Tag Archives: Thesis

How Civilians Protect Themselves Nonviolently During Mass Killings

16 Jul

*This post summarizes my undergraduate thesis.

International interventions in mass killing episodes often fail to adequately protect civilians.

The UNMISS peacekeeping operation in South Sudan is a case in point. Bureaucratic, political, and financial constraints consistently inhibit the deployment of well-staffed interventions, and often prohibit them outright.

Therefore, many civilians must survive without external assistance, but we know surprisingly little about how this occurs.

No scholar has produced a work combining empirical examples of civilian self-protection with a theory of the mechanisms that allow it to function during mass killing or even conflict more broadly. The lack of focus on civilian self-protection is symptomatic of a larger issue of how scholars envision violent conflict.

Check out the rest of the article at the Monkey Cage. You can read the entire thesis here.


Complexity and Proaction: A sincere hope for the (perhaps distant) future

27 Mar

What do civilians do to survive conflict?  This sounds like a fairly straightforward question, but it’s not.  Until very recently, scholars of violence and practitioners of  violence prevention saw civilians as entirely reactive parties that did little to shape the course of conflict.  While there have been some major steps in recent years in understanding what decisions civilians make to survive and their role in influencing the course of conflicts, the field is still taking its first steps (if you’re interested in further reading let me know).  The burgeoning consensus is that civilians are major players in shaping conflict, though academics and practitioners are only beginning to imagine the limits of civilian agency.  If there is indeed significant work to be done, what might the future of civilian self-protection look like?

To be blunt, we’re pretty clueless about civilian self-protection.  Few empirical accounts exist, and no work that I’ve come across directly ties empirical findings to broader theories of how civilians survive multiple types of conflict.  Because of this major theoretical gap, Casey Barrs, the most prolific author on the idea of civilian self-protection, argues for a limited survival-approach that ignores the rights-based programs that characterize many NGOs’ work.  For Barrs, whatever works, be it bribing combatants or fleeing at the first hint of conflict, should be encouraged and aided.  Civilians are more likely to understand this and therefore react to conflict better.  NGO’s should allow them to become ‘owners’ of their own survival.  In sum, we don’t know enough to prescribe strategies to civilians facing the prospect of mass atrocities.  Trying for anything more than bare survival is not only presumptuous on our part, but also dangerous.

Lamentably, Barrs is right for the moment.  If analysts do not really understand how civilians influence conflict, let alone how their actions during conflict determines both their lives and the condition of society post-conflict,  average civilians are unlikely to think about these issues.  Civilians are not expected to act with the broader conflict in mind, but there’s some potential that scholarship could permeate aid practices, which could perhaps diffuse a norm that sees civilian agency in conflict as extending beyond individual survival.

Could this imagined future become a reality?  It is possible that we’ll reach a point where we have a strong understanding of conflict dynamics, have strong norms of civilian protection, and have institutions in place able to react quickly and decisively to conflict that it will be possible to imagine a wider conception of civilian self-protection?  Could future civilian self-protection strategies be not only proactive but even emancipatory? And for me, perhaps the most exciting question is could civilian protection strategies be designed not only to save the civilians enacting them but to positively mitigate violence in the broader conflict system?

For now, these questions sound like overly ambitious and hard to even conceptualize.  For example, will civilians ever really feel secure enough to think beyond their immediate survival to their role in the broader conflict?  There are some reasons to be hopeful.  Complexity theory for one offers a medium through which we may be able to understand how conflict functions, and more specifically, civilians’ roles in it.  Complexity theory imagines conflict as a complex system in which agents interact with many other agents in multiple ways, which are ultimately too complex for humans to understand.  Randomness is inherent in the system.  So complexity theory helps explain why conflicts develop in surprising ways, often beyond the comprehension of analysts.  To read complexity theory as a accepting defeat in our attempt to understand conflict would be a mistake, however.  Rather, while creating a framework for dealing with complexity, it also accepts that some developments in conflict are indeed beyond our ability to predict or explain.  Some analysts are beginning to see conflict through a complexity-inspired lens.

Early warning technology is another reason to be optimistic.  While the idea of early warning has existed for a long time, practitioners and scholars are starting to imagine how these systems can serve local communities rather than analysts far removed from the conflict.  At the same time, many regional governmental organizations are in the process of implementing conflict early warning systems.  This marriage of theory and institutionalization could one day provide many civilians with the ability to learn of conflict before it physically confronts them, and develop more proactive strategies.

I would like to be hopeful that this is all possible, but there are also some harsh realities that can’t be ignored.  While I am very hopeful that complexity theory will offer a new and improved method for imagining the complexity of conflict, we can’t forget that complexity theory was designed to help us understand why we can’t understand certain systems.  Yes, complexity theory is probably a step up, but there’s a limit to our analytic ability.

Another problem is how civilians will actually understand their role in determining conflict, and in turn, be able to make constructive changes to their behavior.  It’s possible, but by no means for sure, that academic knowledge on how civilians act during conflict will imbue at-risk communities.  However, civilians would then have to not only accept that validity of this theory, but also be in a place in which they could enact it.  While it is simply difficult to imagine the confluence of developments in early warning technology, norms of civilian agency, and the dynamics of mass atrocities in the future, but it is also difficult to imagine with all these mitigating factors, civilians will act considerably differently in the future than they do now.  This speaks to broader questions to how civilians have reacted to conflict over the course of history, but to my knowledge, civilians dealt with the Peloponnesian War in a similar way as Syrians do today.  My vision puts significant stock in the power of globalized humanitarian discourse.

The last problem is that by the time techniques that expand upon current civilian protection practices are developed and implemented, it may be too late.  As Jay Ulfelder writes, it looks as if global patterns of unrest will cause a short-term spike in mass atrocities, even if broader trends point to a slow reduction in the amount of worldwide conflict.  If he’s right, then civilian protection infrastructure will likely appear only after the period in which it is most needed.

Predicting mass atrocities is hard enough, and so I realize that predicting civilian response in the distant future, which we in fact barely understand at the present, is pretty much impossible.  However, the prospect for an expanded view of civilian self-protection can at least function as something to strive for.  I do think there’s hope because just in the last few years we’ve seen changes in how NGO’s think about with self-protection.  Both Casey Barrs and L2GP have written about the need for NGO’s to help civilians protect livelihoods (thus shaping the post-conflict environment), and in the relatively small prevention practitioner community, their words will soon have an impact.  From where I stand, the future is exciting.

What Will the Future of Atrocity Prevention and Response Hold?

13 Feb

*I started writing my thesis last week.  Because that’s taking up a lot of time, I just wanted to post the lightly-edited last section of the first draft of my first chapter.  If you have any thoughts on what I could do better, please feel free to share them.

The next twenty years will be an exciting time for the concept of early warning.  I believe the same applies to atrocity prevention and mitigation.  The idea of early warning, and certainly quantitative early warning, is in its infancy.  There is a good chance that the next two decades will see the institutionalization of early warning systems (EWS) within IGO’s, regional organizations, and national governments.  On the prevention and mitigation front, R2P is less than a decade old.  Unlike any norm before it, it provides a moral, legal, and operational backing for the prevention and mitigation of mass atrocities, which in turn deters potential perpetrators.

There are plenty of other reasons to find hope in efforts to close the response gap.  First, EWS’s are improving.  They are becoming more accurate, they are reaching out to include previously untouched constituencies, and their proliferation across Africa demonstrates that they are now accepted as a necessary component for any effective anti-atrocity policy.  Another positive sign is an emergent vein of scholarship that looks at how to direct early warnings to civilians on the ground rather than policymakers operating in metaphorical ivory towers.  Along these lines, there are signs that the UN and regional organizations are improving their early warning capacities.

While evaluation of the effects of early warning is difficult and practically nonexistent, it does seem that the international community is getting better at it.  Kenya offers a good case study.  In 2008, post-election violence killed thousands of people.  Accordingly, prior to the 2013 elections, many analysts predicted a similar outcome.  Fortunately, the elections went off with very little violence.  Why?  Well, combining analysis before and after the elections provides a picture of a thorough and multifaceted prevention effort.  Writing in 2012, Babaud and Ndung’u argue that while there were serious flaws, Kenya is one of the few places where locally-led conflict prevention and early warning have happened.  They also note the importance of the emergence of crowd-sourced prevention initiatives like Ushahidi, which provide quickly-available and accurate information on conflict dynamics.  Unlike many early warning systems, Kenya’s had a clear and systematic flow of information, represented by this diagram:

Writing after the elections, Jay Ulfelder surveys a number of experts on Kenya and concludes that there were four main preventive efforts that had an effect: (1) a conscious effort by the Kenyan media to limit inflammatory reporting spurred by a combination of international pressure and memories of 2008, (2) a government SMS service that blocked hate speech, (3) investment in Kenyan infrastructure between 2008 and 2013, and (4) the restraining of major political actors through their links to Western money.  He notes that these findings may not be generalizable to all prevention efforts primarily because the violence in Kenya would have been election-related.  Regardless, it shows that not only can the international community work together to promote prevention, but that an array of fairly simple programs can have a real impact on the reduction of violence.

In 1999, then-UNSG Kofi Annan wrote, “Today no one disputes that prevention is better, and cheaper, than reacting to crises after the fact.  Yet out political and organizational cultures and practices remain oriented far more towards reaction than prevention.”  Seven years later, in a report to the UNGA, he wrote, “In its resolution 57/337, annex, paragraph 35, the General Assembly recognized the need to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations for early warning, collection of information and analysis. I regret to report that no significant progress has been made in this area. In fact, unlike some regional organizations, the United Nations still lacks the capability to analyse [sic] and integrate data from different parts of the system into comprehensive early warning reports and strategies on conflict prevention.”

Unfortunately, at the beginning of 2014, little more progress has been made.  Despite early warning’s long history within the UN, it is still barely an institutionalized concept.  If there are some reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for closing the response gap, there are just as many or more to be pessimistic.  As it stands, the existence of any system that combines an intelligence gathering mechanism, an early warning component, and results in capable prevention or mitigation strategies is a fiction and will be continue to be so for the foreseeable future.  The same institutional and psychological barriers that prevent successful atrocity early warning, prevention, and response will persevere.  Ominously, a recent spike in both state collapses and global social unrest has likely contributed to a recent increase in mass killings, and this trend does not show an obvious sign of abating.

One estimate is that less than ten percent of civilians that survive natural disasters do so because of outside aid.  This figure is likely even higher for civilian victims of violent conflict and mass atrocities considering the more advanced nature of disaster EWS’s and the relative lack of political complications caused by disaster aid.  Even if there is major progress in closing the atrocity response gap in the next twenty years, the vast majority of civilians will have to survive on their own.  Therefore, when we talk about outside prevention and intervention, we must remember that the efforts of the international community are ultimately peripheral to the conflict experiences of most individuals.  Intervention is not, and will never be, a sustainable solution for preventing and mitigating mass atrocities around the world.  Survival is almost always the burden of the persecuted.

The Responsibility to Do What We Can: Understanding and strengthening local, nonviolent strategies for civilian self-protection in the context of mass atrocities

9 Dec

*The Sentinel Project has published my final report on strategies for civilian self-protection during mass atrocities.  This blog post summarizes my report and you can find the report itself here.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine, instituted in 2005, exemplifies the dominant paradigm for action during mass atrocities: international intervention.  While R2P places the primarily responsibility on states, the international community is nonetheless positioned as the final authority on issues of civilian protection.  This approach has many benefits, but suffers from an inherent response gap.  The international community is simply unable to react effectively to every mass atrocity scenario because of structural constraints.  Therefore, most civilians that survive mass atrocities do so with little organized or institutionalized help from anyone beyond their immediate communities.  But exactly how civilians manage this is a severely understudied phenomenon even within the larger (already neglected) subfield of mass violence against civilians.  The lack of empirical work on civilian self-protection makes drawing concrete solutions on how to improve future civilian protection strategies difficult, and therefore a more apt approach combines theory on how mass atrocities function with non-comprehensive empirical work.

There are many schools of thought on why mass atrocities happen and how they work.  Despite the many legitimate points scholars have made over the years, one seems beyond challenge: mass killing is an instrumental process.  For political leaders, mass atrocities serve some other political goal and only occur after other attempts to accomplish the goal fail.  Another point of agreement among scholars is that mass atrocities are much more likely to occur during war; the upheaval caused by war gives extremist leaders a better chance of seizing power.  A point more contested among scholars, but no less convincing, is that beyond the leadership directing mass atrocities, ideology plays only a peripheral role.  Perpetrators of mass atrocities are not bloodthirsty killers, but rather more like, as Christopher Browning termed it, ordinary men.  For the most part, they are more convinced to kill by in-group coercion than ethnic hatred or sadism.

Broadly, there are two types of mass atrocities that commonly occur today: counterinsurgent (COIN) and communal mass atrocities.  Many mass atrocity scenarios, such as the violence we see today in Syria, has an element of both.  Strategies for civilian self-protection are significantly different between COIN and communal mass atrocities.  Therefore, for the purposes of understanding them, categorically separating the two types is necessary despite the potential analytic simplification.

During counterinsurgent mass atrocities, civilians have the best chance of escaping violence by attempting to remove themselves from the conflict.  If they can gain the trust of armed actors that they are not providing information or aid to either side, they may be able to avoid conflict altogether.  During communal mass atrocities, the task is similar, but the tactics are different.  Instead of simply removing themselves, civilians must change the logic that makes them targets in the first place.  Misinformation and social myths are rampant in every communal mass atrocity, and countering these rumors is crucial in preventing the outbreak of violence.  Secondly, leaders manipulate information to whip up ethnic hatred and instigate attacks.  Therefore, either discrediting these leaders or removing them from power can have positive effects.  Research on civilian self-protection during communal mass atrocities is still in its infancy, and scholars could do practitioners a huge hand by emphasizing the topic more in the future.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of instances in which nonviolent, local civilian self-protection strategies don’t work.  Violence during mass atrocities is an escalatory process, and the more entrenched cycles of violence become, the harder it is for civilians to bargain their way out of trouble.  This happens for multiple reasons: the collective action problem intensifies, psychological pressures harden combatants’ violent instincts, and lines of command falter.  Finally, armed groups with inflexible ideological commitments or significant economic incentives are much harder to work with for civilians in mass atrocity contexts.

NGO’s are in an ideal position to improve civilian self-protection strategies because of their ability innovate and their relative lack of institutional constraints.  NGO’s should always seek to work with existing community structures rather than inventing new ones, because in mass atrocity scenarios, nearly every social structure serves a protective purpose.  NGO’s should also be pragmatic, refrain from making moral judgments, and place civilian survival above every other consideration.  NGO’s have the ability to provide and disseminate crucial information communities often lack and should focus their efforts here.  Once civilians have this information, NGO’s should assist civilians in their efforts to protect themselves, but ultimately defer to civilian choices.  Civilian self-protection does not present a comprehensive strategy for ending mass atrocities, but understanding and aiding the process could go a long way in filling the atrocity response gap.

Are We Violent By Nature?: Reconciling Milgram, Browning, Collins, and Grossman

1 Oct

Stanley Milgram, Christopher Browning, Dave Grossman, and Randall Collins have all provided important contributions to the academic debate on the attitudes of humans toward violence.  All of these projects have attempted to answer the same question: “How willing are we to commit violence?”  On the surface, it would seem they provide contrasting answers.  The Milgram experiment and Browning both show that no matter whether individuals are opposed to violence, they tend commit violence when told to do so by an authority figure.  Collins and Grossman, however, paint a different picture.  In their work, individuals do their best to avoid killing, often going to incredible lengths.  Despite these differences, Milgram, Browning, Grossman, and Collins actually make complementary arguments that when aggregated, provide a good explanation for why individuals commit violence.

I’ll briefly sketch out the arguments presented in the three books (the Milgram experiment is well-known enough to omit).  Browning examines the experiences of Reserve Police Battalion 101 during WWII.  The battalion was made up of individuals unfit for regular combat, and contained few hardcore Nazis.  However, it was one of the most deadly units that made up the Einsatzgruppen, killing thousands of Jews on the eastern front over the course of the war.  He writes that while many soldiers expressed disgust and even disapproval of murdering Jews at the beginning, over the course of the war, the incidence of refusals decreased.  Browning argues a mixture of authority, peer coercion, and a warped morality structure that saw killing as the moral thing to do made the men of Reserve Battalion 101 kill with alarming efficiency.

Collins and Grossman, in Violence: A micro-sociological theory and On Killing, respectively, both examine the way soldiers react to killing opponents.  Many of their arguments are similar, so to prevent repetition, I’ll summarize them as if they were a single narrative.  They write that most soldiers do their best to avoid killing others in combat.  They will likely find the act of killing more traumatic than the fear of being killed.  In WWII, firing rates among soldiers stood at only 15%, with no difference between new and seasoned troops.  Troops unable to see the consequences of their actions, such as artillery units, have much higher firing rates.  Following studies of this phenomenon, militaries changed their tactics.  Larger fighting units were divided further into smaller, groups to encourage interdependence.  This, along with other changes, increased firing rates in the Vietnam War to 95%.

Despite different approaches to studying human dispositions toward committing violence, Milgram, Browning, Grossman, and Collins all have overlapping arguments.  Ultimately, in each project, they present a picture of most humans as reluctant to commit violence, but at the same time, vulnerable to social processes that promote the use of violence.  These social processes can be broadly divided into three categories: authority, values, and interdependent coercion.  Milgram is the canonical example of authority.  However, as Grossman and Collins demonstrate, even the strict authority structures of WWII militaries was not enough to convince the vast majority of soldiers to attempt and kill opponents.  In chaotic battlefield situations, the ability of leaders to exert their authority and punish those who resist is limited, differentiating it from a laboratory setting.  As for values, Browning argues that the Nazis were at least partially successful in creating a new morality in which getting past inherent adversity to killing, while difficult emotionally, was the correct thing to do.  However, Ben Valentino has demonstrated that for regular perpetrators, ideology is seldom a primary motivating factor for combatants to commit atrocities, and this logic can be extended to killing in general.  Finally, interdependent coercion is likely the most powerful factor in convincing the large percentage of civilians who avoid killing to do so.  In Ordinary Men, Browning shows how soldiers did not want to appear weak in front of their colleagues or leave unpleasant work to others.  Therefore, most chose to participate in killing.  Another facet of in-group coercion is interdependence.  If a small unit of soldiers feels that any hesitation by one soldier will likely mean death for another, firing rates will be much higher.  Militaries picked up on this phenomenon, and sought to create more cohesive and interdependent fighting units.

The debate on the attitudes of humans toward violence is not new and will not end anytime soon.  But to me, asking “are we violent?” is flawed, as answers to the question are too prone to over-generalization.  Collins, for example, writes that soldiers at the front lines tend to treat prisoners much more humanely than rear-guard soldiers, demonstrating the variation of human attitudes toward violence, and thus problematizing an all-encompassing conclusion.  The better question is “what makes us violent?”  As someone who’s interested in applying lessons learned from academic methods of study to decrease violence, hypothesizing on true human nature has little applicable value or even intellectual significance.  Hobbes’ theory of human nature was flawed because it imagined an ideal world, the state of nature, in which true human nature could be revealed.  We know, as Kalyvas argues, that even in ‘ungoverned spaces’, mutually understood rules govern the nature of conflict.  Ultimately, the world is not a laboratory, and attempting to strip away the complexity of human interaction to make it such is methodologically dubious.  We will always have violence and the absence of violence in this world, and scholars of conflict are better off understanding what makes human oscillate between the two rather than speculating on what is natural.

On The Act of Killing

23 Jul

I saw Joshua Oppenheimer The Act of Killing on Sunday with The Sentinel Project.  The documentary follows several men that participated in mass killings of suspected communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals following an attempted coup in 1965.  Like Hetzfeld’s Machete Season, Oppenheimer’s film provides an intimate portrait of mass killers.  Slate’s Dana Stevens describes the result, “The Act of Killing is among the most profound, formally complex, and emotionally overpowering documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also, by turns and sometimes at once, luridly seductive and darkly comic and physically revolting—a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.”

Unlike many other portrayals of mass killings, the film does not show any footage of the massacres or speak to victims.  Rather it allows the perpetrators to act out the atrocities 45 years later in whatever film genre they wish, creating a disturbing yet meaningful detachment from the actual atrocities.   The killers, instead of bloodthirsty monsters, are often immature and pathetic.  Sure, they praise and rationalize their own actions, but they are not beyond showing unease at the past.  Instead of reviewing the film, I’d like to focus on a couple key issues that are relevant for studying violence and politics.

Oppenheimer’s documentary does little to provide context, and everything has to be gleaned from prior viewer knowledge or tangential remarks by the film’s subjects and therefore there are some truly puzzling parts of the killers’ stories.  The three main characters, Anwar, Herman, and Adi were once petty gangsters that made their livings scalping movie tickets.  However, communists banned American films, seriously reducing their income.  This seems to have been the first step on the path to becoming mass killers.  Interpersonal conflicts also seem to have played a role.  Adi, for example, tells Anwar how he stabbed his girlfriend’s hated step-father because he was Chinese.

Beyond these petty economic and personal, a fairly basic ideology also is used by the killers to rationalize their actions.  All of the characters share an aversion to communists (and ethnic Chinese to a lesser degree), but it’s unclear why.  No one ever gets past the surface-level “Communists were a threat to the nation”.  Why were they a threat to the nation?  It’s doubtful the subjects could answer the question.  In fact, a character begins to describe the communists’ actions, but is interrupted by another for painting Communists in too good a light.  There’s no “well, think about all the terrible things the Communists did” or “well, the Communists wanted to kill us”.  It’s simply left at that describing the Communists positively is wrong.  In the context of solely the movie, the most convincing explanation would seem to be the subjects’ desire to demonstrate their masculinity and power.

Because the film doesn’t examine the structural factors involved in initiating the mass killings, it’s impossible to draw a firm conclusion on the killers’ motivations from the movie alone.  Deeper societal cleavages likely played a role in elevating the subjects into the role of mass murderers, and so personal grievances, a flimsy ideology, and psychological essentialization don’t explain the events in full.  Even without a complete understanding, mass atrocity scholars (including myself; I’m trying to answer this question in my thesis) can draw an important, if anecdotal, lesson from The Act of Killing.  As Browning concluded in Ordinary Men, in violent and chaotic settings, ordinary individuals experiencing fairly weak influences pulling them toward violence can in fact commit genocide.

The remembrance and celebration of violence is a central theme in the film, but it comes across as quite foreign to American/Canadian audiences.  In the US, we celebrate violence regularly.  Soldiers are presented as national heroes for undergoing hardship and danger to protect the rest of the nation.  The killing itself escapes the public lens.  Drone operators, for example, aren’t heroes to the American public because they themselves were never in danger.  The film’s portrayal of Indonesia paints a very different picture.  Anwar and his fellow executions are indeed public heroes.  When interviewed on public television, the host praises Anwar and Herman  for developing more humane way to eliminate Communists.  Anwar and his cronies weren’t in danger themselves, but they nonetheless are the subjects of public adoration without having to hide the exact nature of their past actions.

On a similar theme, the film reflects very poorly on the current state of Indonesian politics.  Politicians are both publicly and privately  supportive of mass murderers and their ideological inheritors, the paramilitary organization Pancasila.  The film includes a speech by an Indonesian Vice President at a Pancasila rally in which he says the country needs more gangsters (which is consistently and bizarrely translated proudly as “free men” by Anwar and the other executioners) to “get things done”.  The film also includes numerous examples of political corruption.  Herman runs for office, but rather than examine how he’ll do the job, he ponders how much money he can make through bribery and threats.  Along the campaign trail, citizens care little about his platform and ask if he comes bearing “gifts”.  The film also portrays some good-ol’ extortion of Chinese businessman by the former mass murderers.  Oppenheimer implies that these actions are taken with the full knowledge and cooperation of big time politicians.  All of these examples point the existence of a mafia state in Indonesia, where murderers, gangsters, and other unsavory characters collude with the highest levels of power to enrich themselves without worrying about public accountability.

The film is an unsettling masterpiece with Warner Herzog saying, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.”  Along the way, it presents several insights on the nature of mass atrocities, and I highly recommend The Act of Killing.

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.

Slightly Misdirected in the Complexity

13 Jun

A week ago, Jay Ulfelder came out with a ridiculously insightful column about, of all things, microbiology.  He writes that new interpretive frameworks in microbiology mirror similar advances in the social sciences and quotes a book by Michael Polland:

“But it turns out that the overwhelming majority of bacteria residing in the gut simply refuse to grow on a petri dish—a phenomenon known among researchers as “the great plate anomaly.” Without realizing it, they were practicing what is sometimes called parking-lot science—named for the human tendency to search for lost keys under the streetlights not because that’s where we lost them but because that is where we can best see. The petri dish was a streetlight. But when, in the early 2000s, researchers developed genetic “batch” sequencing techniques allowing them to catalog all the DNA in a sample of soil, say, or seawater or feces, science suddenly acquired a broad and powerful beam light that could illuminate the entire parking lot. When it did, we discovered hundreds of new species in the human gut doing all sorts of unexpected things…To their surprise, microbiologists discovered that nine of every ten cells in our bodies do not belong to us, but to these microbial species (most of them residents of our gut), and that 99 percent of the DNA we’re carrying around belongs to those microbes. Some scientists, trained in evolutionary biology, began looking at the human individual in a humbling new light: as a kind of superorganism, a community of several hundred coevolved and interdependent species. War metaphors no longer made sense.”

He then contextualizes it with what Adam Elkus calls “an extended competitive politics freestyle”:

“I’d say a comparable gestalt shift is occurring in some corners of social science, with similarly dramatic implications. For decades, we’ve cranked out snapshots and diagrams and typologies of objects—states, parties, militaries, ethnic groups—that we’ve assumed to be more or less static and distinct and told just-so stories about how one thing changes into another. Now, we’re shedding those functionalist assumptions and getting better at seeing those objects as permeable superorganisms embedded in ecosystems, all of them continually coevolving in ways that may elude our capacity to narrate, or even to understand at all. The implications are simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming.”

Yesterday, I read Wendy Pearlman’s chapter “Composite-Actor Approach to Conflict Behavior” in the book Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict, which provides a good qualitative example of what Ulfelder’s talking about.  Pearlman basically argues that the way we think about political decision making is entirely wrong.  She uses the example of Palestinian resistance to the formation of Israel as a way to sketch-out the composite-actor approach as an alternative.  This interpretive strategy sees political and social groups as non-cohesive, diverse entities.  She argues that placing political movements within the framework of “rational or strategic choice” steamrolls complex internal differences and that the logic of individual rational choice cannot be expanded to groups.  Finally, she writes that because of this fundamental structure of organizations, social scientists shouldn’t be asking what factors cause groups to make certain decisions, but who has the power within organizations to make those decisions, providing a better casual explanation.

This sort of thinking (political systems, patterns of interaction etc.), and perhaps Pearlman’s chapter, will likely form the theoretical basis for my thesis.  I will need to find writing that complicates the mainstream understanding that violence only works in situations with respect for human life, which may not exist in a mass atrocity situation.  While I’m only in the beginning stages of research, it seems to me that the way to accomplish this is to understand how power works on a person-to-person level during conflict.  How can civilians leverage power against armed groups?  Who has power over armed groups that can be leveraged by civilians?  What splits, a la Pearlman, within armed groups, can be identified and exploited by civilians?

In a response to Ulfelder’s post, Adam Elkus slightly complicates the ever-increasing analytic intricacy, supplemented by bigger data, that Ulfelder says is the future, “Ulfelder talks (and I agree) about the problems of binning into binary categories  and reductionist analysis. But binning is an inevitable effect of limited cognitive resources. We face a problem of infinite regress without binning, since—without buying into hippy-dippy Gaia hypothesis nonsense—the entire planet can be considered a system. And so and so on. So we have to bin more wisely.”

Even Pearlman runs into this problem.  While she does a fantastic job of describing the complexities of the Palestinian movement, her discussion of Jewish and British responses to Palestinian actions is decidedly non-complex.  She doesn’t identify the different actors within either, and Palestinians simply react to general actions of the two parties, rather than forming a political system with the other inhabitants of Palestine.  This critique is not meant to discredit Pearlman, however.  Her chapter was more on the composite-actor theory rather than Palestine in 1947, and therefore her analytic approach makes sense.  It does however, point to the issue Elkus highlights.  Had Pearlman attempted to treat Palestine as the complex political system it was, and identify all the actors within each general group, the chapter would have lost much of its theoretical clarity.  However, the “binning” that Pearlman did led to a less rigorous analysis of pre-Israel Palestine.  This is inevitably something I will face as I begin the writing process.  I need to understand local-level violence manifestations and power relations, but when will that analysis distract from the geopolitics I also need to understand.  In other words, how complex is too complex?  How can I successfully “jump levels”, as George Lakey termed in, from the local to the national to the global, and propose solutions that work on all three?

Hopefully I can answer my own rhetoricals at the end of the summer.

*As with any posts that relate to my thesis, readers should feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments.  Any help is sincerely appreciated.

Challenges of Studying Nonviolence and Conflict

12 Jun

I started my internship with the Sentinel Project Monday.  This means two things: 1) I’ve started doing research for my thesis which will also produce a set of policy recommendations for SP and 2) I have more time to blog regularly.  I knew my thesis topic, which will attempt to address the question “Is it possible to respond nonviolently to mass atrocities, and if so, how?”, would be challenging, simply because there is so little written on the topic.  And when I say “so little”, I mean basically nothing.  Therefore, I’ve quickly realized that much of my thesis will be aggregation and synthesis, rather than critiquing existing works on the subject and proposing slightly different theories (read some great, tangentially related, articles though).  Of course there’s plenty of work on nonviolence, civil wars, mass atrocities, and political conflict, but, perhaps because peace studies is a new field of study, few academic works link nonviolence, civilian protection, and political violence.  Most nonviolence literature deals with civilian attempts to overthrow governments, but fails to see civilians as active actors unless they participate in a social movement with a specific, macropolitical goal.  In his article on civilian nonviolent self-protection in Colombia, political scientist Oliver Kaplan underlines this problem nicely:

“Despite anecdotes of effectiveness and the buoyancy of activists, this literature on civilian movements remains under-theorized, without specifying causal mechanisms, or processes by which organized civilian resistance might affect substantively interesting outcomes. The causal ‘force’ of civilians has not been made falsifiable or comparatively evaluated against the positivist, macropolitical explanations of violence. As a result we have been unable to discern whether the effects of civilian social cohesion and organization in wartime are epiphenomenal to – derivative of – armed groups’ interests (as Kalyvas suggests they are). It is for good reason then that in Kalyvas’s (2006: 110) passing discussion of local committees in conflict zones he observes, ‘We know little about how they actually operate.’” ”

This theoretical gap means that the next step in nonviolence literature should be to understand how civilians interact with armed actors during conflict to protect themselves, but unfortunately, a theoretical study isn’t out there yet (or at least I haven’t found it).  Oliver Kaplan’s article (linked to above) is a good start, but even then, his work focuses on civil wars, where civilians are not the primary target.  In the community he studied in Colombia, civilians experienced violence when they participate, or are believed to have participated, on one side or the other of the civil war.  While even that distinction did little to protect civilians before a community association was formed, that thin buffer does not exist in situations where civilians are the target of large-scale violence.  Understanding how individuals can nonviolently protect themselves in these situations is the gap I need to fill with my thesis.

*If any readers have any suggestions on reading or approaches I could take, please feel free to leave them in the comments.