Other Voices, v.2, n.1 (February 2000)
Copyright © 2000, Ervin Staub, all rights reserved
Genocide usually evolves. It may start with discrimination against a group and small acts of violence. Harming a victim group changes the perpetrators, as well as the members of the perpetrator group who remain passive bystanders. Increasingly it changes the nature of a whole society. Standards of behavior change. As violence becomes more intense, old institutions change or new ones are created to serve the violence.
Sometimes this evolution takes place over a long historical period. It may start long before those who initiate a genocide or extensive mass killing come to power. As a result, the genocidal violence may seem sudden, it may seem like an eruption. But the psychological processes of individuals, the social processes of society, and the nature of the culture and changes in them have prepared this seeming eruption.
A history of intense conflict, hostility and violence between two groups, a history of mutual harmdoing, can also be a background to a sudden "eruption." An "ideology of antagonism" may develop as a result of such history, each group seeing the other as an enemy, and seeing itself as an enemy of the other. Part of that ideology is the view or belief that the world would be a better place without the other group. Given such an ideology, even good things happening to the other are seen as a threat to one's own group and oneself that can give rise to violence against the other.
Bystanders have an important role in halting violence when sign of an evolution appear. For many reasons, unfortunately, "internal bystanders," members of the population who are not perpetrators, remain passive. The reasons include that they have learned to devalue the victim group; that it is difficult to oppose one's own group, especially when life is difficult, as it often is when a genocide begins; and others.
External bystanders, outside nations and the international community, have also usually remained passive. Traditionally, nations have been concerned with their own interests, usually defined in terms of power, wealth and influence. They have not considered themselves moral agents responsible for the welfare of people who are not their citizens. They have been reluctant to interfere with others' "internal affairs"-- unless they believed that it was in their national interest.
Frequently, nations go on with business as usual, with trade and diplomatic relations and providing aid, even after a government has begun to persecute some minority group. This was the case in Germany during the 1930s, Rwanda before the 1994 genocide and many other instances. Often some nations even support perpetrators, as the U.S. and other nations supported Iraq before it invaded Kuwait, while it was using chemical weapons to kill its Kurdish citizens and France supported the government of Rwanda in the early 1990s, inspite of massacres of Tutsis.
Ideally, the international community would act to prevent violence, which is much easier than halting it once it starts and intensifies. Past research on genocide and mass killing identifies a number of characteristics of a society that may lead to violence against another group: a long history of devaluation of a subgroup or mutual antagonism, lack of pluralism and democratic processes, a highly authoritarian society, past victimization of the dominant group without subsequent healing--which makes the world seem dangerous and give rise to what perpetrators see as defensive violence--some ideology that identifies a group as an enemy, and others. Deteriorating economic and political conditions and chaotic social conditions add to this picture.
Unfortunately, the international community, whether individual countries or their collectivity, the U.N., as well as nongovernmental organization tend to be preoccupied with more immediate tasks. Acting to prevent violence that one cannot be certain will actually happen is far from the concerns of decision makers. Ultimately, to avoid the high costs of genocide and mass killing, there will have to be a focus on prevention.
But even very early action, once there are visible signs of increasing violence, of "steps along a continuum of destruction," could halt the evolution, usually, I believe, without the use of military force. The earlier such acts, the less committed will perpetrators be to the elimination of a group and to an ideology that identifies the group as the enemy. At an early point, leaders may be less concerned about losing face by changing directions.
Such early actions almost never exist. Perhaps mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinians is a rare example of it. In Bosnia the international community has acted, but only after a very great deal of violence and tremendous human suffering. Kosovo may be seen as a further evolution of the violence by the former Yugoslavia, first against Slovenia, then against Croatia, then in Bosnia, before Kosovo followed.
What kinds of actions are needed. Preventive actions can take many forms. Outsiders can try to help a group heal from past wounds: by affirming the group, by engaging with the group in certain kinds of memorials and ceremonies, the kinds that do not give rise to fantasies of revenge but point to a positive future. Neutral parties can help groups overcome past antagonism. Nations and the international community can help countries with democratization that might lead to changes in the elements of a culture that enhance the danger of mass killing or genocide.
As discrimination and violence against a victim group begins, nations can make aid contingent on changes in such behavior. They can offer help with mediation and conflict resolution. They can provide support for economic development. They can work with leaders to help resolve societal crises. If necessary, they can condemn violent practices, make it known that consequences like boycotts and sanctions will follow, and then actually follow through with these.
In Kosovo, the international community attempted to help with mediation and conflict resolution. When this "failed," NATO proceeded to bomb the former Yugoslavia. The consequences of the bombing were very different from what was hoped for, with great increase in violence against Albanians, great intensification of the ethnic cleansing that, at a much slower pace, has already begun before. Does Kosovo have some lessons for us?
One lesson may be that once violence begins, it often expands, as Serb violence has been expanding, and its course is often unpredictable. Another is that, while sometimes the use of force is unavoidable, it should always be the last resort. A third one is that understanding of circumstances and people is essential in responding to perpetrators. A fourth is the need for flexibility in response.
The bombing seemed a reasonable response, in light of the effectiveness of the bombing in Bosnia in bringing Serb violence to a halt and opening the way to the Dayton agreement. But this was a different situation, given the symbolic meaning of Kosovo for Serbs, their view of it as essential to their identity. The importance of Kosovo, the implied promise to Albanians that in three years there will be a plebiscite on independence, with a favorable vote a foregone conclusion given the huge majority of Albanians in Kosovo, and the demand that NATO troops that could have guaranteed that independence be stationed in Kosovo, have led to the unwillingness of the Serbs to come to an agreement that would have averted the bombing.
It was evident within a few days that the bombing, instead of stopping violence, was creating great suffering, for both Albanians who were being expelled, and many killed by Serbs, and for Serbs who were being bombed. Flexibility would have been very important. An attitude initially expressed by both commentators and political leaders, that we must not lose, that the U.S. and NATO cannot lose face and thereby credibility, soon became an accepted fact of life. These attitudes were consistent with the past. The Vietnam war was continued because the U.S. was not going to become a pitiful, helpless giant. The U.S. has insisted on continued sanctions against Iraq. They were originally a good idea, but it has became evident long ago that in their present form they are not accomplishing any worthwhile goal and are creating tremendous human suffering.
It is essential to change course when the means intended to stop violence create rather than relieve suffering and destruction. Effective change in strategy requires understanding of history, culture and the needs of both members of a society and its leaders. Commentators and leaders in the U.S. alike have claimed that Milosovic is only interested in power. But even violent leaders often express and even share the needs of their people.
The needs of the Serbs for a feeling of security and for identity as a people are intense. Serbia has been ruled by Turkey for about 500 years, until late in the 19th Century. Not so long after that, from the standpoint of historical memory, during World War II, hundreds of thousands of Serbs were killed by the fascist Croat regime, allied with Nazi Germany. Such victimization leaves intense wounds. The world looks dangerous, threatening. Without healing, it is likely that under threatening conditions a group that has been so victimized, thinking that it is defending itself, becomes a perpetrator. Part of the problem goes back to Tito, who did not allow an open discussion of the past. Papering over the past interferes with healing.
The collapse of Yugoslavia and events that followed, even if in part brought on by the Serbs themselves, like actions by Croatia, including the expulsion of huge numbers of Serbs, had to be tremendously threatening to Serbs. When I was in Belgrade, late 1995, I met a number of refugees from Croatia talking about the violence against them and their narrow escape. The Serbs, victimized in the past and having constructing an image of themselves as a victimized people, once again saw themselves as victims. Perhaps much of the violence in the former Yugoslavia might have been prevented if the world had responded to the Serbs, when communism collapsed and Yugoslavia began to collapse, both with awareness of their toughness, their readiness for violence, and awareness of their woundedness and need for security and identity.
There has been a quality to Serb behavior that may be regarded as suicidal, and suicide is usually born out of some form of desperation. With the whole world watching, with the most powerful alliance perhaps in the history of the world threatening, they have engaged in terrible violence, both in Bosnia and in Kosovo. After a short period of the bombing, that showed the seriousness of the the world community as represented by NATO, a shift in NATO policy might have been useful. Showing respect for the Serbs, inspite of their actions, for their history, their victimization, might have made a difference. President Clinton, Kofi Anan, and other important leaders, could have offered to meet with Milosovic, perhaps in a neighboring country, involving the Russians as the Serb's only supporters. Giving Milosovic and the Serbs such respect and recognition might have opened new possibilities.
In any negotiations, whenever they will actually take place, the complex problems of Kosovo have to be addressed. Serb feelings about Kosovo, the long standing hostility betweeen Serbs and Albanians, the effects of this most recent violence, the insistence of the Kosovo Liberation Army on independence make a "solution" for Kosovo hard to come by. In complex situations like this, it is essential to protect people, to create conditions that make them secure. It is also essential to bring about engagement, to crete processes that over time can lead to a resolution. These processes include healing, mediation and conflict resolution, eocnomic and other support, and committed third parties who participate in this process.
Perhaps we are moving toward a world in which nations will not be passive in the face of violence against groups of people. If so, the international community must also learn to act early, and when it missed doing so, to act in a wise and flexible manner.