University News

Professors reconsider modern genocide

Moral Voices Initiative offers perspective on interpretting and preventing genocide

Contributing Writer
Friday, February 7, 2014

“Genocide has become a term in the last decade for anything that people who you don’t like do. You don’t like colonialism? It’s genocide. You don’t like terrorism? It’s genocide,” Professor of History Omer Bartov said in a panel discussion on modern genocide and mass atrocities Thursday night.

“That does not mean that the term is meaningless,” Bartov continued. “It means that the term is being abused. But that should not distract us from the importance of the terminology itself.”

The event in Salomon 001, which was part of Brown/RISD Hillel’s Moral Voices Initiative, explored the origins, events and aftermath of genocide in an effort to better understand why society allows genocide to occur.

In addition to Bartov, speakers included Keith Brown, professor of international studies, Stephen Kinzer, visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, and Maud Mandel, associate professor of Judaic studies.

Asked when and how intervention should occur, panelists outlined several points of guidance: First, intervention should be initiated if it can improve the situation. Second, panelists agreed that a focus on prevention is imperative.

“The best thing to do is to support prevention. Though prevention is hard to do because it’s hard to prevent something that is not happening,” Bartov said. Emphasizing the need to actively look for precursors of genocide, he added that “when a state is talking about people as sub-human, it is a warning of genocide.”

Bartov said governments need to ensure intervention is undertaken for the right reasons, which has not always been the case historically. “Countries largely act in their own best interest,” he said. “When the U.S. was preparing to fight Germany, they made a tremendous effort to tell the public they were not doing it to save the Jews, but were fighting to protect their own national interest.”

Reaffirming the theme of using the term genocide appropriately, Brown cautioned: “We must be mindful in using the term genocide and act carefully to preserve its depth and the scope of its meaning.”

Brown emphasized two central themes in his contributions to the panel: the importance of relativism and comparing genocides and the use of red lines in international politics — namely, whether society can describe something as genocide.

“We have to encourage using the term correctly and in the right context. It is a crucial term in prevention,” Bartov said. “We must be careful not to undermine it because if we do, we undermine the power to intervene.”

The term genocide was officially coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin. In 1948, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The Convention defines genocide in legal terms and “marks the first and only time in international law that states have agreed upon intervening with the affairs of another sovereign state,” Bartov said.

The discussion highlighted two different approaches to the research of genocide. “Historians are specialists in particulars. We see oranges and apples. We don’t see fruit,” Mandel said in describing her research philosophy.

In contrast, Bartov said, “historians weigh on specific events, and specific details of specific events. I don’t believe that any study can reach any level of understanding without comparison. The notion that we can study any genocide without an understanding of other genocides, or without historical context, is in fact ahistorical.”

The Moral Voices Initiative continues April 4 with a screening of the film “Conviction.”

  • Geno Zia

    ok well then. I didn’t like Ruth Simmons. I don’t like Chris Paxson.

  • concerned citizen

    What about the genocide of Americans due to the Mexican invasion of the U.S. I’ve lived in Arizona my entire life and have met many Mexicans who want a race war and have weapons stock piled just for that reason. I’ve also encountered many Mexican males that have out right told me they purposefully try to impregnate white women so they can have Mexican babies and kill off the white American population. They also insist that white American women dye their hair black so they don’t look white. I’ve also met many a Mexican that have never learned English after being here for decades. They burn American flags and wave Mexican flags every chance they get. Why is it politically correct for Mexicans to displace Americans and commit genocide but somehow it’s a crime to send them home?