Michael Dobbs

Debating the causes of genocide

Debating the causes of genocide

Just attended a fascinating symposium organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on what Western governments can do to prevent genocides and mass atrocities. The consensus among the speakers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (see photograph above), was that the most effective kind of intervention is long-term preventive action. Once the killing starts, whether in Bosnia or Rwanda or Syria, it is virtually impossible to prevent it.

Of course, on one level, the sudden interest in long-term genocide prevention on the part of the Obama administration is a way of deflecting the criticism that the United States is doing very little to stop atrocities that are taking place right now. Nevertheless, it is self-evidently true that American policy-makers face a series of bad options in a country like Syria, and risk making the situation worse by blundering into a conflict that they do not fully understand.

Even as it proceeds with great caution in Syria, the Obama administration has unveiled a series of bureaucratic reforms designed to change the way the government responds to mass atrocities. It has ordered the CIA to compile the first ever National Intelligence Estimate analyzing factors that contribute to mass violence against civilians and identifying common warning signals. According to Christopher Kojm, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, risk factors include the struggle for natural resources, a history of ethnic conflict, and demographic imbalances, including disproportionate numbers of young men.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder identified food imbalances and Germany’s effort to acquire productive agricultural land as one of the main contributing factors to the Holocaust. He drew an unsettling parallel between Hitler’s expansion to eastern Europe — the first killing fields of the Holocaust — and a drive by modern-day China to control farmland in Ukraine and Africa in order to compensate for a chronic agricultural deficit. He predicted that similar imbalances could result in widespread killing in the future, particularly if accompanied by the collapse of existing states.

I am not sure that such theories help explain the mass atrocities that occurred in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995, which were primarily motivated by a scramble for power following the collapse of communism. Nevertheless, it is true that the war in the former Yugoslavia degenerated very quickly into a semi-criminal struggle to control the region’s economic resources, masked by deep-seated ethnic differences.

Speakers at today’s symposium had different views about the impact of modern information technology. Arwa Damon, Beirut correspondent for CNN, made the case that social media represented "a lifeline" for the Syrian rebels. "If social media did not exist in Syria, a lot of what happened would have taken place in a dark hole," she said. "You could be guaranteed that the killings (of protestors) would far exceed where they are now."

Interestingly, the U.S. intelligence chief took a darker view of the effect of information technology, perhaps because he is very well-briefed on how such technologies can be used to track ordinary citizens. Kojm noted that social media networks provide citizens a way of quickly disseminating news about atrocities, but also gives governments the means to identify, detain, and otherwise harass dissidents.

"How this plays out will be one of the main topics we will be discussing in the NIE," he said.