Tag Archives: Civil Society

A Blueprint for Local, Nonviolent Responses to Mass Atrocities (Part II)

18 Aug

*This post originally appeared on the Sentinel Project blog.

Separating mass atrocities into categories risks oversimplification, but different response strategies apply to different types of violence.  Therefore, modern-day mass atrocities can broadly be separated into two categories: counterinsurgency (COIN) and communal.  While this division risks empirical oversimplification and many scenarios have elements of both, delineating the two allows for a more concise construction of the logic behind civilian self-protection.

During counterinsurgencies, the flow of information is the central cause of mass atrocities.  Combatants use civilians to gather information about enemy troop movements and the identity of civilian supporters of the opposition.  Because armed actors need this information, but are often unable to verify it independently, civilians have quite a bit of power in determining the strategic use of violence.  This power is often abused.  Kalvyas and Kaplan have both extensively documented how civilians partner with armed actors not because of ideologies, but to settle personal scores.  Fear is also a powerful explanation for civilian cooperation.  Kalyvas argues that physical control by armed groups is a highly influential factor in explaining civilian cooperation, especially as the conflict progresses.  Finally, when armed actors lack information to determine who’s working with the enemy and who’s not, they may resort to indiscriminate violence to intimidate would-be enemy collaborators.  This strategy, however, is not very effective, and so combatants will likely only pursue this strategy when there is a lack of resources to devote to information-gathering.

To counter these issues, there are a few basic measures civilians can take.  Collectively, these measures are most coherently contained within the concept of “Zones of Peace” (ZoP’s).  ZoP’s have been established in varying forms and with varying levels of success around the world.  They rest on the basic principle of civilian non-participation in COIN.  In his study of ZoPs in Colombia, Kaplan lists a few generalizable strategies communities can use: Creating a culture of peace, implementing conflict resolution processes, creating internal investigative bodies that have the trust of armed actors, and naming and shaming.  The first two help prevent civilians from using armed actors to settle disputes, while the second solves the information problem for armed actors.  If combatants on are confident that a certain community is not aiding any armed group, then they are much less likely to target the community.  Finally, the last strategy allows civilians to shame certain armed actors that have committed abuses.  If the guilty parties need to maintain good relations with NGOs, foreign governments, and local civilians, they may refrain from committing atrocities in the future.  One final strategy is for civilians to confront armed groups en masse and demand an end to atrocities.  While confrontation carries a high element of risk, if an armed group is hesitant to kill large numbers of civilians at the same time, it can be effective.

Responding to communal conflict differs from COIN mass atrocity mitigation, but the difference is not as clear as one might think.  In both situations, civilians become the intentional targets of violence as part of a process in which other goals necessitate the use of violence directed against civilians.  One commonly advocated strategy to address communal violence, particularly among studies examining the Holocaust, is to identify societies with deep social cleavages and cultures conducive to mass killing, and then attempt to positively change those elements through public messaging.  However, since explanations focused on pre-existing societal rifts seem to poorly explain why mass atrocities emerge and these rifts are widespread and deeply-rooted in many societies, addressing such issues directly would require huge resources (human, financial, and institutional).  Instead, addressing “hot spots” (as mass atrocities are often committed and directed by a very small group) with contact programs or education aimed at violence-reduction could be effective.  Perpetrators beyond central leaders often have fairly apolitical motives for participating in mass atrocities, with group dynamics being a more important cause.  Therefore, creating an atmosphere in which potential perpetrators feel increased social pressure to not participate mass atrocities could have a positive mitigating effect.  Similarly, the public challenging of perpetrator leaders early in the process of mass atrocities can also reduce violence by creating the political will to withdraw the public complicity necessary to commit large-scale violence.  Communal violence is also often driven by misinformation.  This misinformation helps to create the social myths necessary to justify the killing of others, but it also can create erroneous beliefs about the opponent’s actions or motives.  Initiatives such as the Sentinel Project’s proposed text messaging service in the Tana Delta that would verify the truthfulness of rumors can help stop the spread of false information that leads to violence.

Two other locally-focused strategies that hold promise for mass atrocities violence mitigation are locally-led advanced mobile aid (LLAMA) and localized conflict early warning systems (LCEWS). LLAMA provides, quick, mobile humanitarian aid to communities at risk that are beyond the political, geographic, or temporal reach of traditional aid agencies.  It can also be adapted forcivilian protection in conflict situations.  It can improve information flow to isolated, at-risk communities and provide them with the information and the means to move to lower-risk areas when physical escape is the best option.  LCEWS are another important strategy.  Currently, early warning systems mostly exist at the level of national or international organizations, which according to Barrs, creates the problem that “alerts, bulletins, and reports are sent around the world in real time. Yet they rarely touch ground where the killing happens. They fly through cyberspace, high over the victims’ heads. People at risk on the ground might never learn that the ‘demarches’ we write on their behalf even exist.”  Therefore, localized early warning, especially ones with advanced vertical integration, could greatly improve the flow of information to at-risk communities, allowing them to better assess their options.

Ultimately, there are plenty of strategies out there for nonviolent, local mass atrocities mitigation, but the growing abundance of such studies has been largely ignored by policy makers.  So while policy makers would do well to accept less bureaucratic, nonviolent, and local methods for preventing and responding to mass atrocities, scholars also need to expand this idea theoretically, rather than the conceptually and geographically limited studies that populate the majority of the relevant literature.  A key question still remains: how do perpetrators and victims actually interact?  The dearth of scholarship that addresses this question on the theoretical level is a real shame, and better analysis could seriously improve our understanding of how civilians can protect themselves during mass atrocities.  It’s a question I’d love to see answered as work in this field progresses.

The Gaping Hole in Genocide Scholarship

19 Jul

My thesis topic, nonviolent responses to mass atrocities and genocide, is not the most straight forward.  Few scholars have written about it in depth, and, if I do say so myself, it’s very conceptually difficult.   The idea does pop up frequently in related literature, but it’s almost always dismissed within a paragraph.  Luckily for me, these claims don’t hold much water.

When authors do address nonviolence in response to genocide (as opposed to mass atrocities or civil war violence, which gets more nuanced attention), the standard line is that nonviolence is powerless against an enemy committed to killing a certain group.  In the face of this type of single-minded hate, violence is the only defense.  At first glance, these conclusions make sense, but authors often contradict themselves later in the works where they make these claims.  Two examples here are political scientist Oliver Kaplan’s dissertation on civilian autonomy in Colombia and Chirot and McCauley’s Why Not Kill Them All?  I pick on these two works not because they’re problematic; both works, and Kaplan’s in particular, are great works of scholarship, but they both make the mistake of dismissing nonviolence as a response to genocide.

Kaplan cites Valentino on why civilian resistance to genocide is futile.  He contradicts this, however, by proposing that creating community processes for conflict resolution reduces the chances residents will use armed actors to settle local grudges.  This happened, for example, during the Armenian genocide, when Kurdish tribes allied themselves with the Ottoman Empire to eliminate Armenians.  The same thing happened with Banyamulenge, the Rwandan army, and Congolese Hutu.  Community conflict resolutions processes aren’t a silver bullet for stopping genocide, but they could potentially contribute to a decrease in violence by eliminating community divisions that can be exploited by armed groups with genocidal intentions.  Perhaps an even better example is in Why Not Kill Them All?, where Chirot and McCauley make a similar argument as Valentino.  They examine how “contact programs” and a strong civil society can provide a bulwark against the rise of genocidal ideologies and a fear of the “other” that lead to mass killing.  Both works outline nonviolent strategies that can prevent or mitigate genocide despite their claims to the contrary.

There are two central causes for this inconsistency in works on genocide.  The first is an overly simplistic conception of what stopping genocide entails.  Doing that is a long process that doesn’t commence in the middle of atrocities.  Basically, the authors have forgotten about genocide prevention, most of which is done nonviolently.  Secondly, these dismissals are based on a mistaken interpretation of nonviolence.  Nonviolence in response to genocide is so much more than unarmed civilians physically confronting their would be murderers, because we all agree that wouldn’t be very effective.  Conflict resolution programs, anti-hate education, finding employment for young men, the dissemination of truthful news, and humanizing portrayals of a potential victim group can all be used to prevent genocide (and it’s important to remember that all these strategies can be used after violence has started, because genocide develops gradually, meaning there is no point before which it’s “prevention” and after which it’s “response”).

So yes, it’s very much possible to prevent and respond nonviolently to civil war violence, mass atrocities, and even genocide.  Genocide is not a unique phenomenon, as compared to other types of violence, that only responds to force and not to “reason”.  It’s time modern scholarship accepted that.