“Genocide Studies” is no ordinary academic discipline. It seeks knowledge in the service of an urgent moral imperative: the prediction, prevention, and interdiction of genocides. An activist fervor drives the social scientist beyond the ivory tower. The American-based “International Association of Genocide Scholars,” for instance, has called its new journal Genocide Studies and Prevention, and its biannual conference in July 2007 will thematize “Responding to Genocide Before It’s Too Late.” The organization’s webpage indicates that both the study and advocacy of humanitarian intervention is central to its mission. What is more, allied NGOs, Prevent Genocide and Genocide Watch call for an “international campaign against genocide,” to build an international coalition to “end genocide forever.” That the campaign regards itself as a movement of world historical significance was clear from the words of Gregory H. Stanton, the president of Washington-based Genocide Watch, who wrote that the “world movement to prevent genocide and ethnic cleansing” was “an effort as great as the anti-slavery movement” (Stanton, 2004). The campaign has four goals, which I quote directly from its website:
  • The provision of public information on the nature of genocide and creation of the political will to prevent and end it.
  • The creation of an effective early-warning system to alert the world and especially the U.N. Security Council, NATO and other regional alliances to potential ethnic conflict and genocide.
  • The establishment of a powerful United Nations rapid response force in accordance with Articles 43-47 of the UN Charter, as well as regional rapid response forces, and international police ready to be sent to areas where genocide threatens or has begun.
  • Effective arrest, trial, and punishment of those who commit genocide, including the early and effective functioning of the International Criminal Court, the use of national courts with universal jurisdiction, and the creation of special international tribunals to prosecute perpetrators of genocide.

Central to the campaign, and to the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention, is the development of “early warning” systems, based on “an alternative intelligence network that will warn of ethnic conflict before it turns into genocide” (ibid.).

Characteristic of the campaign and its scholar-activists is a particular political strategy. It is to “create political will” to prevent and intervene in genocides through the following tactics, which I also quote from the website:

  1. Consciousness raising – maintaining close contact with key policy makers in governments of U.N. Security Council members, providing them with information about genocidal situations.
  2. Coalition formation – working in coalitions to respond to specific genocidal situations and involving members in campaigns to educate the public and political leaders about solutions.
  3. Policy advocacy – preparing options papers for action to prevent genocide in specific situations, and presenting them to policy makers.

These are impressively far-reaching and admirable proposals. Over the past twenty years or so, they have been preceded by others like them that advocated, alternatively, the establishment of a “Genocide Bureau” to identify “hotspots,” a “Committee on Genocide” that might indict refractory states, and even a “World Genocidal Tribunal” that could try individuals and governments for genocide (Totten, 2004: 242). Yet another NGO, the Genocide Intervention Network (, hopes to end the genocide in Darfur through a combination of education, advocacy, and fundraising. Its mission is to “build an educated political constituency” in the USA, and to “empower individuals and communities with the tools to prevent and stop genocide.” Its tools are education, advocacy, and fundraising, and it subscribes to the “Responsibility to Protect” report (2001) on the global norms of humanitarian intervention.

Yet for all their good intentions, few of these proposals have been implemented, and the current campaigns have yielded little in the way of success over the past fifteen years. Indeed, from Yugoslavia to Rwanda to Darfur, and Cambodia before them, genocides and mass violence have raged while the “international community,” let alone the great powers, looked on helplessly or sat on its hands. Indignant and exasperated letters to the New York Times, activist newsletters, and email campaigns did nothing to persuade various American administrations that military action to prevent humanitarian disaster was a good idea. The only possible exception to this pattern, the bombing of Serbia during its expulsion of Kosovar Albanians in 1999, set off a flurry of academic attention on humanitarian intervention (e.g., Wheeler, 2001). Not for nothing, then, have these scholars been disappointed with the US, in particular, not only for abandoning Rwanda, but for having failed to intervene in genocides throughout the twentieth century (Power, 2002).

Plainly, the predictive aspiration of this branch of social science has been similarly disappointed. Why is this the case? This brief paper suggests that the analytical paradigm of “genocide studies” is crucially flawed in a number of respects: in its view of the international system; in its naïveté about the link between morality and empire; in its definition of genocide; and in its explanation for genocide. The following remarks on each of these problems are necessarily schematic because of space limitations. They are intended to provoke debate rather than suggest definitive answers.

Ending slavery, ending genocide?

The key to understanding these failures is Stanton’s reference to the anti-slavery movement of the nineteenth century. He seems to be in thrall to the naïve and unhistorical view that the campaign convinced English and other elites to abolish slavery against their own interests. In fact, notwithstanding proponents of this interpretation (Drescher, 1987, 1990, 1994), the evidence points not to the selfless humanitarianism of English business and political elites, but to their self-interested manipulation of the issue for short-term domestic advantage (Kaufmann and Pape, 1990) as well as the consolidation of their power in Britain through the legitimation of the ideologically-loaded proposition of notionally “free” wage labor in England. Elsewhere, such as in Brazil, it was abandoned as a prerequisite for attracting European settlers (Davis, 1987; Bayly, 2004).

The fact is that states do not engage in “costly international moral actions” unless it is in their perceived interests to do so. The British did not do so regarding slavery in the nineteenth century, and states do not do so today. That is why the USA did not bomb Auschwitz, did nothing about Cambodia, and withdrew from Somalia (Kaufmann and Pape, 1990).

The campaign of “genocide studies” on Darfur makes this point clearly. No amount of advocacy to form political will is going to persuade certain members of the UN Security Council – China and Russia, above all – to pressure Sudan into ending its genocidal counter-insurgency against rebels in Darfur. Consciousness-raising in the USA, where the cause has secured significant attention, will not prod the Bush administration to go further than it has when it must now count on the help of many Arab states in dealing with the catastrophe in Iraq.

Moral imperialism?

Yet another problem of the anti-slavery campaign comparison is the moral self-satisfaction it entails. The west, or at least parts of it, lead the way in reforming the world, smugly and conveniently forgetting the fact that it benefited greatly from both slavery and genocide in the past. Britain may have abolished slavery but continued exploitative imperialism unremittingly, putting down uprisings, such as the so-called “Indian Mutiny,” with ferocious violence. Indigenous people in the “new world” were exterminated, expelled, and enslaved, particularly in settler colonies (Moses, 2004a).

How such humanitarian rhetoric was implicated in imperialism and colonial rule has become readily apparent in the invasion of Iraq (Ayoob, 2002; Burke, 2005; MacFarlane, Thielkding, and Weiss, 2006), which has been justified in humanitarian terms by a number of commentators (Ignatieff, 2003; Tesón, 2005), notwithstanding claims that the invasion was no humanitarian intervention (Roth, 2006). Some of the invasion advocates are happy to admit the imperial underpinnings of their position. “If being a humanitarian imperialist means advocating that the hegemon use its might to advance (by appropriate moral means) freedom, human rights, and democracy, then I am a humanitarian imperialist” (Tesón, 2005, 30). But do they understand that empires can only advance their humanitarian agendas with considerable violence? Indeed, that genocide might be a form of counter-insurgency against resistance to foreign rule?

What is genocide?

A blindness also inheres in the standard of evil that was set. Only when working conditions approached slavery could they be truly appalling, just as today a human rights catastrophe is worthy of a campaign when it resembles the Holocaust. Consider the definition of genocide used by the current anti-genocide campaign.

The International Campaign to End Genocide covers genocide as it is defined in the Genocide Convention: “The intentional destruction, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” It also covers political mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and other genocide-like crimes against humanity. It will not get bogged down in legal debates during mass killing (emphasis added).

Yet only one of the five techniques of genocide in the UN definition concerns mass killing. The fact is that leading genocide scholars have taken the Holocaust as the paradigm of genocide despite their ostensible rejection of Holocaust uniqueness. Ignoring or rejecting the capacious definition of Raphael Lemkin, who invented the concept and included non-murderous techniques of genocide, they redefined it as an ideologically-motivated and state-executed program of mass killing (Moses, 2004b). For instance, the prolific genocide scholar, Barbara Harff, defined genocide “as a particular form of state terror … mass murder, pre-meditated by some power-wielding group linked with state power.” The background assumption was made explicit in her aside that “The Jewish Holocaust … is employed as the yardstick, the ultimate criterion for assessing the scope, methods, targets, and victims of [other] genocides” (Harff, 1986: 165).

That the Holocaust is a reference point for many NGOs is readily apparent in a link from the Genocide Intervention Network to the online project Facing History, an anti-racism educational program that promotes “the development of a more humane and informed citizenry” through study of “the historical development and lessons of the Holocaust and other examples of genocide” ( I could find no mention here of the millions of Indigenous peoples who once lived on the North American continent, although one would think that reflecting on their fate would entail an authentic “facing of history.”

The focus of “genocide studies” and NGOs was made explicit by Frank Chalk when he told his readers that “we must never forget that the great genocides of the past have been committed by [state] perpetrators who acted in the name of absolutist or utopian ideologies aimed at cleansing and purifying their worlds”(Chalk, 1994: 58f). “Genocide studies,” then, is really a version of totalitarianism theory because by definition a genocide – at least a true one – can only be committed by a totalitarian or at least authoritarian state driven by a utopian ideology. That is also why the debate in the US, in particular, is preoccupied with the Islamism of the Khartoum regime rather than the logic of counter-insurgency and civil war, a potential in all societies.

Regarding genocide in the manner of “genocide studies” makes the problem purely one of other societies, not our own. This approach dovetails neatly with the implicit modernization theory in “genocide studies”: genocides occur in societies – “failed states” we often hear today (Harff, 2003) – that have experienced perverted modernizations. Had they followed the western road to modernity, it is implied, they would not have become totalitarian states and perpetrated genocide on their own or neighboring populations. Leaving aside the fact that this rosy view ignores the fate of Indigenous peoples, it can be identified as a version of what historians of Germany recognize immediately as the now highly suspect Sonderweg approach to comparative historical sociology. Either way, then, the west is regarded as the redeeming power in world affairs, whether as the agent of liberalization or as the cavalry that rescues victims from genocidal elites and their militias in the “Third World” (see generally the work of Mark Levene, 2005).

Genocide as extreme counter-insurgency?

An alternative, less comforting conception of genocide is to consider it as an extreme version of counter-insurgency, a potential that exists in every society when mobilized by the state to crush internal resistance. Not for nothing are the victims of genocide usually demonized as terrorists and partisans by a state, for instance, Jews by the Nazis, Armenians by the Ottomans, and Darfurians by Khartoum.

Counter-insurgency follows the logic of civil wars. Western imperial thinkers devoted considerable thought to the problem of “small wars,” with their pattern of conquest followed by resistance. Although they advised against exasperating the conquered population, the destruction of villages and crops was countenanced if necessary. Certainly, French and Russian authorities were happy to indulge in such scorched-earth tactics in their respective North African and Caucasian conquests during and after the 1830s (Callwell, 1990; Holquist, 2001). Alexis de Tocqeville’s liberal scruples were not shared by many French in Algeria, as he reported in 1833. On one view:

To subjugate the Arabs, we should fight them with the utmost violence and in the Turkish manner, that is to say, by killing everything we meet. I have heard this view supported by officers who took it to the point of bitterly regretting that we have started to take prisoners in some places, and many assured me that they encouraged their soldiers to spare no one. For my part, I returned from Africa with the distressing notion that we are now fighting far more barbarously than the Arabs themselves. For the present, it is on their side that one meets with civilization.

At the same time, he regarded burning harvests, emptying silos, interning civilians as “unfortunate necessities, but ones to which any people that wants to wage ware on the Arabs is obliged to submit.” The reason was because war was being waged on populations, not governments (De Tocqueville, 2001: 70, 87). These tactics were commonly applied by European powers in their wars of colonization and decolonization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A counter-insurgency becomes genocidal when civilians are targeted to the extent that communities are destroyed so never again will they be able to support an insurgency. The Sudanese government is employing these tactics to devastating effect, but Islamism is not the reason why. Such tactics suggest themselves to states in civil and colonial wars when government forces are stretched and civilians are an easier target than combatants.

The liberal nature of the metropole is relevant: counter-veiling powers there can try to rein in ambitious executives and military elites, as they periodically have in western history. In the Boer War, for instance, domestic liberals ensured that the anti-Boer measures did not radicalize to the extent that hardliners urged. All the same, 28,000 Boer women and children perished in British camps, the result of a policy that many South Africans regard as genocidal (Pakenham, 1979: 522-44).

Ironies of genocide prevention?

The NGO and academic campaigners against genocide will start sounding the alarm bells for an intervention as a specific checklist of stages of genocidal escalation is ticked off. According to Genocide Watch:

Genocide is a process that develops in eight stages that are predictable but not inexorable. At each stage, preventive measures can stop it. The later stages must be preceded by the earlier stages, though earlier stages continue to operate throughout the process.

The stages are: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and denial ( The problem with an approach that regards genocide in such ideal typical terms is that it may identify situations as at least “pre-genocidal” that it does not intend to highlight. For instance, on this checklist, critics of Israeli occupation of the West Bank would argue that the Israeli state is already more than half way down the checklist. In addition to the security measures, rabbis there have called for the expulsion and even extermination of Palestinians, and a senior government minister openly advocates the “transfer” of Palestinians (Carter, 2006; Cook, 2006, Christison and Christison, 2006; IMEMC, 2006; Levy, 2006; Reinhart, 2006). Would scholars of “genocide studies” propose that international peacekeepers be sent to the West Bank? So far, I have not seen any references to these incitements on the webpage of Genocide Watch and Prevent Genocide. I am not saying that I should. What I am saying is that their thinking about genocide is muddled.


In view of this rather poor record of ending genocide, the question needs to be asked why the “genocide studies” paradigm cannot predict and prevent genocides with any accuracy and reliability. The paradigm of “genocide studies,” as currently constituted in North America in particular, has both strengths and limitations. While the moral fervor and public activism is admirable and salutary, the paradigm appears blind to its own implication in imperial projects that are themselves as much part of the problem as they are part of the solution. The US government called Darfur a genocide to appease domestic lobbies, and because the statement cost it nothing. Darfur will end when it suits the great powers that have a stake in the region.


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