Dehumanization in Mass Atrocities: Perpetrators Aren’t the Only Guilty Ones

8 Nov

*This is the second post of a two part series in reaction to my participation in the Women and Genocide in the 21st Century Conference organized by the Darfur Women Action Group.  The first focused on realism in advocacy, and this will focus on the dehumanization of perpetrators of mass atrocities.

At multiple points during the conference, actress and activist Mario Bello spoke of her desire to “shoot” human rights violators (in this case, specifically Omar al-Bashir and rapists).  While her anger is understandable, dehumanizing the perpetrators of human rights violations and mass atrocities is both simplistic and counterproductive.  Child soldiers, for example, provide us with a complicated picture of perpetrators vs. victims, and therefore avoiding basic moral rationalizations leads to better analysis and advocacy.

The type of judgement passed by Maria Bello inherently divides those in conflict regions into two categories: the perpetrators and the victims.  In this conceptualization, the evil perpetrators become less worthy of human rights, while the victims are entirely innocent.  Reality is more complicated.  During the Rwandan genocide, moderate, vocal Hutus were the first to be killed by the radical Hutu forces.  For Hutus who did not wish to participate in the subsequent ethnically-driven massacres, there were no good options.  These complex realities problematize our conception of perpetrator vs. victim.  Where do we draw the line, and is there even a line?  If we accept that the line is not obvious, and we ourselves have not experienced such horrific situations, can we even judge where the line is?  These are questions we need to ask ourselves before deciding who deserves human rights and who doesn’t.

Dehumanizing perpetrators of mass atrocities also blunts policy options.  Lumping Bashir into the category of those that deserve to be shot presents an artificial moral barrier for advocates.  This barrier makes post-conflict scenarios that include perpetrators seem morally reprehensible, despite evidence that engaging with perpetrators is a productive approach.  Bashir, of course, is likely essential to potential change within Sudan, and dehumanizing him to the point where we cannot seek to engage with him productively is not a particularly good strategy.

Finally, we must remember that advocates’ approach to a particular conflict will influence future approaches for combating mass atrocities.  Categorizing and dehumanizing perpetrators sets a dangerous precedent for ignoring the ethical complexities of widespread violence against civilians.  In the play A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More and William Roper have a telling interaction:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Essentializing perpetrators and victims into a duality and dehumanizing the former is a slippery slop for human rights activists.  This approach lends itself to an eventual loss of moral authority for well-meaning advocates, and hampers their ability to successfully respond to current and future conflicts.  Dehumanization is an extraordinarily powerful and dangerous concept, and not taking care to avoid it is immensely harmful to effective advocacy.

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