretically would take action only when national courts fail to fulfill their legal responsibilities. But who determines a domestic system's "ineffectiveness"?

4. Conclusion

There are two results of our discussion that should be emphasized in the concluding remarks. The first result exposes what might be described as a huge normative divide between ways of attending to domestic (or national) concerns and ways of attending to international issues characteristic of Western democracies. Often what is clearly wrong, even criminalized on the domestic (national) level seems all right, even encouraged when it is practiced with respect to international affairs. The second outcome is the recognition that there exists a need for proper institutionalization of protection against harms (individual and collective) that genocidalism of commission inflicts on its targets.

When genocidalism is employed to advance foreign policy aims, in particular territorial ones, the debunking of the genocide claim, while possible, is entirely ineffective, and in any event does not influence the "facts on the ground," such as Camp Bondsteel in the occupied province of Serbia, Kosovo and Metohija, or NATO's continued presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This is why it must be emphasized that once the nature of genocidalism of commission is truly appreciated, that is, once it becomes a properly understood, and well-researched social phenomenon, it should become recognized as a criminal act. And the sentences should be very stiff indeed.


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1.  On the subject of respect for a person's views see Edward Langerak, "Disagreement: Appreciating the Dark Side of Tolerance," in Philosophy, Religion, and the Question of Intolerance, Mehdi Amin Razavi and David Ambuel (eds.) (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), see particularly pages 118-20.  (back)

2.  And, sure enough, as far as the Serbs' "crimes" go, imagine they did. Witness, for instance, the German defense minister Rudolf Scharping at work on 16 April, 1999: "it is recounted that the fetus was cut out of the body of a dead pregnant woman in order to roast it and then put it back in the cut-open belly...that limbs and heads are systematically cut off, that sometimes they play football with heads..." Quoted in Diana Johnstone, Fool's Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002), p. 252. But there was no material evidence, then or now, for stories of this sort.  (back)

3.  Consider, for example, Roy Gutman (Newsday reporter) the author of many excellent examples of this sort of narrative including A Witness to Genocide that not only got him a Pulitzer Prize, but also landed him a pseudo-governmental job as Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace. And there were others, John Burns (New York Times), David Rohde (Christian Science Monitor), and most recently Samantha Power (A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide [New York: Basic Books, 2002]) got the Pulitzer for their works similarly premised.  (back)

4.  In Frank Chalk's proposal for a redefinition of "genocide" the occurrence of the phrase "one-sided mass killing" suggests agreement with this insight. He defines genocide as "a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator." See Frank Chalk, "Redefining Genocide" in George Andreopoulos, Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), p. 52.  (back)

5.  See George Kenney, "The Bosnian Calculation," New York Times, Sunday, 23 April 1995, Section 6, Magazine, p. 42. See also "Casualties of the 1990s War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: A Critique of Previous Estimates and the Latest Results," by Ewa Tabeau and Jakub Bijak (Demographic Unit, Office of the Prosecutor International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia), 23 September 2004. The paper was presented at the IUSSP Seminar on the Demography of Conflict and Violence, Jevnaker, Norway, 8 to 11 November 2003.  (back)

6.  See Robert M. Hayden, "Shindler's Fate: Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and Population Transfers," Slavic Review, 55 (1996), pp. 746-7, note 65. It is worth mentioning here another study commissioned by the Demographic Unit, Office of the Prosecutor International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia, Ewa Tabeau and Jakub Bijak, "Casualties of the 1990s War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: A Critique of Previous Estimates and the Latest Results," European Journal of Population (forthcoming). This latest study further confirms the point we are advocating here by estimating the number of casualties to be the total of 102,622 persons, of which 55,261 were civilians and 47,360 militaries at the time of death.  (back)

7.  "Our research strongly suggests that a majority of the victims were Hutus -- there weren't enough Tutsis in Rwanda at the time to account for all the reported deaths," Professor Davenport said, who worked with an associate, Allan Stam, from Dartmouth College." See "Rwanda 1994 killings weren't 'genocide': US study" as reported on March 4, 2004 by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  (back)

8.  James K Gasana, "La Violence politique au Rwanda 1991-1993," (1998), Association NOUER, Geneva/Brussels, 1998.  (back)

9.  See "Genodynamics," a study offered under the title "Mass Killing and the Oases of Humanity: Understanding Rwandan Genocide and Resistance," available at:
http://www.bsos.umd.edu/gvpt/davenport/genodynamics/research.htm.  (back)

10.  This dialectic salto mortale is delightfully captured by Milan Brdar in his "Humanitarian Intervention and the (De)Nazification Thesis as a Functional Simulacrum," in Aleksandar Jokic (ed.) Lessons of Kosovo: The Dangers of Humanitarian Intervention (Calgary: Broadview Press, 2003), pp. 153-71.  (back)

11.  Discovering intent is not an easy matter, as the discussion, extensive investigation, and analysis of the US involvement in Vietnam shows. The so-called Russell Tribunal (the International War Crimes Tribunal), which conducted its "trial" in the 1966-1967 in Stockholm and Copenhagen, unanimously found the U.S. guilty of genocide in Vietnam. Others looked at governmental statements (which, of course, never contained any admission of genocidal intent), and even population statistics and health standards of the Vietnamese population, only to find the allegation of genocide "grotesque" (See Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, pp. 301-04 [emphasis provided]).  (back)

12.  See Susan Haack, "Truth, truths, "truth," and "truths" in the law," The Journal of Philosophy, Science and Law, Volume 3, 2003  (back)

13.  The ICTY asserted jurisdiction over alleged offences committed on Yugoslav territory -- namely, Kosovo, a province of Serbia -- while Yugoslavia was not yet a "former" nation.  (back)

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About the Author

Aleksandar Jokic is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University. He is the editor of War Crimes and Collective Wrongdoing, Lessons of Kosovo: The Dangers of Humanitarian Intervention, and author of an important essay, "Genocidalism," dealing with (geo)political abuses of the concept of "genocide" impacting current international order.



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Published November 6, 2006