Are there signs/indicators that genocide is being planned or systematically carried out? How can the international community reduce the crime of genocide?
History shares horrifying stories of genocide, such as the Holocaust, where Nazis planned to kill all European Jewish people, the Rwandan genocide, which targeted the minority Tutsi community, and the Bosnian genocide, which followed the aftermath of the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
While the specific circumstances in each of these genocides differ slightly, there are some common signs and indicators that suggest genocide is planned and/or systematically carried out.
What is Genocide?
The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide describes genocide as "... acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group..."
Examples of genocide include the following.
Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany and collaborators systematically targeted Jewish people across German-occupied Europe. Approximately six million European Jews were killed. Between 491,000 - 800,000 were killed.
Between 7 April and 15 July 1994, members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group and moderate Hutu and Twa were killed by armed Hutu militias. Between 491,000 - 800,000 were killed.
The Army of Republika Srpska executed the Srebrenica massacre, slaying Bosnian Muslim boys and men in July 1995. More than 7,000 Bosniaks were killed.
Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of the Communist Party of Kampuchea general secretary Pol Pot, executed a systematic persecution and killing of Cambodian citizens between April 1975 - January 1979. Approximately 1.5 to 2 million people were killed.
Understanding Genocide Using Criminological Theories
Some criminological theories offer a starting point for understanding how genocide is carried out, indicating that genocide is being planned or systemically executed. In particular, collective forms of crime, white-collar and corporate crime, and other organized crime are used to analyze genocide (Karstedt et al. 2021).
By aligning genocide with these theories, it becomes apparent that genocide crimes involve collective preparation, cooperation, and organization. On the one end, there are complex networks, organizational relationships, and hierarchies. On the other end, there are loosely based groups performing atrocities. In genocide, the state and state agencies present the former, while rebel groups, militias, and paramilitaries represent the latter (Karstedt et al., 2021).
Preventing and Reducing Genocide
Regarding the prevention or reduction of genocide crimes, an analytical assessment of the country’s availability of resources, historical tension between ethnic groups, and political manipulation should be understood as key contributing factors to genocide.
For example, the genocide in Rwanda was triggered by a combination of land and food shortages, rapid population growth, a long history of ethnic tension between the Hutu and Tutsi (and Twa), and the propaganda-fueled authoritarian rule of dominant persons (Magnarella, 2005).
Rather than focus on warning signs for individual perpetrators, state- and community-level structural risk factors are typically associated with mass atrocity and genocide (Karstedt et al. 2021). The strongest risk factor includes political upheaval and a threat to those in power.
With the above signs and indicators in mind, I’d argue that the exact moment when mass execution begins is less easy to predict or monitor as a cataclysmic event may trigger it. For example, many attribute the start of the Rwandan genocide to President Habyarimana was killed after his plane was shot down, serving as the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Struggles Facing the International Community
Over and above the immense resources required to intervene, the international community faces an incredibly difficult challenge in reducing the crime of genocide. Most notably, the existing political relationships in a globalized community.
As Bernard describes, “Neither public outrage nor factual evidence of extreme atrocities will motivate governments to go to war unless other interests, foreign and domestic, also dictate it (1994).
As an example, the US actively discouraged the UN Secretary Council from authorizing more robust deployment from assisting in Rwanda, which former American President Bill Clinton claims to be the biggest regret of his presidency (TRT World, 2021). With this in mind, I’d argue that a non-governmental organization, such as the United Nations, would be more effective in assessing opportunities for intervention (and judging when intervention is needed).
As a starting point, vigilance and early intervention through diplomatic discussions are avenues through which the international community can respond.
- Karstedt, S., Nyseth Brehm, H., & Frizzell, L. C. (2021). Genocide, Mass Atrocity, and Theories of Crime: Unlocking Criminology's Potential. Annual Review of Criminology, 4, 75-97
- Magnarella, P. J. (2005). The background and causes of the genocide in Rwanda. Journal of International Criminal Justice, 3(4), 801-822.
- Bernard, C. (1994). Rape as terror: the case of Bosnia. Terrorism and Political Violence, 6(1), 29-43.
- TRT World. (2021). What led to the genocide in Rwanda? [Video]. YouTube.Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://youtu.be/RphYwV91MN4