My surprising local angle on Britain’s 2015 General Election. At the last election, in 2010, I was in Brighton, and my comment on the battle between Caroline Lucas’ Greens and Labour was much-read. This time I’m in East Devon, where local campaigns against property development and hospital closures, and for local democracy, are having an impact which I analyse in this piece which has just appeared on openDemocracy.

It is the unlikeliest place to look for evidence of Europe’s new political turbulence. Forecasters agree that in South West England, the main issue in the May 7 General Election is between the two Coalition parties. Will the Liberal Democrats manage to cling on to their seats or will David Cameron’s Tories take them, offsetting Labour gains elsewhere in England and Wales – which combined with the SNP’s capture of Labour seats in Scotland will allow Cameron to remain in Downing Street?

Certainly, the insurgent soft-racist party, UKIP, will advance a little here, but it is nowhere near to capturing seats as it may elsewhere. Likewise the ‘Green surge’ may conceivably work in regional capital Bristol, but there is no sign that rural constituencies will see strong Green advances. With the Lib Dems the fall guys of the UK’s first coalition since the Second World War, sitting Tory MPs must be feeling complacent about their own returns to Westminster, even if the national outcome remains on a knife-edge.

This will undoubtedly have been the case in the East Devon constituency, where the academic site electionforecast.co.uk projects national trends to give the Conservatives 40 per cent, Labour 16, the LibDems and UKIP 15 each and the Greens 7. However the site willingly acknowledges that local constituency-level knowledge is not included in its model, and Lord Ashcroft’s programme of constituency polling has also not reached here.

It is therefore understandable that national media have so far overlooked a very English local insurgency which has produced a serious independent candidate,Claire Wright, who aims to oust Tory foreign office minister, Hugo Swire.

Independent MPs are rarely elected in UK general elections, but the rare exceptions are often in safe Tory seats where (as here) both Labour and the Lib Dems are weak. In recent times, Martin Bell (a BBC reporter) toppled ‘sleazy’ Tory Neil Hamilton (now a leading UKIP figure) in Tatton in 1997, although when Bell stood down in 2001, the seat reverted to the Tories’ George Osborne. Consultant Richard Taylor captured Wyre Forest in 2001 on the back of a strong campaign to save Kidderminster’s hospital, holding it until 2010.

Could East Devon be 2015’s case? Wright is not a celebrity capitalising on a national scandal, as Bell was, nor does she have a single decision like Kidderminster’s hospital closure to rally opposition to local Tory dominance (although local hospital closures are important issues, and Wright is part of a campaign against cuts in the Ottery St. Mary hospital). It might therefore be thought that her chances are slim. Yet she is building on very broad opposition to the ruling Tories on East Devon District Council (EDDC), widely perceived as a one-party state where developers rule – if not a hotbed of corruption (Tory Graham Brown was forced to resign in 2013 in a ‘councillors for hire’ scandal).

Wright has a broad local base. A youthful district and County councillor, she came to prominence in a mass movement which brought 4,000 people onto the streets of the district capital and seaside resort of Sidmouth (population 14,000) in 2012, in protest against a development on open green space proposed by the EDDC. Already there was a scent of wider anger with a one-party regime on the council (the Tories have ruled for 35 of the last 39 Years). ‘Without the ventilation of change, the council has, some feel, begun to smell’, wrote the editor of Country Life at the time.

Unlike most such protests which quickly fade, Save Our Sidmouth spawned a movement, the East Devon Alliance (EDA), which is now challenging for power on the council. EDA is aiming to contest at least 45 of the 58 council seats and end Tory rule. The election takes place on the same day as the general election and the Lib Dems have no chance of gaining control, while Labour and the Greens will be lucky to gain any seats at all.

Syriza or Podemos, EDA is not. Yet this local movement of mainly middle-aged, middle-class southern English is one of many local resistances to the Tory-led Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework, widely seen as a property developers’ charter, who are nationally united in the Community Voice on Planning (COVOP).

Like the London tenants fighting the sale of their estates to developers, EDA contests the increasing bias of the British state towards property developers, local and international. The difference between EDA and other anti-developer resistance is that EDA, including several sitting independent councillors, is now challenging for district power. With implicit backing from the local press, EDA threatens a major upset in this quiet backwater.

Without EDA’s challenge to the local council, Wright’s independent campaign might seem quixotic. Yet simultaneous local and national elections, with synergies between the campaigns, give her a chance. Bookies now have herahead of the Lib Dems and Labour, and a respectable second place is clearly possible. Wright’s challenge is to persuade Lib Dem, Labour and Green voters who will vote EDA in the local elections to also support her – while at the same time trying to eat away at the Tory vote.

In what has been called Britain’s most unpredictable election – as I write, electionforecast projects a mere one-seat Labour plurality over the Tories (283-282 in a parliament where 326 seats are needed for a majority) – clearly every seat counts. Experts expect wide variations between constituency outcomes, and East Devon is another to watch. They would also do well to take on board the significance of the local elections: in East Devon on May 8, the most likely change is an end to decades of Tory council rule.

I published this letter in the Guardian on 27 January 2015 (scroll down for my letter):

‘The proposals of a European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation report for a Europe-wide ban on genocide denial, as part of a swathe of new legal measures (Jewish groups want EU ban on intolerance, 26 January), are highly problematic. First, it is proposed to ban denial of the Holocaust, but not of other historic cases such as the Armenian genocide or the Palestinian Nakba – although Nakba denial (legally enforced in Israel) is as likely to contribute to antisemitism (a major concern of the report) as is Holocaust denial.

Second, it is proposed to outlaw denial only of any “other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal”. This sounds reasonable, but international courts try individuals, only adjudicating history incidentally; most recent genocide, like historic genocide, has not been tried internationally; and these courts’ operations are highly politically constrained.

The proposed bans will only lead to arbitrary and contested prosecutions which increase polarisation, not reconciliation. It is better to combat genocide denial through argument and evidence.
Martin Shaw
Author, What is Genocide?

To expand, there are at least five separate issues here:

1. Banning ideas, however reactionary, as such – rather than when they threaten violence or discrimination – breaches freedom of speech.

2. The report doesn’t say what is to be banned – ‘literal’ denial (of the facts) or ‘interpretative’ denial (whether the events constitute a genocide). My reference to the Nakba illustrates the contentiousness of the latter issue, and the line where legitimate debate and denial gets blurred. I do not think it is possible to legally define this line: it is a matter for historians.

3. Naming the Holocaust as a genocide that can’t be denied, while requiring all other genocides to pass a legal test before their denial counts for the purposes of banning, is inconsistent and protects the memory of the Holocaust while not protecting that of many other historic and contemporary episodes.

3 In any case, there is no international legal framework for recognising genocides and the corpus of international legal decisions is decidedly not robust enough to provide an impartial framework. Many cases cannot be brought before international courts for political reasons, and courts are subject to political pressures in operations, leading them to inconsistent decisions which even involve genocide denial as in the case of the International Court of Justice decision on Bosnia.

4 In the contemporary European context, to legally ban Holocaust denial while not protecting the memory of other genocides such as the Nakba, which matter particularly to Muslim and Arab minorities, can easily be construed as a partisan intervention, and enforcement could easily contribute to polarisation. The incarceration of Holocaust-denying ‘historian’ David Irving in Austria did little good, and the indictment of Muslim Holocaust-deniers in France, say, could actively cause harm.

5 The report is considerably motivated by the desire to stem (indeed ban) anti-semitism. However we know that contemporary European anti-semitism, while rooted in jihadist ideology as well as historic legacies, is hugely stimulated by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, as the big spike following last summer’s Israeli atrocities in Gaza showed. Israel has instrumentalised the Holocaust while simultaneously banning commemoration of the Nakba. Netanyahu is now shamelessly instrumentalising the recent genocidal mini-massacre of Jews in Paris. I argue that to weaken anti-semitism, rather than reinforcing these Israeli narratives by banning Holocaust denial, it is necessary to seek a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and to challenge Israeli ideology. Recognition of the Nakba could be a powerful step in that direction. The European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation would have done better to focus on.this alternative agenda.

In 2000 I published a book, Theory of the Global State: Globality as Unfinished Revolution which revised the terms of the debate about the state, arguing that the dominant state form in today’s world is a ‘Western state conglomerate’ led by the USA but combining many ‘nation-states’ and international organisations. Together with the ‘global layer’ of international institutions which the West largely dominates, I saw this as an incipient ‘global state’, although I emphasised that this was a highly contradictory development.

In 2003, Alex Wendt, a well-known IR theorist, published an article arguing that a ‘world state’ was inevitable. Now the Garfield Institute at Hiram University has set up a new website, worldstatedebate.com which includes a new paper by Wendt and my new article ‘Global State Formation in the 21st Century’, which discusses Wendt’s ideas and updates my argument.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is recognised by all who have studied it seriously as one of the largest-scale, most concentrated episodes of mass murder in the last century. About 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis but also Hutus who opposed the Hutu Power regime, were killed in a matter of weeks. Frequently compared to the Armenian genocide and the extermination of the Jews, like them its ramifications have continued long after the events. It has increasingly been the focus of sharp controversy, as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government led by Paul Kagame has used the genocide to justify its own atrocities and authoritarianism, while those opposed to the RPF regime and Western support for it have often minimised the 1994 genocide itself.

At the beginning of this month the BBC’s This World series waded into this highly charged context. Jane Corbin set out to investigate the RPF’s crimes, which include massacres during the invasion of Rwanda that helped provoke the genocide in 1994, at the Kibeho camp where Hutus were held by the victorious RPF in 1995, and at various times in the Congo wars, in massacres that were investigated (along with others by its opponents) by a UN commission of inquiry. These are indeed a largely ‘untold story’, as the programme claimed, for Western publics.

However in the course of exposing the RPF, This World also publicised controversial arguments about the 1994 genocide, provoking 38 academics and others, most of them Rwanda experts, to write in protest to the BBC. They claim the programme whitewashed the Interahamwe militia, the trained killers of the genocide; grossly minimised the numbers of Tutsi murdered; and supported the largely discredited theory that the RPF itself shot down the plane of President Juvenal Habarymana, the event that was the signal for Hutu Power murderers to spring into action in April 1994.

The BBC strongly refutes ‘the suggestion that any part of the programme constitutes a “denial of the genocide against the Tutsi”.’ It points out that ‘there are repeated references to the mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus in 1994 and that this constituted genocide.’ However central to This World’s account were two US academics, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport, who while acknowledging that many Tutsis were killed in 1994, claimed that even more Hutus died at the hands of the RPF in that year. ‘Rwanda’s Untold Story’ apparently accepted this claim, but consulted none of the many who have carried out more in-depth research into the 1994 events and regard it as wholly inaccurate.

Falsifying the identity of the majority of victims lifts the main blame for killing from the Hutu nationalist génocidaires, and places it on the movement that opposed them. The RPF may have been responsible for serious – even genocidal – atrocities on a smaller scale, but all the available evidence suggests that in 1994 it was the Hutu Power regime that perpetrated the largest-scale mass murder anywhere in the post-Cold War era, primarily against Tutsis. Claims that shift the responsibility to the RPF are as much genocide denial as claiming that no mass killing took place at all.

This World didn’t appear to recognise that while President Kagame’s ‘official narrative’, as the programme called it, of the 1994 genocide helps to keep his grip on power, many of his critics have dubious axes to grind. Rwandan Hutu nationalists have now been joined by Western leftists who appear to believe that any genocide recognised by the West must be a myth. Radicals like the Guardian’s George Monbiot who refuse to support this denialism are subjected to widespread online abuse.

The truth about genocide in Rwanda does not belong to the opponents of the RPF regime any more than to President Kagame. Acknowledging the crimes of the RPF should not mean minimising or denying the Hutu Power genocide – or the fact that Kagame’s victory ended it, whatever new horrors it led to in the Congo. The catastrophic 1994 events were certainly the outcome of a political struggle in which the RPF was far from innocent, but that movement was not its perpetrator. Nothing the RPF has done since can justify the journalistic revisionism that the BBC allowed out on October 1st.

See my fuller post on Left-wing Genocide Denial and also Once More on Left-wing Genocide Denial. I have also written about the interactive regional pattern of genocide in the African Great Lakes in Genocide and International Relations, pp. 164-71.

My podcast interview about Genocide and International Relations on New Books in Genocide Studies is online at http://newbooksingenocidestudies.com/2014/08/08/martin-shaw-genocide-and-international-relations-cambridge-up-2013/

Daniel Feierstein, Genocide as a Social Practice: Reorganizing Society under the Nazis and Argentina’s Military Juntas. Translated from Spanish (Argentine) by Douglas Andrew Town. Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Daniel Feierstein sent me an advance copy of the English translation of Genocidio como Practicio Social, his study of the Nazis and the Argentine military junta as practitioners of ‘reorganizing genocide’. Feierstein presents a sociological reinterpretation of genocide based on the Argentine experience: here I discuss the points of agreement and disagreement between our perspectives.

The definition of genocide

Feierstein shares with me a dissatisfaction with the international legal definition, not least on the grounds of its notorious exclusion of ‘political groups’ from the scope of the crime. He frames this, cogently, in terms of discrimination, as a failure to apply the prohibition of group destruction equally to political as to other types of group: ‘defining genocide in terms of the characteristics of the victims has no precedent in modern criminal law and clearly damages the principle of equality before the law.’

Also for Feierstein, the legal definition is excessively broad, so that it encompasses ‘the annihilation of population masses by the Ancient Greeks, Romans or Mongols’ and misses the specific character of modern genocide. For him this has two key features. First, genocide is ‘the implementation of a massive and systematic plan intended to destroy all or part of a human group as such’. A ‘genocidal social practice’ is a specific ‘mechanism’ or ‘distinctive form of social engineering’ used by modern regimes:

a technology of power – a way of managing people as a group – that aims (i) to destroy social relationships based on autonomy and cooperation by annihilating a significant part of the population (significant in terms of either numbers or practices), and (ii) to use the terror of annihilation to establish new models of identity and social relationships among the survivors.

Second, genocide is not simply a moment of implementation, but a longer-term ‘process’ that ‘starts long before and ends long after the actual physical annihilation of the victims’: ‘It is organisation, training, practice, legitimation and consensus that distinguish genocide as a social practice from other more spontaneous or less intentional acts of killing and mass destruction.’

Moreover, ‘modern genocides have been a deliberate attempt to change the identity of the survivors by modifying relationships within a given society.’ We can understand what Feierstein means by considering his critique of Holocaust historiography:

In focusing on the death camps in which Jewish and Roma communities were exterminated between 1942 and 1945, historians have tended to downplay the importance of the concentration camp system. And yet the first camps were opened almost as soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933 and remained a part of everyday life in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe until the collapse of the regime in 1945. There has been no adequate account so far of the role played by concentration camps as stepping stones to genocide or the range of victims imprisoned or murdered in them during the “reorganization” of German society and the Reich’s military expansion eastward.

This approach has some attractive features. It moves the definition of genocide away from a narrow emphasis on mass killing, which is only one of many means through which groups are destroyed but which for many writers has become the only means that counts. It recognises that genocide involves not only the ‘perpetrators’’ attacks on the ‘victims’ but is also embedded in, and has implications for, wider power relations. And its emphasis on longer-term processes, exemplified in the reference back to the earlier stages of Nazi rule, is an important pointer to the need to connect moments of annihilation with preceding phases of discrimination and violence.

Yet the approach also has its problems. In specifying genocide itself as ‘systematic planning’, ‘social engineering’ and a ‘technology of power’ aimed at establishing new modes of power over the survivors, Feierstein comes too close to identifying genocide in general with the specific historical variant which he calls ‘reorganising genocide’. ‘Genocide’ was proposed by Raphael Lemkin to describe a general class of actions, defined by their destructive aims towards population groups, and rightly criminalized in this vein. Although Lemkin characterized the Nazi genocide as a multi-method, ‘coordinated attack’ on a variety of populations, the core of his concept is deliberate destruction. In other circumstances this can take different forms from the systematic social engineering of the Nazis. Lemkin recognised this variety in his manuscripts on colonial genocides. Leo Kuper more radically emphasised the wide range of genocide with his seminal idea of the ‘genocidal massacre’ which is so valuable in analysing the messier, spasmodic but still organised destruction of populations widespread in twenty-first century world politics.

‘Reorganising genocide’ and Nazism

Feierstein’s ‘reorganising’ concept reminds us that the destruction of specific groups within a society is often part of a project to reorganise the society as a whole. He presents this idea as a specific type of genocide, but underlying it is a point of theoretical interest for all genocide: whether part of a reorganising project or not, the destruction of part of a society generally changes social relations in profound way. It is difficult to believe that perpetrators are ever unaware of this dimension, so that we can always ask, what kind of society are they trying to achieve? Yet clearly there is much variation in the degree of formalisation into a defined ‘project’ and in the way it is conceptualised, etc. Colonial settlers who wished to create racially pure, or at least hierarchical, societies had different kinds of project from the ambitious social engineering which fascist and Stalinist regimes envisaged. The projects of loose coalitions of violent actors in today’s post-colonial world may be relatively inchoate compared to the cases that Feierstein considers ‘reorganising genocides’. The ‘reorganising’ concept makes sense if it designates a variant in which explicit and formalised social reorganisation is the driver of genocide.

Nazi Germany is Feierstein’s template for this type. I agree with his proposal to trace Nazi genocide back to 1933, not just because Hitler already had a project to reorganise society, but because his destruction of the labour movement and left parties, his early attacks on the Jews and the establishment of the camp system prefigured the more openly genocidal policies adopted from 1938-9 onwards (not only after 1941-2). The comparison of Argentina with Germany is suggestive, but the differences of context are much more substantial than Feierstein acknowledges. The Nazis were establishing a continental empire and enslaving tens of millions in the midst of a brutal and eventually desparate total war, while the Argentinian military were ‘reorganising’ a single nation-state in the relatively stable international context of the Cold War.

Moreover Feierstein’s view of the Nazi genocide as a ‘reorganising’ process that began with the concentration camps ascribes too much coherence to Nazi policies which mutated from national reorganisation into aggressive war. It was in the latter context that Nazi genocide escalated: from the mass murder of the German disabled, the deportations of Western Poles and the ghettoisation of Polish Jews in late 1939, through the mass shootings of Communists as well as Jews during the 1941 invasion of the USSR and the starving and freezing to death of Soviet prisoners of war in 1941-2, to the the extermination of the Jews and Roma of a whole continent in the camps in the last years of the war. To view all of this as ‘systematic planning’ and ‘social engineering’ defies today’s historical consensus, according to which Nazi policy escalated situationally in response to the opportunities and challenges that the war created. Hitler and the Nazi elite had grandiose schemes for their new racial empire, like the Generalplan Ost, but Nazi genocide was not the implementation of a preconceived plan.

The Argentine case

Feierstein acknowledges that his choice of cases to compare is personally driven: ‘the connection between these events is neither direct nor obvious’, but ‘to some extent “contrived” in order to see what we can learn about the way genocide constructs, destroys and reconstructs the social fabric.’ It seems likely too that there is a political dimension to the choice, since the Holocaust is the virtually uncontested standard of modern genocide, and the desire to see the Argentinian violence fully recognised in the genocide frame is an understandable background to this book. Connecting the Argentine case to the Holocaust is a politically obvious way of making the genocide argument. As Feierstein says of Vahakn Dadrian, who ‘has argued in several works that it is both possible and desirable to compare the genocide of the Armenian and Jewish peoples’: ‘Even though he does not say so explicitly, his goals are as much political as academic.’

Yet this strategy is less coherent theoretically than politically. I find the chapter in which Feierstein matches the Argentine events to the conflicting definitions that have been proposed for genocide less illuminating than his review of the Argentinian literature. As he says,

That the Argentine military were clear about their goals from the outset can be seen in the name they gave to their new regime: the “Process of National Reorganisation”. So it was that in the Republic of Argentina, an already existing nation-state that had been built – like most nation-states – on genocide, the de facto government of the military dictatorship proposed to “re-found” the state on a new social, political and cultural basis. The tool chosen to carry out this reorganization of society was the concentration camp.

A key issue is whether the military’s campaign was a ‘dirty war’, or whether the language of war masked a ‘genocidal practice’. Feierstein traces the origins of the project to 1974, and a work by Brigadier General Acdel Vilas, the head of Operativo Independencia (Operation Independence):

This was a military campaign to destroy the People’s Revolutionary Army (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP), a Trotskyist guerrilla group which, by the end of 1974, had seized just over a third of the mountainous northwestern province of Tucuman, in an attempt to copy the Cuban revolution. Operativo Independencia … became a testing ground for the repressive methods implemented during the military dictatorship a year later.

In Vilas’ mind, this reflection justified the need for clandestine operations in a “Dirty War” that required – in his own words – a very different army from the traditional one – and thus, different values, different morality, another way to carrying out social practices. It meant replacing a predominantly military social practice – war – with an eminently political one – the destruction of social relations in the civilian population or … genocide.

However the military origins of the crisis have given rise, in Feierstein’s view, to two erroneous perspectives: the ‘theory of the two demons’, according to which the extreme left militants are equally responsible with the military, and the distinction between ‘innocent’ civilian victims and armed militants who implicitly merited the army’s repression. The latter leads to

the unjustified assumption that the guerrillas died fighting while the victims – i.e. those people who were taken to detention centers – were all non-combatants, irrespective of their political affiliation or relationship with the armed struggle. In fact, the guerrillas were just as much victims as those people who had no relationship whatsoever to armed or political organizations.

Feierstein cites various reasons given in the literature for rejecting the ‘war’ perspective, for example that there was no revolutionary army, that the revolutionaries controlled no territory, and that the society as a whole was not at war. However the origins of the conflict in the ERP’s control of parts of Tucuman suggests that we cannot dismiss the ‘war’ perspective. War and genocide are hardly mutually exclusive, and a context of war often helps explain why political conflict radicalizes to genocidal solutions. A failed attempt to ignite a civil war can be as politically consequential as a successful one. The ‘Process of National Reorganization’ did not simply spring from the generals’ minds with no context.

Likewise Feierstein is concerned to reject the legitimation of the killing of armed militants. To the limited extent to which there was an armed struggle, and that militants were killed as a result of combat, clearly these deaths cannot be accounted genocide. However I take Feierstein’s point to be that most militants as well as non-militants were killed and abused outside the military context. Since the original armed conflict had given way to a genocidal process, we should see their killing as part of this. This argument is valid, but he does not deal with the obvious issue that in a sense armed opposition can be said to have helped, albeit in this case unknowingly, to provoke the military genocide. This argument, which has been raised (especially by Alan Kuperman) in relation to Rwanda and Kosovo, is surely relevant here, yet does not mean that one regards the perpetrators and victims symmetrically.

Which group is being destroyed in the Argentine genocide?

The most striking and also most problematic feature of Feierstein’s account is the way he ultimately argues for the genocidal character of the Argentine events. In my view, his account risks confusing the object of genocide with its policy context, because of an unusual conceptual move that seems to derive from the political motive of squaring the case with the international legal criteria for genocide.

Feierstein’s reconceptualisation of genocide, and specifically concepts of ‘genocidal practice’ and ‘reorganising genocide’, seem to rest on his adoption of a particular legal argument made in the 1999 indictment by the Spanish prosecuting magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, of 98 Argentine military for crimes of ‘terrorism and genocide’ under the dictatorship. For Feierstein, Garzón’s key argument is that the term ‘national group’ is appropriate to classify the victims in Argentina. This, Feierstein writes (with his emphases), ‘is based on the fact that the perpetrators sought to destroy structures of social relationships within the State, in order to substantially alter the life of the whole. This is in line with Article 2 of the 1948 Convention …, which defines genocide as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national (…) group. The Argentine national group has been annihilated “in part,” substantially altering social relationships across the nation.’

Garzón’s was an understandable legal tactic to catch the military perpetrators within an inadequate legal framework which recognizes national, but not political, groups as targets of genocide. Clearly all members of Argentine society can be considered members of the Argentine national ‘group’, in the rather arcane language of genocide law, but this does not make this a case of genocide in a coherent legal, let alone a sociological, sense. For clearly assorted leftists, their friends, families and alleged sympathizers were targeted by the Argentine military not because they regarded them as members of the Argentine national group, but for the opposite reason, that they did not regard them as legitimate members of the Argentine nation as they defined it. The military targeted a section of society, not the whole, with extreme violence, and this is what makes this a case of genocide.

Feierstein would have it differently: ‘the purpose of a genocidal social process is to destroy the broader fabric of social relations.’ But this seems misleading in both empirical and theoretical terms. The Argentine dictatorship sought to destroy certain parts of the Argentine social fabric, in order to reorganise the whole. It was the destruction, not the reorganisation, that made the process genocidal. If the military had not targeted certain sectors of society, producing some 30,000 deaths, their ‘reorganisation’ would not have been genocidal; there would have been a non-genocidal restructuring.

We can see the importance of this distinction if we put the Argentine case in comparative perspective. A 2013 discussion on the list-serve of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, in which Feierstein took part, compared this case with the Cambodian genocide. Yet there is a key difference: the Khmer Rouge attacked most if not all sections of the Cambodian population – the educated, urban dwellers, Buddhists, traditional peasant communities, ethnic and national minorities – because they regarded all existing institutions as part of the corrupt ‘old’ society to be replaced by the ‘new’ Kampuchea. Here the reorganisation was truly genocidal on a national scale, since no section of the population or existing institution escaped destruction, and the death toll of millions reflected the broader scope of the violence.

The concentration camps are, for Feierstein, the prime institutions of ‘reorganising’ genocide. In Argentina camps contained only one relatively small section of the population; in Cambodia, society as a whole was reorganised as a camp system. It does not diminish the genocidal character of the Argentinian military campaign to recognise the much narrower scope of its directly destructive policies, even if the broader reorganizing thrust affected society as a whole. For unlike the Khmer Rouge, the Argentine military aimed to rebuild society on a more conservative basis, strengthening some institutions while weakening others. ‘Reorganising’ genocide, like genocide in general, obviously constitutes a wide spectrum.

I have a chapter on ‘Genocide and Large-Scale Human Rights Violations’ in Mary Kaldor and Iavor Rangelov’s new Handbook of Global Security Policy. It’s a pretty pessimistic chapter, as I record the way in which the emergence of global policy towards genocide has been confined by geopolitics. Developments since I wrote, such as today’s widespread support for allying with the genocidal Assad regime to defeat the genocidal Islamic State movement, only underline the limitations of global policy which I outline in the chapter.

Handbook of Global Security Policy

(Before any readers complain, I must point out that several typos in the chapter, such as two references to the “United State’s” actions, are the result of Wiley-Blackwell’s awful editing, and not my responsibility.)