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Essay: Are authoritative regimes with ongoing ethnic conflict more likely to commit genocide?

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  • Published: 9 March 2022*
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Introduction

Genocide differs so radically from the ordinary political oppositions and rivalries that goes on globally. Ethnic competition for scarce valuables, for example, often occurs without overt conflict. Ethnic rivalry for the collective goods of recognition, respect, and prestige does not invariably lead to mass violence (Mirković). The wholesale killings that go under the name genocide represent a disjunction between peaceful competition, rivalry, political opposition, and the slaughter of whole populations on the basis of categorical ethnic distinctions.

How does ethnic rivalry and restrained conflict turn into the slaughter of helpless people? What are the makings of a genocide? It all deals with the politics of fear and fury. The issue that lies with genocide begins at its very definition. The challenge for understanding genocide is that, while there is an almost universal revulsion today at what the term is presumed to encapsulate – mass killing and group-annihilation – there is in fact no consensus over the definition of what acts are covered, which groups are protected, nor of what causes it (Adelman). The Genocide Conventions main spearhead, Raphael Lemkin’s, poised an expansive conceptualization of genocide, the idea being that genocide was any “existential” threat to any group (Auron). In the General Assembly Resolution 260, the core idea was retained, but the range of groups protected was limited. Article II of the resolution reads as follows:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such:

(a) killing members of the group;

(b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to the group;

(c) deliberately inflicting upon the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. (Two of these conditions that will terminate the existence of a society are

(i) the biological extinction or dispersion of the numbers and

(ii) the absorption of the society into another society. (United Nations, 1948).

Raphael Lemkin’s notion that genocide could also be applied to the extermination of “social collectivities” was dropped, for this was seen as a euphemism for “class war” by the USSR (Hinton). The Soviets feared accusations of genocide because of the atrocities they perpetuated against the kulaks and other ethnic groups within the USSR, and argued that political groups should be excluded from the convention (Hinton). In the end, the scope of genocide was decided on the protection of “national, ethnical, racial, and religious’ groups,” while omitting protection for political, economic, social, or other groups, and the reliance for criminal enforcement on tribunals “of the state in the territory of which the act was committed.” In most circumstances tribunals would remain under the political ‘reach’ of the rulers who either directed or condoned the genocidal acts in the first place.

This omission has generated a great deal of debate.

The idea that the number of ethnic conflicts has recently increased, ushering us into a violence new era of ethnic ‘pandaemonium’ is false. Ethnic conflicts have consistently formed the vast majority of wars ever since decolonization and the formation of new nations since 1945. Although the number of ethnic conflicts has continued to grow since the end of the cold war, it has done so at a slow and steady rate, remaining consistent with the overall trend of the last 50 years (Sadowski) . Although various tribes and ethnic groups have long standing history of conflict, most ethnic conflicts are largely products of the twentieth century. Far too often ethnic conflicts are spawned from politics and socio-economic biases, rather than simply cultural issues.

The colonization and seemingly nonsensical division of Africa by European powers in the late nineteenth century did nothing to prevent or stave ethnic conflict in the coming decades—although the politically motivated creation of new borders on the continent at least moderately contributed to later ethnic conflict. But did the festering wounds left by the European colonizers directly cause later ethnic violence? Rather than asking such a specific question, it is better to examine these conflicts as having both ultimate and more immediate causes. And this is how we must examine the case of Rwanda, and even its closely related sister, Burundi: indeed, their Belgian colonizers bred problems that ultimately led to the countries’ ethnic issues, culminating in a number of genocides in the latter half of the twentieth century; but it was their own people and political strife that was at the root of the problem (BBC). Moreover the ultimate and more immediate causes often co mingle, as one may give rise to the other. Because of the shifts in political power brought on by the Belgians in their countries the various ethnic groups there became increasingly more violent. Soon violent incidents became the norm, directly ushering in the ethnic conflicts between the Hutu and Tutsi years later.

Theoretical Answer

In order to better understand the leap from ethnic conflict to genocide, it is important to take into account how different approaches would address this issue. As such, in this section, I’ll be addressing the link between ethnic conflict and genocide through the lens of rationalism, culturalism, and structuralism.

A rationalist approach would assume that ethnic conflict, like all human interaction, is the result of individual’s rational pursuit of universal interests such as wealth, power, and security. Conflict among ethnic lines creates uncertainty of each groups intentions, and may overestimate hostilitle actions, thus escalating the conflict further. They are also uncertain about outcomes in case of conflict, and thus don’t know when to concede and avoid catastrophe. The main insight is that strategies of mass violence are developed in response to real and perceived threats to the maintenance of political power.

A culturalist approach would suggest that the very definition of the grouping identities in relation of power can be substantial factor in extreme ethnonational conflicts. Such definitions are part of the larger cultural context that shapes conceptions of ethnic enemies. The particular cultural frame can be crucial, as shown by the influence of ideologies of group superiority and inferiority. Cultural setting of beliefs and values has provided self-justification for genocidal regimes. Of special importance has been the idea of absolute sovereignty of a nation-state, combined with ideologies of racial/ethnic purity and pollution. The theme of purity versus defilement is one part of the larger process of dehumanization in which the ethnic adversary is demonized, depicted as monstrous, and reduced to dangerous and despicable animals.

A structuralist approach would begin at analyzing the norms and institutions within states with extreme ethnic conflicts such as the political, economic, or military policies in place and wealth inequalities among ethnic lines to determine the likelihood of genocide. For example, when individuals and communities within a state are faced with internal anarchy or the prospect of it, they must take responsibility for their own security. The sides then face a security dilemma in which mobilization by any side can pose a real offensive threat to others. The severity of such dilemmas and the likelihood of large-scale violence varies, depending on the history of relations between the groups, physical and population geography, and other factors (Kaufmann) . Once large-scale violence begins, war itself hardens communal identities, promoting further escalation and raising barriers to de-escalation (McDoom).

Although the three approaches offer valuable insight to the complexity within the link between ethnic conflict and genocide, it doesn’t fully provide the proper holistic approach necessary when dealing with the confounded nefarious act of an ethnic group systematically murdering another ethnic group they live among. In my own story, the causal link between ethnic conflict and genocide encompasses notions of all three approaches, which is a broadened concept of colonialism that includes ethnically distinct minorities systematically discriminated against by another ethnic group within their states. A term I’ll use as ‘intracolonialism’ is the practice of complete political and economic domination of one ethnic group over another/others within a state. The formation of intracolonialism within states was taken from the concept of colonisation. Although groups have been colonizing other groups for ages, Western Europeans were the most influential colonizers as they were first to colonize nearly the entire world. Using the British colonization of North America and the genocide they performed onto the Native American population as an example, it first began with the propaganda of ‘othering’ the native population. As tension between the natives and the British colonial power escalated, British/American forces systematically killed Native populations for land use, gold mining, or other heinous reasons. This hyper militarized model of colonization has been replicated in many colonized areas across the globe and, because of the hegemonic nature of western culture, has influenced other cultures on how to ‘properly’ dominate. Ethnic conflict occurs in nearly all parts of the earth, but when one ethnic group consolidates majority of the power, fear and fury lead to extremism. Thus, Intracolonization, similar to colonization, is a prerequisite to ethnic genocide.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

Due to the circumstantial nature of genocide, how recent genocidal studies has developed, and how little data is available, it is difficult to say exactly what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for ethnic genocide to occur. That being said, for my theoretical outcome, I can infer that in order to go from ethnic conflict to genocide, it is first necessary for their to be an authoritative regime. Using a more narrow definition of authoritarianism from the Cambridge dictionary as, “the belief that people must obey completely and not be allowed freedom to act as they wish,” we can conclude that it would be absolutely necessary and sufficient for an ethnic genocide to occur under an authoritative regime. Authoritative regimes do not depend on its citizens, thus, are held without accountability. Without accountability, the elites can act on their own ideologies and without any entity restraining their hand. Political instability, in forms of revolution, turn of power, or decolonization, is a necessary and sufficient catalyst for genocide. Political instability may cause strain on reigning elites, who may feel threatened by the changes going on within the state and fear of losing power to other ethnic groups who may exploit the chaos and topple them out of power (McDoom). With the destabilization that goes on during a political instability, the constraints of the past political system are gone and can call into question the elites in charge and redefine who the ‘elites’ can be. Although a state/non-state actor spreading vilifying propaganda and portraying a hostile stereotypes onto an ethnic group, often dehumanising them would be a necessary and sufficient condition for ethnic conflict, it would only be a necessary condition for an ethnic genocide. Hateful propaganda would create tension between ethnic groups, possibly even violence, but not an act of ethnic genocide. Some assumptions that must be made for this theoretical outcome would be factors such as location, and race would not be significantly influential. I will also be focusing on only democratic and authoritarian regimes, withholding from other types of government. The logical syllogisms and major premises behind my argument are: 1) if an authoritative state has ethnic conflict, there will be ethnic genocide, and 2) if a state with ethnic conflict is going through political instability, there will be ethnic genocide.

Theory

One hypothesis for my theory is that states with ethnic conflict that are more authoritative will have a higher likelihood for ethnic genocide than states with ethnic conflict that are democratic. States with ethnic conflict that are more authoritative will have a higher likelihood of intracolonialism versus states that are democratic. The more authoritative the state is, the higher likelihood of intracolonialism and ethnic genocide will be within the state. A second hypothesis is that if a state with ethnic conflict is going through a political instability, there will be a higher likelihood for ethnic genocide than for a state with an ethnic conflict that is not going through a political instability. States with ethnic conflict that are going through political instability will have a higher likelihood of intracolonialism versus states with ethnic conflict that are not going through political instability.

Qualitative and Quantitative Approach

A qualitative approach to testing out the first hypothesis would be to analyze two case studies of ethnic conflict. State A will be an authoritative state with ongoing ethnic conflict that had lead to genocide, and state B would be a democratic state with ongoing ethnic conflict that did not lead to genocide. Once I’ve gathered a sufficient amount of data, I can then compare how a states regime affects the likelihood of genocide. This would prove that my hypothesis is correct and that an authoritative regime alongside ethnic conflict is necessary and sufficient for genocide.

A qualitative approach to testing out the second hypothesis would be to analyze two case studies of ethnic conflict. State A will be a state with ongoing ethnic conflict with a lack of political stability that has lead to ethnic genocide, and state B would be a state with ongoing ethnic conflict with political stability that has not lead to ethnic genocide. Once I’ve gathered a sufficient amount of data, I can then compare how a states political stability affects the likelihood of genocide.

A quantitative approach to testing out the first hypothesis would be to analyze the data of two states with ethnic conflict. State A will be an authoritative regime with ongoing ethnic conflict while state B will be a democratic state with ongoing ethnic conflict. I would use opinion databases to measure the degree of which tendencies to support genocide are present between the two states: ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality or a highly militarized nation. Once I’ve gathered a sufficient amount of data, I can then compare how a states regime type affects the likelihood of genocide. If my hypothesis is correct, a state with an authoritative regime and ongoing ethnic conflict will result in ethnic genocide.

A quantitative approach to my second hypothesis would be to analyze the data of two states with ethnic conflict. State A will be a state with a lack of political stability and ongoing ethnic conflict and state two will be a state with political stability and an ongoing ethnic conflict. I would use opinion databases to measure the degree to which tendencies to support genocide are present between the two states. Once I’ve gathered a sufficient amount of data, I can then compare how a states political stability would affect the likelihood of genocide. If my hypothesis is correct, a state that is politically unstable with ongoing ethnic conflict will result in ethnic genocide.

Case Studies

For this project, I have chosen two case studies that would best showcase my hypothesis that an authoritative state with ongoing ethnic conflict will result in ethnic genocide, Sudan and the United States.

Sudan

The first genocide of the 21st century, estimates say at least 200,000 – 500,000 people had been killed and over 2.5 million were driven from their homes. The first civil war ended in 1972 but broke out again in 1983. The second war and famine-related effects resulted in more than 4 million people being displaced and, according to rebel estimates, more than 2 million deaths over a period of two decades. As the civil war between the North and the South reached its peak in the 1990’s, the government ignored reports of rising violence in Darfur.

At heart of the issue is the Darfur region of western Sudan, where the Sudanese government government-armed and funded Arab militia known as the Janjaweed (which loosely translates to ‘devils on horseback’) to ‘police’ rebel groups and local civilians. The Janjaweed systematically destroy Darfurians by burning villages, looting economic resources, polluting water sources, and murdering, raping, and torturing civilians in a brutal campaign supported by the Sudanese government, against civilians in Darfur (World without Genocide). These militias are historic rivals of the main rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM), and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

United States

In the United States, although the Civil War had officially abolished slavery, it didn’t end the discrimination and racism towards African Americans. By the mid-20th century, African Americans had had more than enough of prejudice and violence against them. They, along with many whites, mobilized and began an unprecedented fight for equality that spanned two decades. Ethnic conflict between African Americans and the dominant White Americans reached to a boiling point when Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr., organized a bus boycott by the community, which eventually led to the desegregation of the bus line and launched protests across the South (History). In 1960, spontaneous sit-ins by students began at lunch counters throughout the South, and in 1961, “Freedom Riders” boarded inter-state buses to test and break down segregated accommodations. These protests were peaceful, but they were met with violent, and often, brutal force by the state.

The civil rights movement was a struggle for social justice that took place mainly during the 1950s and 1960s for blacks to gain equal rights under the law in the United States. The Civil War had officially abolished slavery, but it didn’t end discrimination against blacks—they continued to endure the devastating effects of racism, especially in the South. By the mid-20th century, African Americans had had more than enough of prejudice and violence against them. They, along with many whites, mobilized and began an unprecedented fight for equality that spanned two decades. The Civil Rights Movement came to a close with the Act of 1964 and 1968, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and defines housing discrimination as the “refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his race, color, religion, or national origin”(History). The 1968 act expanded on previous acts and prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, and national origin.

To best showcase my hypothesis that political instability within a state, alongside ethnic conflict, will result in ethnic genocide, I have chosen to look at the case study of Rwanda and China.

Rwanda

Civil war broke out in Rwanda in 1990, exacerbating existing tensions between the Tutsi minority and Hutu majority. The civil war began when Rwandan exiles formed a group called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and launched an offensive against Rwanda from their home base in Uganda. The RPF, which was comprised of mostly Tutsis, placed blame on the government for failing to address the Tutsi refugees. All Tutsis in the country were characterized as accomplices of the RPF and all Hutu members of the opposition parties were deemed traitors (McDoom). After many fights and lives lost, the opposing forces reached a peace agreement in 1992 to end ethnic strife between the Tutsis and Hutus (Dallarie) . Everything changed on April 6, 1994 when an airplane carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, both Hutus, was shot down. No one knew who shot down the plane, RPF blaming Hutu extremists for an excuse to starting killing Tutsis’ and the Hutu extremists blaming the Tutsis. The president’s death provided a spark for an organized campaign of violence against Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians across the country. The Rwandan genocide began that day. Within a half an hour, Hutu militias had blocked roads all over Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. They stopped every car that came by, and killed every Tutsi they found. Within a day, the Hutus had successfully eliminated Rwanda’s moderate leadership (Dallaire). As the weeks progressed, Tutsis and anyone suspected of having any ties to a Tutsi, were killed. The political vacuum enabled Hutu extremists to take control of the country and murder anywhere form 500,000-1 million Tutsis.

China

The Xinjiang conflict is an ongoing conflict in China’s far-west province of Xinjiang centred around the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China is home to some 12 million indigenous Turkic-speaking Muslims, primarily Uyghurs but also smaller numbers of Kazakhs and others. It is now one of the most heavily policed areas in the world, with inhabitants detained in extraordinary numbers. Tension between the Uighur and Han have been low until the mass migration of the Han to Xinjiang has begun to make Uighurs feel their culture and livelihoods are under threat (The Economist). In 2009, riots in the regional capital Urumqi killed at least 200 people, mostly Han Chinese. Since then, there have been a number of attacks, including one on a police station and government offices in July 2014 that killed at least 96 people. Attacks blamed on Xinjiang separatists have also taken place outside the region – in October 2013, a car was driven into a crowd in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The latest government crackdown began after five people were killed in a knife attack in Xinjiang in February 2017 (Buckley). At the time, Xinjiang’s Communist Party boss Chen Quanguo urged government forces to “bury the corpses of terrorists in the vast sea of a people’s war”.

The case study comparison of Sudan and the United States tells us that struggles for power among insecure elites in centralized states increase incentives for violent actions aimed at keeping power and eliminating threats. Vulnerable and salient ethnies provide tempting targets. With isolating the dependent variable of state type, we can see that without the sponsorship of the state, ethnic conflict will not escalate into ethnic genocide. Democratic institutions constraints democratic governments from pursuing genocide. With representation in government, ethnic tension transforms into protests and voter participation, and does not escalate into ethnic genocide. This is best seen in the case of the United States where, although has had ongoing ethnic conflict among the White Americans and African Americans, it has never turned into a genocide. The United States, being a democracy, was too dependent on their citizens and constraint by bureaucracy to commit genocide. In Sudan, the authoritative regime allowed for limited accountability and little constraint on their actions. This provides the perfect opportunity for the reigning elites to commit genocide.

The case study comparison of Rwanda and China tells us that within a politically unstable state, initial violence by a dominant ethnic group against a victimized other can rapidly escalate to genocide. Collective actions once regarded as unthinkable can be routinized by the knowledge that no governmental entity will be able to stop them. Political instability also gives the perfect political opportunity structure to begin genocide. With the case of Rwanda and China, although both have went through major ethnic conflict, only Rwanda’s ethnic conflict had allowed for genocide to occur. This is largely due to the Rwandan civil war between the Hutu and Tutsis groups, which removed the constraints of government and legitimacy of the political system and those in charge. The chaos of the civil war provided the perfect smoke screen to distract internal and external forces of what was going on and systematically commit genocide among an ethnic group. In the case of China, although the ethnic conflict is ongoing, with the political stability of China, it will not turn into a genocide.

Summary

Given that genocides vary greatly in their implementation, the amount of variables at play, and the little data that is in genocidal studies, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no necessary and sufficient causes of genocide. While this paper was not able to provide such clear-cut results, it is able to provide insights into genocide occurrence and actions indicative of genocide. Normatively, many political scientists have supported the notion that democracy are less likely to commit genocide, while authoritative regimes are more likely to commit genocide. Although my findings prove that it is true that democracies are less likely to commit genocide and that authoritative regimes are more likely to commit genocide, it doesn’t account for all authoritative regimes with ongoing ethnic conflict. An example would be Ethiopia, an authoritative regime that is politically unstable and high ethnic conflict, who has never had an act genocide.

With this research question, I had hope to come across a clear cut answer, but I’ve come out more aware of the complexities of genocide with even more questions as to its onsets. I had hope that if we understand the factors that contribute to the onset of ethnic conflicts we may be able to suggest ways to stop escalation and find solutions by peaceful political means. With the varying variables, none of which are both necessary and sufficient for ethnic conflict to develop into ethnic genocide, I don’t believe political scientists (and I) will find a clear cut solution until more data is collected for this study.

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