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May 2011 International Workshop

Resisting the Path to Genocide: The Case of States and Societies
May 5-7, 2011

Conference program

Keynote flyer


Conference Report:

Resisting the Path to Genocide: The Case of States and Societies
An International Workshop at the University of Southern California

May 6 – 7, 2011
Conference sponsored by USC Dornsife College 2020 Genocide Resistance Research Cluster
Report submitted by: Alida Liberman

This May, a group of interdisciplinary scholars from the USA and other countries gathered to discuss the phenomenon of genocide resistance at the state or societal level.  The conference was the first of three annual workshops to be organized by the Genocide Resistance Research Cluster at USC.  The Cluster consists of twenty USC scholars from over twelve disciplines, dedicated to facilitating, and encouraging collaborative discussion and research about the resistance of genocide.

This year’s workshop emphasized genocide resistance at the state or societal level.  The Cluster plans to have similar international workshops in Spring of 2011 and 2012, focusing on the research themes of those years, which will be genocide resistance at the group and individual levels, respectively.  For this first workshop, the organizers were particularly interested in inviting young international scholars to present their ideas, in order to build a research network and facilitate an intense exchange of new ideas with the members of the Cluster.

While genocide studies is a burgeoning field, the literature explicitly about genocide resistance is not very extensive, and there is much research to be done on this crucially important topic.  This conference provided a unique opportunity to discuss the process, practice, and pitfalls of resisting genocide with a special focus on the state or societal level, rather than on individual or small-group resistance.  The interdisciplinary nature of the conference facilitated especially interesting discussion; speakers and workshop participants hailed from disciplines such as political science, history, sociology, psychology, and philosophy, among others, and members of each discipline brought their own methodological presuppositions and background knowledge to bear on the discussion.  Christian Gerlach of the University of Bern, Switzerland provided the keynote address, and multiple papers tied in explicitly with his theoretical concept of extremely violent societies.

The first day of the conference was held at the University of Southern California.  Over the course of the workshop, presentations covered case studies of genocide or mass violence in Iraqi Kurdistan, Indonesia, Croatia during WWII, Guatemala, Armenia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia.  Though the talks dealt with a very wide range of issues, three questions stood out in particular, namely:

(1) In what type of state is genocide likely to occur, and how can we tailor our resistance strategies accordingly?

(2) Should outside forces intervene when genocide happens? What sort of intervention is effective?

(3) What is the purpose of prosecution of genocide and war crimes after the fact?  Can such prosecution prevent future violence or does it do the opposite?

Regarding Question 1, Yehonatan Alsheh argued that genocide can arise out of a “failed international regime of forced democratization.”  He distinguishes between genuine democracy, in which all people have control, and so-called ‘genocracy,’ in which only one group or genos has any real control or power.  Forcing democracy upon a (sometimes arbitrarily specified) demos would be often unsuccessful, and could devolve into control by a particular genos that is struggling to maintain power.  When this happens, genocracy rather than democracy results from forced democratization.  What perpetrators of a genocide attempt to do, Alsheh claims, is physically reengineer existing social reality to reflect the perceived genos.

Ariel Ahram makes the interesting (and non-mainstream) claim that genocide happens most often not in strong states with ironclad dictators, but in weak states where non-state actors can get a stronghold.  He claims that non-state actors  (such as militias paramilitary groups, and gangs) typically play an extremely important role in perpetrating genocide. Instead of being motivated by political concerns, banal economic and honorific concerns motivate much genocidal killing.  So, a meticulous and bureaucratic approach to genocide such as that taken by the Nazis is the exception rather than the rule.  And if this is so, the proper policy response should be state building, such that a weak state can be strong enough gain control over these rogue non-state actors.

Building upon his recently developed concept of extremely violent societies [1], Christian Gerlach posits that a combination of state and non-state actors is needed to create mass killings or any form of extremely violent society.  Essentially, the non-state group does the ‘dirty work’ of the state; yet the non-state group’s actions must be in conjunction with ‘authorization’ by the state from on high.  Gerlach claims that in order for a society to become extremely violent, there must emerge a temporary coalition of violence: leaders, bureaucrats, perpetrators, and the implicit international community must all conspire together in some way in order for genocide to occur.  Mass participation is key, which means the line blurs between perpetrators and unaffected bystanders, and victims become more than merely passive or counteractive. He argues that one should focus on limiting tendencies toward extreme mass violence by enhancing social interest in non-violent political approaches.

Participants were most divided with regard to Question (2).  Alsheh strongly comes down on the side of non-intervention, arguing that outside intervention is always self-interested and half-hearted, and never very successful.  To the contrary, he claims that outside intervention usually leads to worse outcomes than non-intervention—and that global intervention is often the cause of the social crises that spark genocide in the first place.  Gerlach argued that intervention is usually motivated for the wrong reasons, and at best leads to a fragile peace saddled with a weak economy and slim prospects for a genuine peaceful and non-violent state.  He claims foreign powers often use ‘genocide intervention’ as an excuse for new colonialism, and that such intervention does not solve the problem of mass violence, especially because the interveners often perpetrate mass violence themselves.  Intervention does not address the underlying socio-economic issues, and may make them worse; this suggestion was met with a mixed response in the question and answer period, as some in the audience thought outside intervention more promising. 

Though Gerlach was hesitant to offer policy proposals even when pressed to do so, he suggests that resistance is most successful when it comes directly from within—that is, from victims and their supporters, and from villages protecting their own.  Alexander Korb agreed in his presentation, noting that in Croatia during WWII, the most effective resistance came from the victims themselves, at least at early stages.  A major caveat is that this resistance was extremely violent; there is often a very fine line between justified violent resistance and ethnic civil war, and it can be difficult to tell which side of the line a group is on.  Korb also observes that, perhaps unexpectedly, in wartime Yugoslavia wealthier areas were subject to more violence than poorer areas.  With regard to Gerlach’s thesis, Korb emphazises studying temporary coalitions of anti-violence.

Ahram, in keeping with his focus on the role of non-state actors, suggests the use of international law to deter non-state as well as state actors; right now, the shield of state sovereignty often prevents this.  He makes a pro-active suggestion that we rely on non-state actors to stabilize and control volatile areas, claiming that the most effective way to resist genocide is to go directly to the sources of local control.  This suggestion was faced with skepticism by the audience, as there is no paper trail, it is hard to place blame, and it is unclear what sort of incentive you can give paramilitary groups, especially if the state endorses the genocide and what you are asking them to is contrary to the policies of the state.

In spite of some resistance from other workshop participants, Shepherd maintained that it is possible to engage in such activism without engendering a culture of victimization; to the contrary, such activism can be grassroots, bottom-up, and empowering.

The second day of the conference was hosted by the Villa Aurora, the former home of the exiled writer Lion Feuchtwanger, which functions now as an artist-residence foundation in Pacific Palisades.  The second day speakers focused more on the role of prosecution of genocide and war crimes after the fact.  Under discussion was the question of whether post-conflict persecution can be a good method of resisting future genocides, both within the society in which the genocide occurred and elsewhere, or whether it in fact encourages new violence.  During the Q&A for his keynote session on the first day, Gerlach granted that post-conflict trials can have a symbolic public function, and might be useful for creating a ‘myth’ about what happened that helps a society to rebuild or itself. 

As Sonali Chakravarti noted, local courts can have this function, as well: Rwandan gacaca courts provide a chance to shape public opinion at the local level. Gacaca is a traditional form of conflict resolution in Rwanda, but is faced with some major pitfalls.  For example, because defenders represent themselves without a typical legal trial, there is the risk of biased or unfair treatment, and many defendants flee from the courts.  Moreover, only Hutus are punished for crimes against Tutsis, and there is no space created for moderate Hutus in the narrative.  Moreover, the gacaca trials instill a narrative that colonial powers were to blame for being the root cause of the conflict because of the way they inscribed ethnic categories on the population.  Reeducation camps exist for perpetrators and their children at which they learn the official government line. However, gacaca has the potential to be a source of ‘restorative’ (and occasionally retributive) justice, and testifying at gacaca courts can help free victims from fear, and give them the benefit of having their grievances publicly heard.

Kai Thaler suggested that real punishment for genocide and war crimes is important because impunity is extremely dangerous, such that if a regime commits genocide once and gets away with it, as in the case of Indonesia, they are much more likely to do it again, as happened in East Timor.  A stronger international stance combined with harsher, swifter, and more frequent punishment in the wake of mass killings is necessary in order to avoid this risky sense of impunity.

Iva Vukusic focuses on the challenges and accomplishments of war crimes prosecution at the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) in the Hague, where she worked as a legal advisor for several years.  She emphasized that war crimes prosecution is burdened with great difficulties.  For example: whom do you go after, and why? You can only prosecute a fraction of perpetrators, and who gets prosecuted becomes a highly political matter.  The general consensus among residents of former Yugoslavia is that the ICTY is good when it prosecutes the enemy, and seen as terrible or a sham when it prosecutes members of one’s own group, so it can be difficult to gauge public support for the tribunal.  And formal trials in The Hague are distant from the former Yugoslavia, expensive, and exhausting for the few witnesses who are required to present extremely difficult testimony over and over again.

In spite of these difficulties, however, war crimes prosecution is extremely important.  For one thing, as Vukusic argues, criminal prosecution of wartime leaders forcibly removes these leaders from public space, thus revoking their power.  It also serves to establish a historical record, and can help with things like finding missing persons in mass graves.  And though it is a flawed system, prosecution of genocide can help enforce the rule of law, which helps prevent future genocide.

As Wolf Gruner underlined in his concluding remarks, the presentations at this workshop clearly demonstrated that before we can come to any coherent conclusions about conditions for resistance, much more detailed and comparative research on mass violence and genocide itself needs to be done. Among a myriad of different views, there was one consensus among all of the workshop participants: that the causes and effective strategies for resistance to genocide are anything but simple.  There is usually an overlap of motives for perpetrators—people are killed in genocidal conflicts for many reasons.  Different states fall prey to genocide under different sorts of situations, and different resistance responses are called for.  Ultimately, as Alexander Korb puts it, “complexity is the rule, rather than the exception.”


Conference Program:

Welcome remarks:

Stephen Smith, USC Shoah Foundation Institute, Wolf Gruner, USC History Department

Yehonatan Alsheh – History, Tel Aviv University, Israel

The Emergence of Genocidal Tendencies and Anxieties of Falling Victim to Genocide in the Process of Democratization

Ariel Ahram – Political Science, University of Oklahoma

The Role of Paramilitaries, Gangs, and Militias in Genocide: Repertoires of Repression and Resistance

Richard Dekmejian and Dr. Louis Gordon – Political Science, University of Southern California

Rafael Lemkin’s Linkage Role: The Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust

Keynote address: Christian Gerlach, University of Bern, Switzerland

Resisting, Limiting, Decelerating, or Stopping Mass Violence: Historical Examples

Alexander Korb – History, University of Leicester

Genocide in a Multiethnic Society: Croatia 1941 - 1945

Frederick Shepherd – Political Science, Samford University

International and Transnational Genocide Deterrence: Guatemala in Comparative Perspective

Kai Thaler – Sociology, University of Cape Town

Foreshadowing Future Slaughter: From the Indonesian Killings of 1965-66 to Genocide in East Timor

Iva Vukusic – Sense News Agency, The Hague

War Crimes Prosecution After Conflict – An Effective Tool Against Future Crimes? The Example of Bosnia-Herzogovina

Sonali Chakravarti – Political Science, Wesleyan University

Transitional Justice as Precursor to Future Violence? The Case of the Gacaca Courts in Rwanda

Concluding remarks: Wolf Gruner


In collaboration with the Villa Aurora, Welcome reception for the Feuchtwanger fellow

Reading: Amir Cheheltan, Feuchtwanger Fellow - Writer in Exile, Villa Aurora



[1] Christian Gerlach, Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World. Cambridge University Press, 2010.