Some Current Problems of Genocide Prevention

Yehuda Bauer
Professor of Holocaust Studies, Hebrew University
Academic Adviser, Yad Vashem

It seems to me that we may be committing the mistake of misidentifying some major issues of genocide prevention. Surveying the large and growing literature on the subject, I find that most writers deal with three types of genocidal threats: possible mass atrocities/genocidal massacres/full-scale genocides of ethnic/national/religious/political minorities by ruling elites in certain types of state; similar threats by one state against other states or groups within other states or state-like organisms; and similar threats by non-state actors in situations of civil wars/unrest.  Darfur and Rwanda are obvious examples of the first type, the Holocaust and Bosnia of the second; the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda may be an example of the third type. All three concentrate exclusively on states or state structures, and conceive of genocidal threats as requiring or opposing some form of state organism. A fourth type is occasionally mentioned, but not really addressed: groups, whether based in or on a state or not, identifying with global genocidal ideologies attempting to conquer the world or large parts of it and advocating annihilation of opposing groups in the process. The four types of genocidal threats are not exclusive of each other. In the cases of Stalinist Bolshevism (B) and National Socialism (NS) the four converged. In the case of Radical Islam (RI) they do not, although on a number of issues there are clear parallels with B and NS: their religious or quasi-religious ideologies, the desire for world conquest, and their clear intent to use genocidal means to achieve a utopian goal. The fact that the goal is utopian did not in the past and will not in the future prevent the genocidal intent from being translated into genocidal action if the occasion arises.

RI of the Sunni type is not, contrary to B and NS, based on an existing state structure - yet. One of its forms, the Taliban, was in control of Afghanistan, and is trying to re-conquer that state; its close ally, the Pakistani Taliban, is attempting to conquer Pakistan, with its nuclear arsenal (allegedly, 35 atomic weapons). A variety of groups are targeted for elimination if these aims are accomplished. RI is not, as opposed to the other two cases, centralized, but consists of diffuse elements in a loose mutual alliance, from North Africa, the Middle East, to Indonesia, the Philippines, and groups in Europe. Among the 23 million Moslems in Europe, RI is a small minority, but it is spreading. There and in other places, elements of mainstream Islam are increasingly adopting the ideas and the language of RI.

Shiite RI, with its base in Iran, is not identical with the Sunni version: it is more pragmatic, as it aims to establish Iranian supremacy in the Middle East, in alliance with Sunni forces, Hezbollah and Hamas, and Alawi Syria; it also accepts a controlled version of popular representation (the Iranian Majlis/parliament), contrary to the Sunni RI which opposes all forms of elected representation. The aim of global supremacy and the readiness to use genocidal means, however, is common to both.

Non-military tools for prevention of all types of threats must of necessity be based on an analysis of power relations. Historical precedents may provide some clues, as proposed in the analyses of Gurr (2009) and Harff (2009) because the first three types of genocidal threats are not new. Examples: the annihilation of the Cathars in the 13th century, or the ethnic cleansing of the Five Nations in the southeastern US (the Trail of Tears), starting in 1830, or the Armenian genocide, are examples of the first type; the destruction of Carthage by the Romans in the second pre-Christian century, or the Holocaust, are two examples out of many of the second. For the third type, the anti-Abassid Hashasheen rebels, using policies targeting groups of civilians (11th century), may serve as a prototype.  The fourth type has no exact parallels in the pre-modern era, because global control was a practical impossibility. Today, with globalization, it becomes possible. We should try to address the issue.

Many colleagues, also among our group are, rightly, devoting much energy to the development of international legal tools. These deal, primarily, not with the prevention of genocide but with post-genocidal punishment of perpetrators, in the hope, not yet shown to be justified, of deterring potential perpetrators. True, international law (IL) is at the base of all international attempts to rein in future perpetrators, but that works only insofar as political players accept it in practice. Often they only seem to be paying lip service to it. Global international factors are not yet strong enough to enforce it universally. This is certainly not an argument against IL, quite the contrary. But it is an argument against a utopian reliance on it, as though it were the ultimate contemporary solution to the problem. On the other hand, any examination of real power relations will of necessity include consideration of IL, because IL has to underpin both non-military and military means to prevent genocide.

As a result of great advances that have been made in the identification of risks, almost exclusively of the first three types mentioned above, members of our group have concentrated on two central issues: prevention, and dealing with actual genocidal massacres. Ted Gurr (2009), dealing with prevention, suggests, as do others too, we should learn from successful past attempts to prevent deterioration of conflicts into genocidal situations; this is very useful, though it deals exclusively with the first three types. Moreover, in all the cases he - rightly - cites, none of the great powers, or a combination of lesser ones, had any interest in opposing preventive measures. Kenya, Macedonia, and East Timor, are examples of this. The conclusion appears to be that the UN and/or regional forces are effective only when major powers or a combination of smaller ones do not oppose preventive action and accept IL as a guiding principle. Darfur is the opposite example, because there China, Russia, and the Arab League obstruct both prevention (of a future outbreak of war in the South) and actual mass murder (the continuing genocidal situation in Darfur), as persuasively presented by Eric Reeves (see

His outlook is justifiably extremely pessimistic, because the various mutually conflicting international forces do not appear to permit effective counter-action. IL is of doubtful help there. The ICC's arrest warrant against Bashir has yet to be proved effective, and even in this instance there is no explicit charge of genocide. The Congolese situation is murky; while it is clear that local genocidal groups exploit vast natural resources, using indentured or enslaved local labor for the process, and murdering masses of civilians, the exact form of involvement of foreign business and political interests of African states and foreign powers is not quite clear.

It is therefore essential to consider the role of the Powers (and pressure groups consisting of a number of medium states), and what to do about that. It is there that one must differentiate between Powers or groups of states in which there exists public opinion expressing itself in at least relative freedom, and others where there is no such access to the public. Unsurprisingly, our major efforts have been directed at states where such access is possible, and that includes the Western Powers, Latin America (in large part), India, Japan, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. But the problems in some of the countries where the risks are greatest (see Barbara Harff's list, 2009 pp. 75-78) are under the decisive influence of non-accessible states. Chief of these, though not the only one, is China (see my separate paper on China).

We are dealing here today (June 9-10, 2010) with the Great Lakes region, Sudan, and generally speaking, vulnerable African areas (recent reports indicate Chinese economic penetration into Zimbabwe and Ethiopia). Chinese investments, and in their wake political influence, follow the imperialist pattern of attempts to control (not physically, in this case) areas important for the survival and development of a dramatically growing Chinese economy. In this, China follows in Western footsteps - Western investments and political support in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, etc., behaved and behave similarly. I concur with Barbara Harff's conclusion in her paper for the GPANet conference that diplomatic and political pressure is the only way to convince China (and Russia) to permit preventive action in Africa (and elsewhere, e.g. Burma). A military option does not exist, and serious, direct, economic pressure is not really feasible either. However, if it becomes obvious that Chinese economic interests are affected by genocidal threats, then Chinese collaboration becomes a possibility. Constant engagement is therefore a must. In the case of Sudan, the oil wells are largely in the South, but the pipeline goes through government-controlled territory. Hence, a renewed civil war cannot be in Chinese interest - this is contrary to Darfur, where until recently there was no Chinese economic involvement (though a recent report says that Chinese interests acquired oil concessions in Southern Darfur). Diplomacy directed towards a Western-Chinese alliance (which would involve the Russian junior partner as well) to prevent a North-South war might have a chance. Pressure on Bashir solely from the West seems useless.

But we should consider the fourth genocidal threat, the one emerging from Radical Islam, and especially the West's reaction to it. The threat emerges, not from any direct economic situations, nor from direct ethnic or national conflicts, and has only indirect connection with what we normally see as political problems. It is motivated, as I indicated already, by an ideology that emerged in the 1920's as a reaction to a basic cultural and political issue: the helpnessness of the Moslem world in the face of Western penetration and conquest. Following in Bernard Lewis' footsteps I would say that there grew a feeling that the reason why Islam, which had created the leading world civilization during the High Middle Ages (10th-15th centuries), had fallen behind and yielded to the barbaric Christian Europeans was that they had abandoned the only true religion and had therefore been punished by Allah. This, by the way, is reminiscent of radical Jewish theology as well. The solution was to return to a literal interpretation of Islam. Then, Allah would support Moslems and establish his rule over the world. This, in the nutshell, is the ideology of Hassan el-Bana, Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Ala' Mawdudi, and now Yussuf Qaraddawi in Qatar, the current most influential Sunni cleric. He, by the way, is supposed to be ‘mainstream', and that indicates that RI is penetrating the Moslem center. RI also opposes nationalism and, of course, communism. It is a universal ideology of tremendous importance and impact.

We are dealing with a major, decentralized, religious ideological movement, whose solution for the world's ills is the establishment of a cleric-ruled international coalition of Islamic states. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians (whatever that might mean today), are People of the Book (Ah'l el-Kitab), and provided they accept Moslem supremacy and a third-class existence they can continue to exercise their religions and have their property protected. If they insist on independence of any kind, they must be eliminated. All others (in theory, Indians and Chinese as well [!!!]), must either convert or be killed. Christians and Jews who refuse to be ruled by Islam are immediate targets of a murderous ideology, and have to be annihilated. The clip I showed at the GPANET meeting and that proves my point is part of a whole library of such material.

Certainly, one does not need to be a Marxist to realize that the indirect, but very basic, causes of RI are embedded in the economics and politics of the Middle East and the impact of the modern world on it. But the motivation today is clearly and unambiguously religious-ideological, so that, in Marxist terminology, the superstructure has come to determine the economic basis, and not the other way round (Friedrich Engels actually admitted such a possibility in 1894, shortly before his death).

The West, mainly of course the US, awoke to the threat on 9/11. Before and afterwards came Kenya, London, Madrid, and so on. Then came the ill-advised invasion of Iraq, where RI, of both the Sunni and the Shi'a types, had previously been brutally suppressed by Saddam Hussein. The Americans managed to establish RI in Iraq, where it now flourishes in different ways. Their invasion of Afghanistan followed a similar pattern: the removal of the Taliban created a situation where the impossibility of a united Afghan society and state were and are being demonstrated. The traditional forms of internal Afghan rule were based on a live-and-let-live (until I manage to crash your skull) accommodation with feudal lords (a.k.a. ‘warlords') ruling different ethnicities and sub-groups within these ethnicities under the loose rule of a king (Shah); the alternative of a foreign conquest had succeeded only once, for a very short time, under Alexander the Great. The Americans, in their naivete, believed and believe that the Taliban can be defeated by armed force, and that they can create an Afghan Army controlled by a democratically elected government.

Really, how naïve can you get? For one, there are only two cases in the 20th century when guerillas were defeated by a regular army: in 1944-1953 in the Ukraine, and in 1947-8 in Malaysia, and in both cases this was possible only because the local population withdrew its support from the guerillas (why - that is another question, and I could expand on that). Two, and mainly, you cannot defeat a decentralized radical ideology by force of arms. Nazi Germany was a centralized state that could be dissolved only by armed force, and Soviet Bolshevism collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions, corruption, inefficiency, and an ideology totally removed from real life. RI will not collapse, because it is not centralized, and cannot be conquered by arms, for the same basic reason. The Americans are conquerors, just like the British and the Soviets before them, though they present themselves as liberators (liberators liberate, and then get out). They believe, again naively, that if they build schools, hospitals and roads (assuming they do so) they will be accepted. An Afghan peasant, who is considerably less primitive than is generally believed, will say: ok, fine, let us have the school etc., and then chase those Americans away.

The whole American policy is based on the assumption that force can solve a situation like this; it can not.  As Tony Blair said, famously: ideology can only be fought by ideology - and then he did the opposite of what he rightly understood.  In my humble opinion, the US is headed for disaster, in both Iraq and in Afghanistan. In Iraq, they will leave and the Iraqis will fight each other, kill each other, and enjoy the blessings of a genocidal situation - for which the Americans, and the West generally, will (rightly) be held responsible. In Afghanistan, they will fight on, many American lives will be lost, and in the end, the Afghan ‘government' will most likely make a deal with the Taliban, if they do not yield to the Taliban unconditionally, and politely or impolitely ask the Americans to leave.

No, force is almost useless. Why almost? Well, I am not a pacifist, and in certain circumstances the use of force is inevitable and justifiable. When there are clear targets, and an immediate threat, force can and should be used. In the case of RI generally, and Afghanistan specifically, a reconquest of the country by RI may actually create a situation where the threat of American military power may be much more effective: if Taliban extremists, or their Al-Qaida allies, act against the West from a RI-controlled Afghanistan, and this can be proved, repeated use of US armed action may be internationally sanctioned and morally justified, and possibly reduce the threat. Physical presence of Western forces is the worst possible approach.

What, then, can be done by non-military means to deal with a very real genocidal threat? The answer seems to me to be pretty obvious: return to Tony Blair. There are anti-radical Moslems - i.e. people who are devoted to Islam, but interpret it in a way that stands in contradiction to RI. They include some seven million Sufis (according to research results for which I cannot vouch), a pietistic sect that is being attacked, viciously, by RI, but is gaining adherents nevertheless. There are Moslem liberals, both in the Moslem diaspora and in the Islamic countries themselves. There are whole societies that fight RI: Indonesia, India's Moslem community, Tunisia, and others. There are many Moslem liberal intellectuals - I can supply an initial list of names - in different countries. Why on earth not help them establish radio and TV stations that will argue for an interpretation of Moslem traditions that stands in contradiction to RI? Why not try to influence the annual meetings in Davos and create there an alliance of wealthy individuals and economic enterprises that will support a non-violent struggle against RI? Why not try and influence Western governments to spend a fraction of their military investments to fortify those Moslem countries economically that have not yielded to RI, in a Marshal-Plan type program? Why not arrange for academic-political conferences that will not be talkfests but present a media-friendly, persuasive, alliance between Moslem and Western liberals?

I think we might, marginally, help in an attempt to change suicidal Western policies towards RI.



Gurr, T. R.  "Options for the Prevention and Mitigation of Genocide: Strategies and Examples for Policy-Makers." Politorbis No. 47 (2, 2009), pp. 47-50.

Harff, B. "How to Use Global Risk Assessments to Anticipate and Prevent Genocide." Politorbis No. 47 (2, 2009), pp. 71-78.


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