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Entry on Genocide in Oxford Bibliographies, now online

New review for the LSE Review of Books

Global Civil Society 2012: Ten Years of Critical Reflection. Mary Kaldor, Henrietta L. Moore and Sabine Selchow (eds). Palgrave Macmillan. 2012.


Global civil society is an idea of the period since the end of the Cold War: it has reformulated the old idea of civil society for the new global era. The original concept had, of course, several previous incarnations: once a synonym for the free market economy, it was influentially reshaped by Antonio Gramsci as an idea of the social space beyond both state and market, and most recently was transformed as the theme of movements for change in Stalinist Eastern Europe. This last incarnation helped shape its importance for progressive thinking after the Cold War, and the 1990s saw the global version take wing as a major concept of the social sciences. Here it mainly captured the possibilities of transnational social movements and non-governmental organisations to extend the reach of traditional national civil society into the burgeoning arenas of global politics.

By the turn of the millennium it seemed that global civil society’s time had come, and on the initiative of Mary Kaldor, long associated with civil society ideas in the 1980s peace and democracy movements, the London School of Economics provided the base from which the ambitious series of Global Civil Society Yearbooks was launched. From the start, the creative tension between the normative and analytical functions of the idea was evident. Yet few could have predicted that within days of the first publication in late 2001, the 9/11 attacks would have drastically reshaped world politics and radically challenged the assumptions of secular growths in globality and civility. This was the first of three world shocks that have punctuated the Yearbook’s first decade, to be followed in 2008 by the financial crisis and in 2011 by the Arab Spring. All three have changed the terms in which global society has been thought about and reshaped the original normative-analytical tension.

The Yearbook has survived these challenges and others closer to home (not least its movement between three publishers over the decade). It now celebrates its tenth edition, the first in which neither of Kaldor’s founding co-editors, Helmut Anheier and Marlies Glasius, joins her in producing the volume, although they combine with her to offer an introductory balance-sheet of their subject and their decade of joint work. They open with the Middle Eastern events of 2011, and the claim that “however these events unfold, an active civil society has begun a movement for democracy across the region.” They insist on civil society’s non-violent character, but warn of “low-level pervasive violence” where states fail to restrain it. It is a pitfall of the yearbook format, especially when it offers an annual review, to be overtaken by events: clearly the authors did not foresee the horrors of the Syrian war in 2012-13. Yet the commentary demonstrates a consistent feature of the editorial steer, the combination of optimism about the possibilities of civil society organisation to weaken authoritarianism with a realistic understanding that violence is rarely far away.

In a defining chapter of this volume, Kaldor evaluates the vicissitudes of the principles of humanitarian protection in the face of crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur and Libya. She ends on a cautiously optimistic note, hoping that “the end of the decade of the War on Terror will open up space for the revival of the humanitarian idea.”

Yet for Kaldor, Anheier and Glasius, and indeed for the many contributors to this as to previous volumes, these directly political and military contexts are only part of the evolving story of global civil society. President George W. Bush’s anti-terror campaign may have crystallised a ‘regressive globalism’ – of which violent Islamism was another face – as I put it in a contribution to the 2003 volume. But civil society has continued to expand and renew itself in many ways that do not depend on the macro-political context, and a valuable function of the Yearbook has always been to chart and explore the changing patterns.

The 2000s have been the decade of both alter-globalisation and an ongoing search for economic alternatives to the discredited financial order exposed by the economic crisis, which has led to a veritable depression in much of Europe including the UK. These issues are represented here by thoughtful chapters by Robin Murray and Geoffrey Pleyers. But perhaps above all, from a long-term perspective, they were the decade in which the internet became the prime means through which civil society was simultaneously expressed and further globalised. A chapter by Kaldor’s new co-editors, Henrietta Moore and Sabine Selchow, examines the implications of this shift and suggests that it is rebuilding the “island of meaning” in terms of which the Yearbook initially conceptualised global civil society.

Thinking through the implications of this development, it is evident that the perspective with which Kaldor and her collaborators have approached global civil society over the last decade has not only captured an essential question of our times, but has confronted issues that will only become more central to world society throughout the twenty-first century. We must hope that the Yearbook will still be with us in some form – perhaps itself online in a more comprehensive way than its present Facebook page – to help us interpret the radical social changes that globalisation will continue to bring.

A draft of my review of this important new book, published this month in the Journal of Genocide Research, 15, 2, 2013.

Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain. New York: Harper, 2012.

What happened in Spain in the 1930s has hardly been reckoned with in that country even eight decades afterwards. However, it is also underestimated in prevailing Western scholarly understandings of twentieth-century history, which tend to see the Spanish events as a tragic prelude to the main global struggle that broke out in 1939, just after Francisco Franco’s Nationalists had consolidated their seizure of power. It is particularly neglected in genocide studies, which tend to depict genocide in the 1948 Convention’s terms as an attack on ethnic, national, racial and religious groups, and hardly recognize the genocidal character of attacks on politically and class-defined populations.

Thus we think about the Spanish events primarily as a ‘civil war’, and remind ourselves that such wars are particularly brutal, an idea recently encapsulated in Stathis Kalyvas’s idea that there is a particular type of ‘civil war violence’ that civilians help to produce through their centrality to the dissemination of information and the settling of local scores. This may well be true. But this challenging new book by Paul Preston, the foremost English-speaking historian of 1930s Spain, suggests that much more was at stake.

The events of 1936-1939 were more than a civil war. Rather, the military rebellion against the Republic involved an attempt to exterminate the left in Spain, not only in a political sense, by destroying its Republican, Socialist, Anarchist and Communist parties, but in a social sense, by destroying all movements of exploited workers and agricultural labourers seeking to improve their generally wretched living conditions. The rebellion, after half a decade of ‘social war’, was an enterprise by a large section of the military’s upper ranks, aided and abetted by substantial sections of the rightwing parties, Church and property-owning classes, to put a definitive end to what they saw as a ‘Bolshevik-Jewish-Freemason’ conspiracy and an ‘un-Spanish’, Russian-inspired revolt against the natural, divinely sanctioned order of Spanish society.

Preston explores this theme in a book that I can only describe as relentless in its depiction of the rebels’ campaign of atrocities. I am often asked, when I describe my field of interest, whether it is not disturbing to read and think about genocide. That is undoubtedly the case, but Preston’s catalogue of unspeakable violence is among the worst that has come my way in a long time. The character of his narrative reflects, however, the rebels’ own relentless exterminatory thrust, and since he draws on a huge range of recent Spanish local and regional as well as national research, he vividly depicts the horrors of their army’s advance and its aftermath, village by village and town by town. The reader is drawn willy-nilly into the appalling ends of so many men, women and children, most of them ‘guilty’––if of anything at all, since the execution of the violence was often random as well as selective––of little more than supporting the Republic, a Republican party, or one of the social movements of the early 1930s.

One of the most striking features of the book is the repeated murder of Republican leaders and public officials, national and local, however moderate they were in the spectrum of Republican opinion. Indeed, one learns to expect that if a local mayor or national minister has shown any interest in protecting rightwingers from leftwing violence, then he will inevitably meet the most gruesome end once he falls into the rebels’ hands. But this was no mere ‘politicide’: the mass shootings of labourers, the extensive rapes and murders of Republican women, the appalling repression of Republican populations, the brutality against Republican children and their organized theft in the aftermath of the war, together with the suppression of Catalan, Basque, and Galician identities, all testify to a broader destructive process.

Preston does not neglect leftwing violence before, during, or after the military rebellion. He shows, however, that violence against landowners, clergy and pro-rebel politicians was often provoked by extreme exploitation or rebel atrocities. It was never part of an overall campaign of extermination comparable to that pursued by the rebels, and almost everywhere involved fewer victims. But there were important exceptions, notably anarchist-inspired violence against rightwingers and clergy, and Stalinist-led mass murders of rightwing prisoners in Madrid and so-called ‘Trotskyists’ in Barcelona, even if these were disowned by the Republic’s Socialist and Republican national leaders. The leaders of the military rebellion, on the other hand, clearly backed its exterminatory violence. Indeed, Franco more than once forewent an opportunity for military gain in order to complete repression in the rear.

Preston uses the term ‘Spanish Holocaust’ to include the mass violence on both sides, and he justifies this–despite recognising the differences from the Nazi Holocaust–on the grounds that the violent conflagration affected large sections of Spanish society. He does not engage with the genocide literature, but his work has many resonances with its recent themes. He shows the role that colonial brutalism and racism played in forming the Spanish military’s contempt for the working masses: they were regarded as no more than subhuman natives deserving of extreme reprisals. He emphasizes the influence of antisemitic ideology in rightwing Spanish nationalism, resonating with international fascism as well as the country’s earlier genocidal expulsions of Moors and Jews. The rebels’ extreme violence was well rehearsed in violent discourses over the preceding years.

From Preston we can conclude, therefore, that the Spanish Holocaust was no national sideshow but an important part of the exterminatory momentum of international politics that climaxed in the Second World War. We tend to think, following Lemkin, of European genocide as targeted against national and ethnic groups. Yet in the 1930s, in Spain as in Soviet Russia, violence was organized primarily on a class basis, even if subordinate nationalities were also targets. In Germany too during this period, of course, the Nazis ‘came for’ the Communists, Socialists and trade unionists as well as the Jews. The exclusion of destructive violence against ‘political groups’ and social classes from the scope of genocide is not only theoretical and moral nonsense, but ahistorical, since this violence was a crucial link in the road to Auschwitz.

Draft of my review of Marcia Esparza, Henry R. Huttenbach, and Daniel Feierstein (eds.), State Violence and Genocide in Latin America: The Cold War Years. London: Routledge, 2010.
To appear in Democracy and Security, September 2012.

Latin America was the site of much political violence in the Cold War period but – apart from the mass killing in Guatemala in 1982 – the growing field of genocide studies has paid little attention to the continent’s recent history. This volume aims to change that, with chapters on Argentina (3), Chile (2) and Colombia as well as Guatemala (2), framed in a perspective which is both continental in scope and focused on Latin America’s relationships with the United States (to which three chapters are devoted).

The existence of ‘genocide’ literature on Guatemala, but not other countries, may be partly explained by the fact that the majority of victims there belonged to the indigenous population and can be seen as targeted because of their ‘ethnic’ identity as well as their social movements and links to armed and political opposition. The apparent problem for a genocide perspective on late twentieth-century Latin America is that in the other countries, most civilian victims of violence seem to have been targeted because of their political rather than ethnic identities, and the United Nations Genocide Convention does not cover attacks on ‘political groups’.

This is widely seen as a problem with the Convention’s definition, and although some genocide scholars argue that the definition should be upheld, the majority believe that (in this respect at least) it is incoherent, and should be superseded by a more inclusive formulation. Several authors in this book are not content, however, to rely on existing authorities for the fact that violence against political groups can be counted as genocide, and devote a lot of space to this question. This seems to reflect a goal, manifest in some contributions and indeed in the volume as a whole, to have recent violence counted as genocide in legal and political as well as in social-scientific and historical terms. The final section of the book is devoted to studies of concealment, justice and reconciliation in the legacies of genocidal violence.

The difficulty of the demand for justice is that it leads scholars to try to square deviant cases with the sociologically incoherent Convention, often through tortuous legal (or legalistic) argument. Thus Daniel Feierstein takes up Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón’s argument (in a 1999 indictment of Argentine officers) that the term ‘national group’ (one of the Convention’s categories of protected group) is appropriate in the Argentine case, because (as Feierstein puts it) ‘[t]he Argentine national group had been annihilated “in part”, substantially altering the social fabric of the country’ (p.52). Yet however laudible the aim of bringing the officers to account, this seems a misinterpretation of the Convention and of the general idea of anti-group violence, since while the Argentine military certainly wished to alter the national society, they did this by targeting particular sections of the population. As Feierstein himself later puts it, ‘eradicating certain political, social and cultural groups was intended to subjugate society as a whole.’ (p.60)

Quite how to define the targeting of Cold War genocide in Latin America is addressed in several places in this book. In the Introduction, Marcia Esparza argues that ‘extreme class, race and ethnic polarization in the region has led to the construction of el pueblo as an entity that can be considered as the “hostage group”.’ (p.13) Esparza’s analytically interesting implication is that, rather than there having been a single type of polarization, common but complex and overlapping cleavages characterize Latin American genocide. These cleavages are deeply rooted, she suggests, in colonial as well as post-colonial history, and have produced in the ruling classes a ‘neocolonial mentality … transmitted from generation to generation’, which informs the specific violence of the Cold War period that has been conditioned by ‘US-led geopolitical projects’. (p.13)

Powerful as this idea of el pueblo is, a problem of any such general analysis seems to be the variety of Latin American national experiences. The over 200,000 deaths in Guatemala (discussed in a thorough chapter by Marc Drouin) dwarf the 30,000 killed and ‘disappeared’ in Argentina, while the latter far exceed the 3,000 murdered by the Pinochet regime in Chile and the 3-5,000 supporters of the Unión Patriótica (UP) assassinated in Colombia. These quantitative differences seem to reflect qualitative differences in targeting: in Guatemala extensive violence was deployed against the (mainly) rural masses, while elsewhere violence was focused more narrowly on the (mostly) urban opposition. Of course, even this ‘narrow’ focus was broad in the sense of catching a wide range of people ‘guilty’ only of presumed family or friendship connections with activists, as well as in the sense of being designed to intimidate larger social constituencies and movements.

In this book, illuminating case studies are not complemented by serious comparative analysis which might have indicated the prevalence of genocidal violence in Latin America as a whole (indeed not all countries with large-scale political violence are included, and its relative absence in others is not discussed). Although the case studies indicate significant differences in experiences, the general chapters provide mostly overarching explanations, rather than nuanced comparative analysis; and while Esparza suggests that the profoundly unequal societies developed from the colonial era have been formative, these chapters focus mainly on the US relationship.

The latter is certainly an important frame: genocide studies too often assume that the phenomenon is produced ‘domestically’, neglecting how international relations are involved. Clearly US-led anti-communism was a unifying factor in Latin American regimes’ and militaries’ outlooks, US training informed Latin American militaries’ repression, and the USA encouraged collaboration between the separate national armies, police and intelligence bodies such as that evidenced in the notorious Operation Condor (discussed in a chapter by J. Patrice McSherry). But as Maureen S. Hiebert and Pablo Policzer put it, in assessing US complicity in the Chilean and other regimes’ crimes, ‘indirect complicity, where American officials actively encouraged but did not direct the Latin Americans’ actions against their political enemies’, and situations ‘where the Americans were aware of the Latin Americans’ actions but did nothing to discourage or challenge them’, seem more viable explanations than ‘direct complicity’. (p.76)

Or as Andrei Gómez-Suárez puts it, writing about Colombia, US ‘discourses merged with local representations flourishing in the armed conflict, creating a fertile field for genocide to happen’; US support and ‘misrepresentation of the threat that guerrilla groups posed for the security of the hemisphere allowed’ local genocidal alliances of government and military officials with paramilitaries and drug cartels to destroy the UP. (p.163) Here Gómez-Suárez also draws attention, as do other contributors in the case studies, to the relationships of armed conflict to the emergence of genocidal violence against civilian oppositionists and movements. However in the book’s more general analyses, the role of the armed oppositions in helping to provoke regime violence is not posed as a serious question. Yet ‘armed struggle’ and genocidal violence both marked various countries of Latin America in the Cold War; they have both declined since. Some kind of linkage seems clear, even its ramifications need fuller analysis.

Too much of this book is devoted to conceptual rather than theoretical analysis, and (taken as a whole) it raises more questions than it answers. However in the global framework of genocide research, this is a landmark contribution, not only as the first study to apply genocide analysis to late twentieth-century Latin America, but also because taking account of the context of genocidal violence in that continent, we have new perspectives on the global patterns of the incidence and forms of genocide.

Draft review for the Journal of Genocide Research

Gerard Toal and Carl C. Dahlmann, Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 978-0-19-973036-0.
Paul Mojzes, Balkan Genocides: Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing in the Twentieth Century, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011, 978-1-4422-0663-2.

The anti-population violence during the Bosnian War of 1992-95 was, together with the mass murder in Rwanda in 1994, one of the seminal events for the public awareness of genocide in the period after the Cold War. Yet while the Rwandan Genocide has been clearly named and is the focus of ever-growing academic study, the significance of the Bosnian events remains highly contested and their study lacks the momentum of the Rwandan field. Most of the general literature dates from the 1990s, and there have been few recent attempts to synthesise the events themselves and their legacy. Gerard Toal and Carl C. Dahlmann’s Bosnia Remade, with its incisive empirical study of the problematic post-war ‘return’ of the expelled and its ambitious critical-geopolitical theoretical framework for understanding the war and its aftermath, is therefore a very welcome addition.

The authors’ primary aim is to evaluate the process of return of displaced people. Annexe 7 of the 1995 Dayton General Framework Agreement committed the international authorities supervising Bosnia to upholding this right in the aftermath of the war, and there followed what was probably the most determined attempt to enforce the return of expelled populations anywhere in the world. (Omar Bartov was therefore wrong to claim, in this journal, that the right of return is demanded only for Palestinians displaced by Israel.#) Although around a million, out of over two million, Bosnians expelled from their homes and home districts during the war had returned by 2004, Toal and Dahlmann’s analysis – using detailed studies of three key municipalities as well as general data – shows that most of these were ‘majority returns’, of people belonging to the same ethnic group as the postwar controllers of particular areas. ‘Minority returns’, of people belonging to different groups from local powerholders, were often met with violence and obstruction. Despite sometimes determined efforts by international bodies, they were largely unsuccessful.

This outcome is explained as a consequence of the character of the wartime processes that produced displacement and how the political structures that they produced were largely embedded in the postwar settlement, and explains why Bosnia Remade’s account of the returns process is preceded by a very full synthesis of the war itself and the original expulsion process. Ethnic cleansing, they say, was a ‘military tactic to realise a larger strategic vision … as much about seizing and consolidating territory as … about identity. More than simply the removal of an out-group from a location, ethnic cleansing involves the ethnicization of space.’ It is thus a form of geopolitics, involving two related practices, the attempts to produce a new ethnoterritorial order of space, and to build an ethnocratic political order. The latter involved a ‘fundamental reorganisation of a local political economy’, through ‘accumulation by dispossession’, with housing, land and valuables stolen (116-17). The phenomenon originated in the Serbian strategy ‘to reconstitute Yugoslavia as a smaller, more compact federation controlled from Belgrade’ (21) and Serbian nationalists were responsible for most expulsions, although the Croatians developed similar strategies in some areas and their ethnic cleansing in 1995 constituted its ‘largest single instance’ (6). Although Toal and Dahlmann ‘reject as lazy and irresponsible the nostrum that there is a “moral equivalence” between the fighting factions in Bosnia’ (17), they recognise that Bosnian forces were also responsible for some expulsions and show that Muslim-based parties sometimes blocked minority returns to areas they controlled after the war.

The key to the relative failure of the returns process is that Dayton mostly allowed parties controlling localities at the end of the war – in many cases having removed much of the original population – to consolidate their power. Post-war politics was ‘the continuation of the war by other means’; local elites ‘established patronage systems in their captured opstine [municipalities] that endured into the peace.’ (235) US President Bill Clinton insisted on early elections, in the belief that democratisation was a way out of Bosnia’s impasse, but just as the earlier 1990 elections had originally ethnonationalised Bosnian politics – laying the basis for territorial division – so post-Dayton elections were manipulated by local powerholders who boosted their own population group’s electoral registration and absentee voting, while blocking the participation of the expelled – so confirming territorial division. ‘Rapid elections … mostly served to entrench nationalist parties and collective rights’ (234), at the expense of the individual rights of expelled people. Moreover this local control was reinforced by the establishment of the wartime Republika Srpska as an ‘entity’ (within a new federal structure for the Bosnia-Herzegovina state), which Serbian politicians treated as far as possible as a separate state. Although the literature has often emphasised the lack of ‘will’ of international authorities, Toal and Dahlmann point to the inherent weakness of multinational bureaucracy and its lack of capacity faced with local intransigence: ‘the international community soon realised that it was insuffiently equipped to monitor and enforce Dayton’s provisions across two entities, ten cantons and 148 local governments, each with its own tactics for discouraging returns and repossession.’ (237)

Thus Bosnia Remade shows that Michael Mann’s argument that ethnic cleansing is the ‘dark side of democracy’ is particularly relevant when the latter is proposed as an answer to ethnic conflict: as a growing literature attests, elections can be catalysts for conflict. The book also matches two of the themes of Stathis Kalyvas’ influential arguments about civil war violence: the importance of the local level, and the fact that populations help produce the violence that is directed at civilians.#  Thus Toal and Dahlmann argue that ethnic cleansing ‘is never straightforwardly “ethnic” or motivated only by a desire to “cleanse” localities thought the murder and expulsion of ethnic others. Criminal opportunism, local grievances, revenge and nihilism fuelled by alcohol and drugs are also elements of the practice. Some violence … was motivated by long-held grudges.’ (13) However their demonstration of the centrality of Serbian and Croatian geopolitical projects to the cleansing process contradicts Kalyvas’ claim, in an article with Nicholas Sambanis, that it can be mainly explained by the level of resistance to Serbian power.#

Toal and Dahlmann argue that both ethnic cleansing and return are unavoidably geographical projects, and their approach is based on critical geopolitics, ‘an approach that produces “categories of analysis” to grasp and explain the too-often unproblematized “categories of practice” of banal and not-so-banal nor benign geopolitics.’ (9) Thus they reject the subsumption of the events in the categories of ‘civil war’ and ‘ethnic conflict’, and similarly to David Campbell’s earlier post-structuralist account#, show how ethnopolitics was constructed out of Bosnia’s historic hybrid, plurinational society. However, despite pointing out that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is ‘a vivid metaphor conveying the commitments of its perpetrators’ (3), they are remarkably content to use this as their main analytical category. ‘Genocide’, in contrast, is treated overwhelmingly as a rhetorical device of actors, whether of Serbian perpetrators recalling their peoples’ historic victimisations, or of Bosnian Muslim leaders complaining about Serbian ‘cleansing’. In a surprising lapse of critical focus on the ‘categories of practice’, they reproduce the view (now conventional in international legal circles) that genocide was only committed at Srebrenica in 1995, while the general destruction of plural Bosnian society, which occurred as they show mainly in 1992, was not genocide.

Yet what Toal and Dahlmann describe is what others from Raphael Lemkin onwards have carefully defined as genocide: carving out imagined ethnic homelands by destroying Bosnia’s ‘common life, multiethnic settlements and the homes of ordinary Bosnians’ (134), and destroying its common public infrastructure and cultural and religious property, indeed its ‘lifeworld of coexistence (140). When they talk of a ‘geopolitical logic of erasure and refoundation’ (6) they reproduce Lemkin’s ‘two phases [of genocide]: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.’# Their argument that the ethnonationalism has largely succeeded even though it was not militarily victorious is another way of expressing his dictum that genocide is a way of winning even when the war itself is lost. Yet nowhere do Toal and Dahlmann argue for these conceptual choices.

Paul Mojzes makes similar conceptual decisions, but he does at least try to justify them. His book is a historical synthesis, which has the considerable virtue of bringing together the large number of genocidal events in the modern Balkans over the last century. He begins with the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, seen as an ‘unrecognized genocide’, and proceeds to the ‘multiple genocides of World War II’ and ‘retaliatory genocides against wartime enemies’, before arriving at ‘ethnic cleansing during Yugoslavia’s wars of distintegration in the 1990s’ (Kosovo is considered in a separate chapter, as is the ICTY). In each of this periods, Mojzes carefully accumulates the evidence on anti-population violence from all sides, and this will serve as a useful reference work. He also tries to say which events constituted genocide, and which not, and while his criteria and judgements may both be disputed, it is all done in a careful way that gives the readers useful pointers. The sheer range of events that are covered, the variety of their perpetrators, and the demonstrations of their interconnectedness, also provide useful antidotes to any simple ideas that only one or other type of actor perpetrated genocide. Mojzes falls into the trap of identifying the political factions with the ethnic groups themselves, so begging the question of the ethnopoliticisation that is the focus of Toal and Dahlmann’s analysis. But by placing the Bosnian war in the larger series of recent conflicts that began in Slovenia and Croatia and ended in Kosovo, he provides useful contextualisation, even if Balkan Genocides has neither the interpetative historical depth of Donald Bloxham’s work#, which covers the earlier part of its ground, nor the theoretical and empirical richness of Bosnia Remade.

Any optimism about the future of the Balkans in these books is highly tempered, but Toal and Dahlmann are right to say that Bosnia-Herzegovina is still in the process of being made. There is no inexorable law that condemns us to reproduce the crimes of the past, even if there are powerful social forces that work in that direction.

See the full review including references.

A draft of my review of Christopher Powell, Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide, for the forthcoming special issue of Sociology on The Sociology of Human Rights.

George Monbiot has written an interesting take in The Guardian on ‘left-wing’ denial of the Srebrenica genocidal massacre and the Rwandan genocide, Left and libertarian right cohabit in the weird world of the genocide belittlers. Monbiot refers to the recent book by Edward Herman (Noam Chomsky’s collaborator of four decades) and David Peterson, with a foreword by Chomsky, which is explicit in its denial of genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda. I have written the following review of this book for The Journal of Genocide Research (this is a draft; the final version appeared in issue 13, 3, 2011, 353-58):

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010
128 pp, $12.95 (pbk)

Genocide is an intensely political topic. This type of targeted anti-population violence arises from political and armed conflict and is justified by political ideology. Its discussion always reflects political interests, values and goals: even academic genocide studies are surrounded by critical political issues, and often informed by unstated political assumptions. So The Politics of Genocide is a good title; but for this book, it is a misnomer. Readers looking for a rounded treatment of the subject will be severely disappointed. What Edward Herman, long-time collaborator of Noam Chomsky (who writes the foreword), and his co-author offer us is a politics of genocide, based on the unremitting opposition to Western and especially US power that characterizes all the works of these authors.

This is a study, then, of the contradictions of official Western attitudes to genocide, with a superficial reference (but one significant for the book’s method) to mass media, and brief references to “‘genocide’-oriented intellectuals.” The core case is that all major sectors of the Western establishment are fundamentally compromised by partial attitudes to political violence, according to which some is regarded as “constructive” (committed by Western states and necessary to their aims), some “nefarious” (committed by the West’s enemies), some “benign” (committed by the West’s allies) and some downright “mythical” (supposed actions of the West’s enemies, actually invented for propaganda purposes). This framework, which the authors explain was devised by Herman and Chomsky as long ago as 1973 during the US war in Indochina, defines the book’s four main chapters, each devoted to proving the West’s politically motivated partiality towards violence across a wide range of cases.

The relatively novel element in The Politics of Genocide is the claim that “genocide” language has become increasingly central to the process by which the West interprets events in these four categories: “During the past several decades, the word ‘genocide’ has increased in frequency of use and recklessness of application, so much so that the crime of the 20th century for which the term originally was coined often appears debased” (p 103). Ironically, therefore, Herman and Peterson join many official Western, and especially pro-Israeli, advocates in suggesting a very special (perhaps “unique”?) place for the Holocaust in the modern history of violence. But this reference serves a definite purpose in the authors’ own political framework: if it can be argued that “current [Western] usage” is (as Chomsky puts it, p 7) “an insult to the memory of victims of the Nazis,” then that usage is discredited. And Herman and Peterson’s target is not just this usage, but, as Chomsky summarises, “[t]he vulgar politicization of the concept of genocide, and the ‘emerging international norm’ of humanitarian intervention” (p 10), and especially “all the fine talk about the ‘responsibility to protect’ and the ‘end of impunity’” (p 11). The real problem with the latter, in their view, is that (as Chomsky says) this fine talk “has never once been extended to the victims of these same [Western] powers” that promote it, “no matter how egregious the crimes” (p 11). Thus Chomsky concludes: “As for the term ‘genocide,’ perhaps the most honourable course would be expunge it from the vocabulary until the day, it ever comes, when honesty and integrity can become an international norm” (p 12).

The methodology of this study can be summarized as follows: sweeping assertions about historical events, political attitudes and intellectual positions, buttressed by selective quotation and ignoring most contending sources and arguments, with cavalier use of statistics, all calibrated via a one-dimensional media survey and offered without any attempt to define key concepts. Let us take as a starting-point the following statement: “The leading mainstream experts on ‘genocide’ and mass atrocity crimes today still carefully exclude from consideration the US attacks on Indochina, as well as the 1965-1966 Indonesian massacres within that country – just as they exclude the deaths and destruction that have followed from the United States’ and NATO-bloc’s aggressive wars of the past decade” (p. 17). At this point, one might expect a careful discussion of the “mainstream experts”: but although they are supposed to be an important part of the compromised Western consensus, Herman and Peterson’s sole reference in academic genocide studies is Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” (2002).# One would not guess that the crimes of pro-Western Indonesia (both the military killings referred to and the invasion and repression of East Timor) are increasingly standard topics in genocide research.# Otherwise, the text is singularly devoid of references to the academic field – even to texts like Adam Jones’ edited Genocide, War Crimes and the West: History and Complicity (2004),# which might have provided partial support for the argument. The other “expert” works adduced are popular handbooks like Roy Gutman and David Rieff’s Crimes of War (1999)#and Christiane Amanpour’s TV documentary, Scream Bloody Murder (2008). It is clear that Herman and Peterson, having dismissed the utility of our field’s main concept, are not interested in what genocide scholars have to say, either.

But let us proceed further with the allegations in this quotation. Herman and Peterson charge genocide experts with ignoring the US attacks on Indochina and the deaths that have followed from the US’s and NATO’s recent wars. For them it is not good enough, moreover, that Power and many others note the role of the US attacks on Cambodia in producing the Khmer Rouge genocide – they also want the direct death toll from US bombing discussed in the genocide framework. But part of the problem is Herman and Peterson’s resolute indifference to conceptual questions. Sure, calling “their” violence “genocide” and “ours” merely “collateral damage” could be not-very-subtle political labelling. But is there any difference at all between “war” and “genocide”? Does saying that the US invasion of Iraq, for example, was war rather than genocide necessarily legitimate the deaths and destruction produced? Or is there a sociological difference between war and genocide, even if they are both morally objectionable? Herman and Peterson are only interested in the numbers of people killed, not in the rationales behind the killings. From their point of view, the difference between Auschwitz and Hiroshima would be only the larger number of people killed in the former. But should we not take into account the different, even if both deeply immoral, aims and motives of the perpetrators in these two events?

The problems of the Herman-Peterson approach are clearly displayed in their treatment of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath. Quick to entertain an estimate of “more than one million” deaths, they claim that “the media and intellectuals rarely treated Iraqi deaths as a consequence – direct or indirect – of the invasion-occupation, let alone as a deliberately imposed bloodbath, crime against humanity, or ‘genocide’” (p 34). Nowhere are the arguments for much lower death tolls (for example, in the careful estimates of Iraq Body Count, according to which currently about 100-125,000 Iraqi civilians may have died since 2003) addressed.# Nor is there any discussion of who is directly responsible for what is (even on this more conservative estimate) still a very substantial toll, although the majority of deaths are almost certainly directly attributable to Iraqi factions rather than US-UK forces. In this way, an emotive label – “deliberately imposed bloodbath, crime against humanity, or ‘genocide’” – is simply left hanging, so that we are implicitly invited to believe that any or all of these could apply to Western intervention. Paradoxically, the result of this comic-opera treatment is that the authors never pin clearly on the USA and UK either their proper share of the direct responsibility for casualties or their general, indirect responsibility for the mayhem following the invasion.

Herman and Chomsky are the authors of a standard book about mass media, Manufacturing Consent (1994).# Not surprisingly, then, Herman and Peterson’s chief empirical measure of the abuse of “genocide” language is the frequency with which certain key media apply the term to different historical and contemporary events, which is then cross-referenced to their death tolls to suggest the varying ratios of media mentions to deaths. Unfortunately, all the calculations developed from this crude yardstick and scattered throughout this book are undermined if we admit that genocide could actually be a different type of political violence from war. For example, Herman and Peterson make a good deal of the (estimated) 5.4 million victims of the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the low salience of media use of “genocide” language in this case, compared to Rwanda. But they never stop to consider the differences between the two cases. The complicated set of armed conflicts in the DRC involved multiple actors over the course of a decade, each fighting each other in changing alliances as well as variously targeting civilians, with most of the claimed death toll attributed to the disease, hunger, and dislocation which the fighting caused. In the relatively simpler case of Rwanda, a highly coordinated campaign of mass murder was developed during a two-sided war over a few weeks in 1994. There are certainly big “genocide” questions in the DRC wars, but there are good reasons (as well as the bad ones alleged here) to distinguish the application of “genocide” in the two cases.

If there may be good conceptual and analytical reasons for distinguishing between events with similar death tolls, a single quantitative measure cannot straddle the corresponding qualitative divides. Without exploring this question, all Herman and Peterson have done is to provide some evidence of the varying and growing use of the term “genocide.” Of course, related to this, in their haste to assert the significance of Western atrocities, the authors completely sidestep the question of whether, granted that Western democracies commit or are complicit in very serious mass crimes, there is any difference in type between their crimes and those of other regimes; or, indeed, whether there are any significant historical changes in the Western production of mass death, between – say – the eras of Vietnam and Iraq. But Herman and Peterson are not interested in such nuances. Their starting and end point is that “[a] remarkable degree of continuity stretches across the many decades of bribes and threats, economic sanctions, subversion, terrorism, aggression and occupation ordered-up by the policy-making elite of the United States” (p 13).

This whole book is little more than an elaborate demonstration of this and a few (equally simple) related assertions. Naturally, since the USA and the wider West are certainly not innocent of war crimes and complicity in genocide, and since official discourse does indeed tend to assume that “our” actions are justified, our enemies’ nefarious, and our allies’ condonable, Herman and Peterson’s blunderbuss approach achieves some hits. If the mass death produced by the USA in Vietnam and Cambodia did not constitute genocide, we certainly need to ask why. If the Rwandan Hutu Power regime murdered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, that does not mean we should ignore the death tolls attributable to the Rwandan Patriotic Front before and during 1994, or indeed afterwards in the DRC. If Serbian “ethnic cleansing” constituted genocide, there is no good reason not to examine Croatian expulsions of Serbs, during Operation Storm in 1995, within the same frame. If campaigning in the USA helped to establish Darfur as the prime early-21st-century genocide, it may also have simplified the political and military situation there. These and a number of similar issues, raised by Herman and Peterson, are certainly cogent – and indeed are recognized as such by critical genocide scholars.

However, The Politics of Genocide does not stop at raising these kinds of counter-examples to the Western mainstream. Instead, it engages in what can only be described as extensive genocide denial. Consider two cases. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, our authors claim, the West “demonized” the Serbs, engaged in “remarkable inflation of claims of Serb evil and violence … with fabricated ‘concentration camps,’ ‘rape camps’ and similar Nazi- and Auschwitz-like analogies” (p 46). They criticize the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for agreeing that “genocide could occur in one ‘small geographical area’ (the town of Srebrenica), even where the villainous party had taken the trouble to bus all the women, children and elderly men to safety – that is, incontestably had not killed any but ‘Bosnian Muslim men of military age’” (p 47). “The case for eight thousand ‘men and boys’ being executed,” they say, “is extremely thin, resting in good part on the difficulty of separating executions from battle killings” (p 48). (So, suddenly, they want to distinguish genocide from war, after all.) They point to the eventual acceptance of lower overall Bosnian death tolls (c. 50-100,000 rather than the 200-250,000 initially argued) as evidence of Western “gullibility” in the face of Bosnian Muslim propaganda – ignoring the fact that initial estimates are frequently revised downwards in such situations, and notwithstanding their own eagerness to accept without discussion problematically large counts (like the “over one million” excess deaths in Iraq since 2003, or 5.4 million in the DRC) when it suits their claims. They claim that “the word ‘genocide’ was used lavishly for the Bosnian Serbs’ conduct” (p 49), ignoring the emergence of “ethnic cleansing” as an alternative concept precisely in this period, partly because Western officialdom wanted to avoid recognizing genocide in Bosnia. (Herman and Peterson want to insist on the norm of Western interventionism despite all the evidence produced by Power and many others that often Western governments do their utmost not to intervene.)

If anyone is offering “an insult to the memory of victims,” it is clearly Herman and Peterson, who give credence to Serbian nationalist denialism which has been widely discredited. Yet, if anything, their position on Rwanda is even more outrageous. The Western establishment has “swallowed a propaganda line on Rwanda that turned perpetrator and victim upside-down” (p 51). The RPF not only killed Hutus, but were the “prime genocidaires” (p 54), their “large-scale killing and ethnic cleansing of Hutus by the RPF long before the April-July 1994 period” (p 53) contributing to a result in which “the majority of victims were likely Hutu and not Tutsi” (quoted with approval, p 58). Indeed, “a number of observers as well as participants in the events of 1994 claim that the great majority of deaths were Hutu, with some estimates as high as two million” (p 58). When we check the reference for this shocking statement, it turns on no more than a letter from a former RPF military officer and personal communications from a former defence counsel before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda – both participants (n 127, p 132). It does not seem to have occurred to the authors that if “theaters where the killing was greatest correlated with spikes in RPF activity” (p 58), killing could just as easily have been committed by the threatened Rwandan regime (as Scott Straus argues in The Order of Genocide)# as by the RPF themselves. But Herman and Peterson do not engage with Straus, or with much at all of the now very considerable literature on Rwanda. Certainly the “established narrative” needs to be questioned, the RPF’s own violence acknowledged, and the ICTR’s inability to deal with the latter (in contrast to the ICTY’s prosecution of perpetrators from many sides, which of course our authors could never credit) criticized. But this is hardly a licence to dismiss the idea of “800,000 or more largely Tutsi deaths” as RPF and Western propaganda, and the authors’ keenness to do so does as much as anything to utterly discredit this study.

This book therefore shows inadvertently that the politics of genocide are multi-directional. Certainly, official Western propagandists may sometimes minimize “our” crimes and represent those of “our” enemies in oversimplified ways. But it seems that anti-Western propagandists, among whom we must count Herman, Peterson, and Chomsky, are guilty of the same tendency from the other side of the fence. They suggest that in official Western narratives, “our victims are unworthy of our attention and indignation, and never suffer ‘genocide’ at our hands” (p 104, italics in original). In anti-Western, Chomskyan narratives, a similar process occurs: the West’s enemies, whether Serbian nationalist or Rwandan Hutu Power, have never committed “genocide.” For the journalist John Pilger, hyping this volume on its cover, Herman and Peterson “defend the right of all of us to a truthful historical memory.” Evidently this does not include the Srebrenica men, the massacred and expelled Kosovo Albanians, or the slaughtered Rwandan Tutsis, who are “unworthy victims” for these left-contrarians. For scholars of genocide studies, this is rich source material. It is not a serious contribution to analysis.

A fully referenced version of this review can be found here.

Also relevant: ‘Mediating Denial‘, my review of Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, editors, Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, London: Pluto, 2000.