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Measuring, “Denying” & “Trivializing” Deaths in the Case of Rwanda

By Christian Davenport

Bones of victims at a memorial to the Rwandan genocide. By DFID.

Bones of victims at a memorial to the Rwandan genocide. By DFID.

Reading “The Reign of ‘Terror” by Tomis Kapitan in the New York Times on October 19th, I was struck by the following passage:

…the rhetoric of “terror” has had these effects:

1) It erases any incentive the public might have to understand the nature and origins of their grievances so that the possible legitimacy of their demands will not be raised.

2) It deflects attention away from one’s own policies that might have contributed to their grievances.

3) It repudiates any calls for negotiation.

4) It obliterates the distinction between national liberation movements and fringe fanatics (for example, during the 1990s, the “terrorist” label was applied to Nelson Mandela and Timothy McVeigh alike);

5) It paves the way for the use of force by making it easier for a government to exploit the fears of its citizens and ignore objections to the manner in which it responds to terrorist violence.

Now, this passage struck me because for a few years now I have been trying to deal with interesting labels that have the same effect on discussion of what took place during Rwanda in 1994 (e.g., “denier”, “denialism”, “trivialization” and “minimization”). As mentioned by Kapitan, the word terrorism ends conversation, it suspends thought, it prompts emotion, and then it facilitates all types of actions on the side of the accuser. The accused is kind of just caught there like a deer in the headlights and in the silence an audience builds up hostility that such a thing could happen. Similarly, using the phrase denier or denialism, and even more problematic (I will argue), trivializing and minimization, is generally not good for those of us that are interested in trying to systematically identify, evaluate and understand diverse phenomenon including – arrests, protests, torture, lynching, disappearances, conflict related rape, terrorism, targeted assassination, beating and mass killing. Indeed, individuals engaged in such efforts struggle a great deal to obtain information that is reliable, make evaluations that are decent and draw conclusions that logically follow from what we have seen. For example, such efforts and debates have informed discussions of casualty counts in Cambodia, Kosovo, Guatemala, recently Iraq and the Holocaust. Without a discussion of sources, biases, alternative estimation procedures, different interpretations, ranges of estimations and error, our understanding of these cases would have gone nowhere.

This creates something of a paradox. In a sense, what is most needed after some horrific event has taken place that one wishes to understand (be it Bloody Sunday, how many civilians are dying in Iraq or died at Wounded Knee) is academic freedom – openness, freedom to collect, to explore, to posit, reflect, revisit, interpret and repeat. Without this, the scientific enterprise cannot continue. Indeed, these are central to the process. Unfortunately, openness, freedom to collect, explore, posit, reflect, revisit and interpret do not frequently follow after horrific events. There is a window for such revelations and after the window is shut (discussed below), then the conversation is kind of over.

Now, science is not always used properly and this is something that demands mentioning. Once upon a time individuals in Europe, the United States and diverse parts of the world went all over the place measuring people’s heads in order to determine their level of intelligence. Once upon a time it was commonly believed (nay known) that the earth was flat. Science was used to back these beliefs and the discussions that accompanied them. Similarly, Israel Charny reminds us that science could be used in an effort to deny or trivialize diverse form of political violence like genocide. As he describes:

The position taken is seemingly an innocent one that we do not know enough to know what the facts of history were, and rather than condemning anyone we should await the ultimate decision of research. This is a manipulative misuse of the valued principle in science that facts must be proven before they are accepted in order to obfuscate facts that are indeed known, and to confuse the minds of fair-minded people who do not want to fall prey to myths and propaganda. The very purpose of science, which is to know, is invoked in order to justify a form of know-nothingness.

Is denial the same thing as trivialization however? I do not think so. Denial seems clearly more dichotomous. Something happened or it did not. Whereas trivialization is more nuanced. Here, there is a range or baseline that exists and if someone deviates from it (i.e., discusses a number outside of a range or below a baseline), then the user is accused of trivialization. This is an issue because these two labels and estimation strategies are frequently placed together. Lumping them together, however, is a major problem.

For example, if there is an established figure or range of figures, say of casualties, that has been provided by an exceptional research effort, then these labels make some sense and someone that is attempting to adjust the relevant figures is then denying, trivializing and revising that which has been put forward; in this context, trivializing is a form of denying. For example, in an exceptional research effort on Kosovo, it appears that every single death has been accounted for as the research behind this compilation has been uniformly viewed as the best that could possibly be conducted. If one does not believe it, then they can look at the database, the methodology as well as the background materials used to provide information. It’s all right there. To move from these numbers is not only to deny reality that was captured by this exquisite research effort but it is essentially to engage in a fantastic trip down to some other world where such evidence does not exist. What if this heretic emerges? I believe too much in freedom of speech to believe that these people should be censored, or worse yet put in prison, but I do believe that there should be some standard of evidence that these people should meet before anyone publishes their work or gives them a chance to speak. Unfortunately, this standard is not widely known and thus deniers and trivializers abound.

In contrast, however, if the figure or range of figures that is put forward is not based upon a solid foundation like within the example above, then this is a very different situation. In this context, the label of trivialization, or worse yet its associate denial/denialism, could actually prevent the creation of a good investigation, interpretation and understanding for once the labels are applied, we end up with a Kapitan: no discussion, no sharing of information, no re-analysis, no replication and even potentially hostility with some name calling and a threat or two. Indeed, when a study like the Kosovo research noted above has not been undertaken, then it makes sense that we will end up with a range of figures and estimates with a decent amount of error. With poor methods of collection, poor data and poor estimation procedures, we should not be surprised by the outcome: poor measurement with a decent amount of error within them. It is still possible here that people could agree that even with the poor measurement that something did occur – thus denial could be addressed. Trivialization would be harder to deal with though as there would be a contested/contestable range of estimations that would emerge.

Now, this discussion is relevant to Rwanda for there has been no study conducted of the subject that is at the quality of the Kosovo study noted above. To date, there have been several institutions and individual scholars that have put forward estimations but none of them approach the degree of rigor of the kind provided by the research noted above. Several do not even report the methodology that was applied; some exercise caution in telling readers how they should view the material placed before them; none have released the raw data that were used in the calculations themselves; and, only one report offers any sense of the error in their assessment (which is approximately double the lower estimation). I call these Semi-Rigorous, Type 1 estimations. The sources, total casualties as well as Tutsi and Hutu figures derived from these studies follow below:

Differing from Charny’s argument above, there have already been numerous attempts put forward to understand what took place on Rwanda – with varying degrees of rigor being used to justify the efforts as well as the conclusions. Knowledge production has thus not been halted. Indeed, it has been seemingly moving forward and for a while. The problem here is that the process has apparently stopped because the Rwandan government has claimed to have conducted the best analysis of the topic and through domestic law as well as a vocal community of scholars and institutions have foreclosed any more discussion.

However, the “definitive” study appears to be anything but. To date, there has been no public release of the government’s data used to make the claims regarding who did what to whom so that scholars from around the world can explore as well as validate what has already been undertaken invoking the best standards of replication and re-analysis that define the scientific method. There has been no access given to a neutral body like the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences or some equivalent scholarly research organization elsewhere in the world or all relevant institutions throughout the globe for the purpose of replication and re-analysis. In fact, all there has been is silence or two words: denial and trivialization, neither of which advances discussion or understanding. It gets worse. First, if one questions the methodology or conclusions being put forward, then it is possible that one is identified as either a collaborator with mass murderers or guilty of stoking the fires of continued violence through prompting “divisionism” – a punishable offense in Rwanda and something that some Rwandans are calling upon to be an international crime. Here, a call for reflection and the scholarly reexamination of research findings (a cornerstone of the scientific process) can be framed in a way that invites name-calling, censorship, intimidation and imprisonment. Second, the defense against denialism and trivialization is hindered by lack of an equally powerful label. What is the defense against denialism and trivialization? Contextualization? Too complex. Truth? Well, those who wield the labels denialism and trivialization lay claim to that. Science? Also a non-starter. Who would want to put up science against truth? Only a scientist. Everybody else would go with “truth.”

Interestingly, with this move to think about challenging trivialization in discussions of measurement error and alternative interpretations, Charny’s claim has been altered in important ways. In this case:

The position taken is seemingly an innocent one that we know enough to know what the facts of history were, and having the ultimate research available to us we condemn anyone that seeks to question it. This is a manipulative misuse of the valued principle in science that facts that are “proven” are beyond scrutiny and scrutinizing would only serve to confuse the minds of fair-minded people who do not want to fall prey to myths and propaganda. The very purpose of science, which is to know, is invoked in order to justify a form of know-everythingness.

Of course, not all efforts are equally flawed and non-transparent. There is some of what I call Rigorous, Type 2 estimations about Rwanda: One is undertaken by Prof. Allan Stam and myself (2004-2014); another is undertaken by Marijke Verpooten (2005; 2012). Differing from the work above, both of these studies report the methodology that was applied, caution in telling readers how they should view the material placed before them, make available all raw data that were used in the calculations themselves and provide some sense of the error in their assessment. These do not approach the quality of the Kosovo study but they do provide a greater degree of transparency, technical sophistication and awareness of limitations than those in Type 1 above.

Within this work, Davenport and Stam employed an analysis that was based on sources taken from the Rwandan government (e.g., the Census of 1991; Ministries of Education; Youth, Culture and Sport; and, the Ministry of Local Affairs) as well as diverse human rights organizations (e.g., African Rights; Ibuka; and, Human Rights Watch). The figures reported are from their median and higher level analysis described on their GenoDynamics webpage. In addition to this work, there were also dozens of interviews conducted with survivors as well as perpetrators, 10 focus groups and a survey of citizens in Butare about experiences during the period of conflict (i.e., the civil war, genocide and non-ethnic massacres). In her analysis, Verpooten employed an analysis based upon the Rwandan census of 1991 and an administrative population analysis in 1990 within Gikongoro, engaging in a very detailed comparison between the two as well as diverse simulations of what projections/estimations were most likely.

Now the difference between Types 1 and 2 are significant in a variety of ways but the biggest point is the question of what should be done about the variation in estimates that is found across the studies. I would contend that with the variation revealed above and the lack of release of data concerning most of the efforts noted, that the subject of casualty counts in Rwanda is very far from definitive. This said, the findings to suggest that all discussions about denial are completely unfounded. All studies identify ethnic targeting and if we agree that this includes some behavior that was directed toward the elimination of the Tutsi (in whole or in part), then we have genocide. As for trivialization, however, we have a different situation. As the figures regarding who was killed from each group are far from uniform and there is essentially no baseline against which one can compare figures, then it appears to be the case that more investigation is required and not less. While the dichotomous claim of genocide/no genocide has thus been resolved. The more nuanced evaluation of how many individuals from each group have been killed is still open for debate. And, this is where we now sit. Some attempt to have a discussion of who did what to whom and discuss the range of casualties, figuring out what happened and why maintaining that there is much that we do not yet understand. Others attempt to shut discussion down and eliminate further discussion of who, what, when, where and why arguing that there is nothing left to know.

Turkey, Syria, and the Dormant Dilemmas of Sovereignty

Guest post by Gabriel Mitchell and Ariel I. Ahram

Caber Kalesi, a tomb and Turkish exclave within Syria that has become a flashpoint in the conflict. Via wikimedia.

Caber Kalesi, a tomb and Turkish exclave within Syria that has become a flashpoint in the conflict. Via wikimedia.

Since Turkey’s decision to support Bashar al-Assad’s ouster in 2011, its 900-kilometer border with Syria has become increasingly volatile. Sporadic military altercations, a severe refugee crisis, and the emergence of new quasi-state actors like ISIS and the Kurdish PYD enclave have awakened long dormant territorial disputes. The roots of these problems lay in the treaties that demarcated the Turkish-Syrian border after the First World War and, in effect, created the countries of Turkey and Syria themselves.  Without a comprehensive effort to rectify and normalize these borders, Turkey will always be at the brink of slipping into Syria’s communal quagmire.

The Treaty of Lausanne is best known for establishing Turkey’s modern borders, but in fact it was the last of three accords that ultimately doomed the Ottoman Empire. Building off the secret Sykes-Picot agreement in which Britain and France divided the Near East between them, the 1920 Treaty of Sevres annulled Ottoman sovereignty over Greater Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and the Balkans. British, French, Greek, Italian, and Armenian armies invaded the Anatolia, threatening to divide the Turkish heartland itself.

However the Treaty of Sevres never got off the ground. Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, rallied the remnants of Ottoman forces and assembled a new Grand Turkish National Assembly in Ankara that rejected the treaty. Within a year he had accomplished the unthinkable, routing the Allied forces, and compelling a new round of negotiations over the nascent Turkish state’s borders.

The Treaty of Ankara, settled between France and the Grand Turkish National Assembly, delineated Turkey’s southern border. France turned over much of today’s southeastern Turkey, and in exchange Kemal acknowledged that the new republic held no further claims over former Ottoman territory. The detailed description of the boundary effectively follows the route of the still incomplete Berlin-Baghdad Railway between Aleppo and Mosul. Kobane – the latest town to which Kurdish refugees are besieged by ISIS forces – was little more than a station along this route. Its name is likely a corruption of the word “kompanie”, in honor of the German firms who funded and designed the audacious project a decade earlier. Split into two parts by the treaty, Kurdish and Armenian migrants turned the Syrian half into a prosperous border town.

The treaty also recognized Turkish sovereignty over Caber Kalesi, the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of Osman I, the eponymous founder of the Ottoman dynasty. Though Atatürk wanted to distinguish the secular republic from its Ottoman past, even he could not outrun such an illustrious legacy. Detailed in Article 9 of the treaty, the tomb and all its appurtenances remained “the property of Turkey, who may appoint guardians for it and may hoist the Turkish flag there”. Barely the size of two football fields and just 35 kilometers south of Kobane, Caber Kalesi became a portion of Turkey entirely surrounded by Syrian territory. The French, and later the Syrians, followed the terms of the treaty to the letter even under the most extreme circumstances. When Syria decided to build the Taqba Dam in 1973, Damascus agreed to relocated the tomb to a higher elevation in order to prevent its flooding. But rather than move the tomb to Turkey proper, Caber Kalesi remained a Turkish exclave, surrounded by the Euphrates River and the Syrian Desert.

Caber Kalesi seemed like a minor stipulation compared to the settlement over the ethnically and religiously diverse province of Alexandretta, known in Arabic as İskenderun and in Turkish as Hatay. Situated on the Mediterranean coast, Alexandretta was the location of the ancient port of Antioch and a prized strategic, economic, and agricultural center. Despite the fact that Turks comprised the largest ethnic population within the province, the French hoped to retain it within the Mandate as a semi-autonomous zone within a special administrative regime. Turkey begrudgingly accepted the scheme, provided that Turks would “enjoy every facility for their cultural development”. But Kemal continued to challenge the Franco-Syrian hold. He would forever call the province “Hatay,” drawing a historical link between the region’s Hittite origins and Turkey’s claims to the land.

Weighed down by their colonial commitment and fearful that Turkey was tilting toward Nazi Germany, France finally agreed to re-examine the case of Alexandretta in the mid-1930s. In 1937 the League of Nations granted the province autonomy with joint French and Turkish military supervision. Turkish troops began to infiltrate the area, pressuring Arab and Armenians in the area to accede to expanded Turkish control. Two years later the League supervised a controversial referendum in which the population voted to support union with Turkey. Alexandretta became Hatay. Though still not independent, Syrian leadership decried the loss of Alexandretta as a French conspiracy. Upon declaring independence in 1946, Syria campaigned for Hatay’s retrocession, claiming that the referendum was a violation of the French Mandate charter and the voting results had been fixed.

Hatay remained a sticking point in Turkish-Syrian relations. When the PKK launched its armed conflict against Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, Hafez Assad provided a base of operations from which the Kurdish terror organization could subvert Turkey’s empirical sovereignty in Hatay and the rest of the Turkish southeast. In the mid-2000s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Turkey’s Prime Minister, tried to develop trade relations with neighboring Syria, but Damascus never dropped its claims over the disputed region.

With the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Turkey has sought out ties with various belligerent sides to ensure its continued hold over Hatay and its rights over the Caber Kalesi exclave. Some opposition groups, eager to court Ankara’s favor, have signaled their willingness to forgo the claim on Hatay and even gone so far as to remove it from maps of Syria. But the situation on the ground is tense. Hatay is both a haven for refugees and a gateway for rebels, including many foreign jihadists. On May 11, 2013, twin car bombings in the Hatay town of Reyhanli killed 52 and wounded over 150. It was the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s history. Erdoğan blamed the Syrian government, but some argue that jihadist rebels were responsible. To make matters worse, Erdoğan’s recent use of sectarian rhetoric has alienated the remnants of Hatay’s once sizeable Arab population.

The legacies of ambiguous, irregular, and disputed borders that emerged in the 1920s continue to define Turkey’s relationship with its southern neighbors. However, as both Syrian and Turkish sovereignty fray, new quasi-state actors like the Kurdish PYD and ISIS endanger that fragile balance. Turkey is wary of military solutions to this problem; violence could elicit a regional escalation that would embolden both the Islamic radicals and Kurdish separatists at Turkey’s doorstep. Accordingly, Ankara’s response has been largely defensive, if not tentative. Responding to ISIS advances on Caber Kalesi in late September (an immediate and direct threat to sovereign Turkish territory), Turkey dispatched Special Forces to serve as a deterrent and trip-wire. Still, Turkey has so far refused to cooperate with U.S. airstrikes or assist Kurdish forces that might hold irredentism claims on southern Turkey. But this “wait and see” policy has alienated friend and foe alike. For nearly a century Ankara has sought to define its southern border and its sovereignty by force. Now that strategy looks increasingly perilous. New approaches to borders and sovereignty will need to emerge if Turkey is to avoid becoming the latest victim of the spillover of the Syrian conflict.

Gabriel Mitchell (@GabiMitch) is a PhD candidate in Government & International Relations at Virginia Tech University and the Israel-Turkey Project Coordinator for Mitvim—The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign PoliciesAriel I. Ahram (@arielahram) is an assistant professor of government and international relations in the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs. He is the author of Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias (Stanford, 2011).

The Needs of the Victims

Guest post by Javier Argomaniz and Orla Lynch

A memorial in Belfast to victims of terrorism. By Ins1122.

A memorial in Belfast to victims of terrorism. By Ins1122.

Last June, the UN General Assembly carried out their latest review of the UN Counter-terrorism Strategy. During the discussions, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reminded attendants in a personal statement that ‘far too often, victims are left to suffer in silence as the world around them moves on’. Mr. Ban’s intervention is telling: it shows how ensuring support for victims of terrorist acts has become a growing priority for the organisation.

Regardless of this development, victims of terrorism remain peripheral to the academic research on terrorism. We believe that the exclusion of victims impacts on our ability to understand terrorism as a complex phenomenon; due to a lack of understanding of the process of victimisation itself, but also due to the significant implications for post-conflict initiatives. In recognition of this we have recently published an edited volume that focuses on how best to understand the needs of the victims of terrorist attacks and whether/how these needs are or can be adequately met. Based on the work of two multidisciplinary research teams based in Spain and UK, our project involved an in-depth comparative analysis of the experience of victims of terrorist violence in these two European states.

The choice of these two cases is far from arbitrary. Both countries have had a long history of ethno-nationalist violence and have also suffered the impact of high-profile jihadist attacks on their soil. The legacies of violence in both states have created a large population of victims, many of whom have become a formidable political and social force both nationally in the UK and Spain and regionally in the EU.

In effect, victims organisations in the UK and Spain are a product of the context to the violence they suffered. What we found in our research is that diverse socio-political trajectories in these two European states have led to different notions of victimhood, different representations of their experience and a different relationship between types of victims. They have also resulted in two distinct models of victims support, what we have described as micro and macro-frameworks. A micro framework relates to the treatment of victims at the local level, using a victims-centred approach where the individual experience of the victim takes centre stage. Meeting needs in this instance is a bottom-up project that uses local resources but is backed up at the national level by financing and legislation. This approach is predominant in Northern Ireland.

On the other hand, the macro framework is characterised by having a strong overarching political dimension. We witnessed this in Spain where victims groups, after decades of being ignored by the political establishment, have created a rich network of associations to protect their rights. By publically campaigning and lobbying Spanish and Basque authorities for the recognition of their needs, they have pressurised public bodies to gradually develop an institutionalised, top-down and relatively well-funded system of support. Importantly, in this instance there is a dominant narrative that unites the major victims organisations and this narrative prioritises the innocence of victims, their pro-rule of law stance and their rejection of violence in any form.

These findings are important for two main reasons. Firstly, because as national and international actors increasingly recognise, victims matter. Not only for moral and ethical reasons but also because of the important role they can play to prevent violence during periods of hostilities and in a post-conflict environment. In essence, victims’ individual stories can serve to delegitimise political violence by making the costs of the conflict visible to combatants and the wider society.

Understanding victims and victims’ organisations is also important as victims of terrorism and political violence are increasingly seen as essential actors in peace and transitional justice processes across the world. We see this in Colombia where reparation for victims has become a central point in the negotiations between the government and the FARC and where victims associations have become deeply involved in the peace process.

Secondly, our study shows that there is no ideal model of victims assistance that would work in every context. The main reason why a micro-framework has emerged in Northern Ireland is due to the persistence of a divided society and the absence of a dominant victim identity. Conversely, in Basque Country the large majority of victims were caused by ETA so this has facilitated a strong single narrative that frames needs according to a distinct political discourse.

So, on the one hand, it is still possible to argue that there are universal needs for victims: both individual (health care, psychological assistance, financial compensation) and public (public remembrance and social recognition of their suffering). On the other hand, our research has shown that understanding victimhood in cases of terrorism and political violence must involve an appreciation of the context to the violence, the politicisation of the conflict and, by extension, its victims; and the national and international narratives that support or supress the victims’ organisations agenda.

Javier Argomaniz is a lecturer in International Relations at St. Andrews University and Orla Lynch is a lecturer in Terrorism Studies, also at St. Andrews.

UPDATE (10/20/2014, 1:08 PM EST): This is a new and significantly altered version of the original post, which was accidentally published before the authors had the chance to fully revise their draft.

The Relevance of International Security and…Some Pictures of Kitties

By Joe Young

A caricature of Robert DeNiro's character from Goodfellas. By Cheryl Grayum.

A caricature of Robert DeNiro’s character from Goodfellas. By Cheryl Grayum.

Thomas Ricks recently opined in a Foreign Policy piece how irrelevant most of political science scholarship is and by implication how irrelevant we are. He neatly asks why those who study international security are so boring? While I have a slight desire to reenact the scene from Goodfellas with Mr. Ricks, I will humbly instead suggest the following.

What is the goal of Political Violence @ a Glance? When Erica Chenoweth and Barbara Walter pitched potential contributors to be involved several years ago, they suggested an avenue for making our scholarship more relevant to current issues, the public, and policymakers. They, like many other political scientists, want to be speaking to folks beyond our own community. Sometimes we (or at least I) don’t accomplish this goal. Sometimes our work is jargony. Sometimes it is technical. Sometimes the topics seem abstract. As anyone who has been involved in a community of people working on a big problem (government workers, managers, marketers, engineers, social workers, etc.) knows, we develop our own language and sometimes shut others out.

With this preface, I suggest efforts like Political Violence @ Glance are a way to make a small move beyond these divides. Rather than just claim our work is relevant, we try to apply it to ISIS, or to the conflict in Ukraine, or discuss how it might inform peacekeeping. This is just a small snippet. Steve Saideman does a more thorough job of walking through instances of relevance on Ricks’ blog.

Mr. Ricks recently gave us a lighthearted look at a confederate soldier with his dog during the US civil war. Not boring, but I suggest we can do better and with more contemporary relevance. I give you cats during the Syrian civil war. Enjoy.

What Young Ukrainians Are Fighting For

By Vera Mironova and guest contributor Sam Whitt

Ukrainian troops stand in formation during a training exercise in Poland. Via the US Army Europe.

Ukrainian troops stand in formation during a training exercise in Poland. Via the US Army Europe.

Answering the Call to Arms in Ukraine

What compels ordinary people to mobilize for violence when their government demands it? We consider evidence from the Ukrainian government’s recent efforts to recruit young men into service to defend against incursions by Russian forces and Russian separatist uprisings on Ukrainian territory. Since March 2014, the Ukrainian government has sent letters to young men from across the country, requesting them to report to their local recruitment stations to register for service. Those who do not comply face threats of fines and imprisonment. Although such letters could be considered as draft notices, some Ukrainian men report for service while others do not. In July 2014, we surveyed 100 young men who, after receiving such notices, had come to enlist at local army recruiting stations in Kharkiv, a major city in Eastern Ukraine, near to both the Russian border and ongoing separatist fighting.[1] We report here some initial findings from our research on why people mobilize for violence.

Patriots Defending the Nation or Zealous Revenge-Seekers?

At first glance (see Table 1), many young fighting men exude patriotism. No one claims to have felt compelled to join as a result of a compulsory draft. Instead, these young recruits appear to be willful volunteers. When asked in the survey to choose the reasons why they wanted to fight, over half (61%) said they wanted to help restore law and order in Ukraine. Forty-five percent also wanted to prevent enemies of Ukraine from taking control, and another thirty-nine percent believed Ukraine’s enemies must be defeated.

For military recruits to rally around their flag and vow to defend their country in times of war is not especially counterintuitive. Patriotism could provide the moral fortitude to volunteer for a potentially brutal war with a formidable enemy. However, we also find evidence of other motives for volunteering beyond a patriotic commitment to defending the state. When we ask new recruits why they think others are joining, about half (51%) think volunteers are primarily revenge-seeking. Twenty-eight percent also say their peers are fighting for religious reasons and that joining gives meaning to their lives. Few (5-10%) percent claimed to have joined or believed their peers had joined to protect their local community from attack. No one seemed to believe their comrades were signing up primarily to restore law and order or deter future attacks.

Table 1

Defend/Revenge Against Whom?

If young Ukrainians are mobilizing either to defend against or seek revenge on a common enemy, who or what do they mean? One concern is that the conflict in Ukraine is increasingly one of social identity cleavages between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers. When we ask people how close they feel to Russian speakers, however, we find that most active recruits and ordinary civilians we interviewed in Kharkiv, who all identify as Ukrainian speakers, feel about as close to Russian speakers as they do to fellow Ukrainian speakers in general. Only Russians from Russia and those Russian speakers in separatist regions of Ukraine appear to trigger distancing responses.

Table 2

Table 2

Social distance, however, does not equate to fear, hatred, or blame for the current crisis. We find that most fighters and civilians we interviewed in Kharkiv this summer reject claims that Russian speakers in Ukraine are disloyal citizens, who support Russia’s efforts to occupy Ukrainian territory, and who would rather be citizens of Russia than Ukraine (see Table 3). They also do not believe that Russian speakers in Ukraine support Vladimir Putin. Most think Ukrainians have nothing to fear from Russian speakers.

Table 3

Table 3

Blaming Putin First

Instead, most Ukrainians we interviewed place blame for violence and unrest in Ukraine squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Overwhelming majorities of fighters and civilians we interviewed blame both for the Maidan violence, annexation of Crimea, stoking violence in Odessa, and separatist violence in Eastern Ukraine (Table 4). Comparable majorities also place blame on Russian special operations forces under Putin’s command and control.

If Ukrainian fighters are revenge-seeking, it appears to be primarily aimed at these forces operating in Ukraine today. Young volunteers claim they will fight until they regain lost territory. They are not interested in compromise or negotiation. Ninety one percent of soldiers (compared to 73 percent of civilians) prefer fighting to regain territory no matter what the cost, and none of them chose negotiations as an option (compared to 15 percent of civilians). Doing so, they feel, would betray their friends and family who have already died. A 24 year old fighter from Kharkiv, who introduced himself as Vladimir, explains: “Some of my friends [have] already died fighting. I do not want even to think that they died for nothing. They died so that we could win the war and get rid of terrorists from Russia.”

Table 4

Table 4

What Role for the West?

More fighters we interviewed desire Western military intervention in the crisis than civilians (Table 5). US military intervention is supported by 45 percent of fighters, compared to only 22 percent of civilians. NATO intervention is similarly viewed more favorably by fighters. Civilians surveyed were much more interested in non-lethal methods of handling the conflict. Among civilians, 72 percent favored UN peacekeeping. Half of civilians also favored sanctions compared to only 33 percent of fighters. In contrast, few fighters or civilians want to see the West take a more active role in negotiating a settlement with Putin, perhaps out of fear that any deals struck may undercut the ability of Ukraine to regain lost territory.

Table 5

Table 5

Differences of opinion on the way forward will make any decision of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko unpopular with one camp or the other, as evidenced by protests by Ukrainian fighters over the recent cease fire agreement. Even if the Ukrainian military honors these recent agreements, some of these young fighters may find other informal militia outlets to press the fight onward. Given these young fighters’ motivations, the durability of peace in Ukraine is tentative at best.

[1] Fighters sampled by cluster-sampling at recruitment stations, with random selection of fighters by cluster. For comparison, we also survey 100 other young men who live in the same communities (and have also received recruitment notices), but have chosen not to report for duty (N = 200). Civilian males were sampled by random route in the vicinity of recruitment stations.

Sam Whitt is a professor of political science at High Point University.

Canaries in the Coal Mine: What the “End of Christianity in Iraq” Tells Us About the State of Governance in the Arab World

By Allison Beth Hodgkins

Assyrians and Armenians attend the celebration of Corpus Christi in Baghdad, 1920. Via wikimedia.

Assyrians and Armenians attend the celebration of Corpus Christi in Baghdad, 1920. Via wikimedia.

Last month there was a depressing article in the Washington Post entitled “Christianity in Iraq is finished.” In that piece, the author rightly pointed out that the persecution of Iraq’s Christians started well before the advent of the Islamic State. It was the US invasion in 2003 that unleashed the demons of sectarianism on the vulnerable non-Moslem minorities, including the ancient Assyrian and Chaldean Christians. It is now too late to carve out a place for these communities in their ancestral lands. The good intentions of the West should instead be focused on saving the Christians themselves.

He has a point.

By all metrics, the Christians have been hit particularly hard by the Iraqi civil war. As many as 14% of the 4 million Iraqi refugees displaced between 2003 and 2008  are believed to have been Christians; possibly half the community. The stories he cites of murder, kidnapping and extortion are well known. However, the not so subtle subtext of this article, that the current plight of the Christians is an affirmation of the futility of religious coexistence in Muslim-majority countries, is not just off base; it misses the point.

The Christians are fleeing because things in Iraq are lousy, have been lousy for a while and by all indicators are going to get lousier. While ISIS and their earlier incarnations have certainly victimized the Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and Assyrians for extermination, they certainly aren’t the only ones being targeted or running in fear. Our desire to see the Christians as our compatriots in the struggle against extremism should not blind us to the fact that ISIS’s ascension and the Christian exodus are both dependent variables in this grisly equation.

The plight of Iraq’s Christians is because governance in Iraq has collapsed. And when governance collapses, as it has in most of Syria, Libya, and Yemen — or is fractured as it is in Lebanon, or strained, as it is in the rest of the Arab world — people revert to whatever pre-existing societal structures exist and fall in behind entrepreneurial elites who construct a stark choice between fighting for kin, clan, or creed and dying.

While inciting violence against the Christians may be a convenient way for Baghdadi and his ilk to to propel their rise, there is nothing in this strategy of manipulating fear for power that is unique to Islamist movements. Hutus incited against the Tutsis in Rwanda, Serbs incited against Muslims in Bosnia. Why is everyone so surprised its happening in Iraq and Syria?

In truth, the place of Christians in the Arab world is more about shrewd coalition building than religion. In much of the Arab world, Christians have traditionally been around 8-10% of the population (Lebanon being the exception). 8-10% is hardly a number with which to mount a direct challenge to any ruling regime. But its a good number to have on your side, particularly as you are struggling to consolidate control.

When the Ba’ath party asserted its dominance over Iraq the principle challenge was seen as subsuming the different national identities into the Arab identity. Thus, Christians were welcome in the Ba’ath party as fellow Arab nationalists, just not as Assyrians or communists. Remember Tarik Aziz?

By the same token, when the Iraqi Ba’ath party collapsed in 2003, many Iraqi Christians saw Syria as their preferred destination. The rival Ba’athist regime in Syria had also courted Christians in their coalition building strategy. However, there it was a coalition of minorities and urban elites against reactionary forces in the rural hinterlands.

Similarly, Jordan’s reputation as a bastion of tolerance is rooted in coalition bargains made in the 1930s. Alliances between the Hashemites and the Christian tribes around Kerak and Madaba were instrumental in the ability of the first King Abduallah to consolidate control over his newly formed Kingdom. It is not by accident that Jordan has had three Christian foreign ministers, one Christian prime minister, at least one Christian in almost every cabinet and a nine-seat quota in parliament.

It is also important to remember that while the Christians are being presented as our natural allies in the struggle against Islamist extremism, they have long played a formative role in many of the revolutionary and liberation movements that challenged British, French and American interests in the region. The Arab Awakening, considered the charter of Arab nationalism was penned by George Antonius; a Lebanese, Egyptian Christian who lived in Jerusalem and focused his ire on British perfidy after the first world war. Antonious’ writings were, in turn, given political shape by another Christian; Michel Aflaq, a Syrian, Greek Orthodox, and founder of the Ba’ath party.

Christians were also instrumental in the adaptation of Marxism to meet the needs of the local struggles during the late 60s and 70s. There is certain irony in Arab Christians being described as long “serving as a bulwark against fanaticism” in the region given the strong association between names like George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, and the Popular Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine, with the dawning of the age of transnational terrorism.

In truth, I find these episodic discoveries of the plight of Arab Christians in majority Muslim states amusing because they speak, not only to the profound misconceptions about the existence and role of these communities, but an utter misunderstanding of the crux of the problem in this part of the world. Yes, Christians are fleeing in droves. They are fleeing, however, because the ideologies they helped shape have utterly failed to protect the lands in which they live or support the nations they sought to build. ISIS, as this piece by Heshem Melhem so accurately but tragically points out, has risen from the “rotting hulk” of these failed experiments. Its not just the Christians who are threatened by the collapse of governance from Libya to Lebanon: its everyone.

The Chinese Government is Losing the Tech War Against Hong Kong Protesters

By Barbara F. Walter

Protesters in Hong Kong play with their smartphones. By Kun-chia Wu.

Protesters in Hong Kong play with their smartphones. By Kun-chia Wu.

This past week the Chinese Government took a cue from Putin’s playbook. Just as Putin used smartphones to try to socially engineer the direction of the Ukrainian protests, so too is the CCP using technology to try to influence Hong Kong protests. All the methods Putin used to monitor cellphone locations are available to the Chinese Government. But the CCP has gone one step further by creating a fake smartphone app that can track the physical location of a person’s phone if downloaded. It can also spy on phone calls and messages.

What does the CCP hope to achieve with this phishing scam? And how exactly do they think it’s going to work?

There are at least two possible goals that the CCP hopes to achieve with this scam. The first is to convince protesters to leave their phones at home. This would greatly reduce the protesters’ ability to coordinate their activities and aid in the CCP’s efforts to censor all news, images and videos coming from the protests. The second is to convince the protesters themselves to go home. This would reduce the number of citizens on the street and help dissipate the movement.

Neither of these strategies is likely to work. Protesters have no reason to leave their phones at home, or to return home themselves. Any individual who has been out on the street with a phone this week knows that they have already been identified with the protest movement. This is true whether they have downloaded the fake smartphone app or not. Their best bet at this point is to forge ahead with the movement in the hope that it gains concessions from the government, not punishment. Cell phones – with their ability to mobilize citizens and communicate information – are the best way for protesters to achieve this.

The events of the last week in Hong Kong remind us that the Chinese government is unlikely to win the technology war with dissenters no matter what it does. The CCP can erect a great firewall, block images on social media, hand censor tweets, and try to trick citizens into downloading malware, but they will never be able to block all of the media all of the time. Not only will some messages get through these barriers, but the speed of technological innovation means that new ways to circumvent government censorship will constantly emerge. Hong Kong’s demonstrators, for example, are constantly finding new ways to communicate out of the prying eyes of the government.

The CCP will try to win the information tug-of-war, but they won’t succeed. There are just too many smart people – both inside and outside of China – who are heavily motivated to get their messages out and have the technological ability to do so. The Russian government wasn’t able to stop protesters in Kiev with information technology and neither will the CCP.

Middle East Misconceptions That Are Messing Up US Foreign Policy

By Barbara F. Walter

American soldiers in Iraq. By lachicaphoto.

American soldiers in Iraq. By lachicaphoto.

Violence in the Middle East has a way of tapping into one-dimensional reactions from most Americans. Whenever violence occurs, journalists, pundits, and others tend to fall back on the same simplistic explanations. It occurs because “Islam is inherently violent,” “Muslims are radicals,” or “Sunni and Shia hate each other.” These crude explanations are dangerous because they tend to lead to misguided calls for US action unconnected to historical fact. “We must intervene in places like Syria or Iraq” the calls assert, “to stop the crazy radicals from gaining control.”

Here are corrections to the 4 big myths Americans continue to hold about violence in the Muslim world. By getting rid of these misconceptions, I hope we can eliminate their influence over US foreign policy and allow more reasoned judgments to prevail.

Myth #1: Most Muslims hate the United States – In fact, the vast majority of Muslims around the world love the United States and its culture, they just hate our policies toward them. Our belief that there’s an inherent “Clash of Civilizations” between the Muslim and Judeo-Christian world has led to policies that are self-perpetuating. We fear democracy in the Middle East because we fear rule by Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. But by supporting Middle East dictators we end up facilitating the repression that leads to the rise of Islamist groups in the first place. If our policies in the Middle East were less violent, less imperialist, and less blindly supportive of repressive secular regimes, we would garner a lot more support from Muslim citizens at the expense of more radical factions.

Myth #2: Average Muslims support radical Islam and want to live under such a regime – A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that over 2/3rds of Muslims were somewhat or very concerned about Islamic extremism. Given a choice, most Muslims would support moderate Islamic groups, as the Egyptians did with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2012 elections. But US enmity toward any Islamic political party leaves citizens with limited options: they can either choose to support a corrupt secular dictator supported by the United States or they can support a radical religious movement that seeks to violently overthrow it. To date, the US has been unwilling to tolerate anything in between these two extremes.

Myth #3: The wars being waged in the Middle East are about religion – The wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya are battles over political power and economic resources, not religion. They are also not wars with the United States. The US has interjected itself into conflicts in the region by protecting and bolstering unpopular regimes, but the wars themselves are ultimately the result of local and regional groups fighting for state power and the resources these states control.

Myth #4: The US has the ability to fix things in the Middle East – The United States does not have the resources or the political resolve to impose our will on citizens across the Muslim world. Even if we had the resources and determination to intervene, intervention will only make things worse. Good intentions are not enough to lead to good outcomes. In fact, our recent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that U.S. intervention has led to even worse outcomes than if we had done nothing at all.

How Can ISIS Be Degraded or Destroyed?

Guest post by Brian J. Phillips

Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft return after conducting strikes in Syria. By the U.S. Department of Defense.

Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft return after conducting strikes in Syria. By the U.S. Department of Defense.

President Obama has repeatedly said the goal of airstrikes against ISIS is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” it. Can the group be destroyed? And what tactics are most likely to degrade it?

A number of studies look at why some terrorist groups endure while others fall apart, and this research can help us better understand the likely fate of ISIS.

Destroying ISIS is unlikely to occur. During the past several decades, the most resilient terrorist groups have been those that have religious motivations, operate transnationally, and have many members. This bodes well for ISIS.

In general, terrorist groups are not often destroyed. A RAND study of all terrorist groups since 1968 finds that of the 263 that “ended,” only 20 ended as a result of military force. Policing is more effective, but difficult to conduct internationally.

Given that destruction is unlikely, what tactics could be used to degrade ISIS?

Capturing or killing the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could reduce the group’s capabilities. Leadership removal is especially effective on hierarchical groups, and the structure of ISIS is still the source of debate, but al-Baghdadi is known as a charismatic and influential leader. His removal could disrupt operations, and sap the group’s morale and mobilization efforts.

Funding can make or break terrorist groups, as they seek to organize members and plan attacks. ISIS pays members and provides community services, so disrupting its ability to do so would reduce its power. Unlike other groups, ISIS does not seem to rely on foreign sponsors. However, its control of oil and water, as well as other funding sources, has brought in substantial revenue. If the US-led coalition is successful in freezing assets, reducing income flows within Iraq and Syria, and disrupting the group’s oil sales, this could be consequential.

ISIS’s financial ties are important, but operational ties between terrorist groups also contribute to group endurance. It is not clear that ISIS has many allies, but al-Qaeda increased its abilities and influence over the years through alliances and franchising, in spite of or because of pressure on its central branch. To prevent similar growth by ISIS, intelligence services should attempt to disrupt cooperation between ISIS and other groups.

What tactics are less likely to succeed against ISIS?

The current coalition strategy relies heavily on airstrikes. As complementary tactics are introduced, it might be beneficial to use aerial attacks less. Research on Afghanistan suggests that airstrikes are prone to backfire, leading to increased attacks from the targeted group.

Another approach that should be used with caution is encouraging other militant groups to fight ISIS. Arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels to fight ISIS could weaken or at least distract ISIS, but it could also lead to unintended consequences.

My own research suggests that fighting between terrorist groups very rarely destroys an involved group, and in many cases contributes to group longevity – through encouraging innovation, inspiring mobilization, and disrupting potential peace talks. Additionally, competition between groups often leads to more and different types of violence through outbidding.

In general, military solutions are unlikely to succeed on their own. Studies of previous counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts, including those in Iraq, indicate that winning hearts and minds of potential supporters of the group is crucial. Pure force, trying to crush the enemy, is not often successful. It was recently stated in this blog that beyond military strategy, a political strategy will be needed as well.

Overall, weakening ISIS is possible, and research suggests some strategies are more likely to find success than others.

Brian J. Phillips is a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. His research focuses on the causes and consequences of sub-national political violence.

Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

Wladimir Gawriilowitsch Krikhatzkij, "The First Tractor," date unknown. Via wikimedia.

Wladimir Gawriilowitsch Krikhatzkij, “The First Tractor,” date unknown. Via wikimedia.

In the Monkey Cage, Kerry F. Crawford, Amelia Hoover Green, and Sarah E. Parkinson challenge the ‘rape as a weapon of war’ narrative.

BBC Magazine takes a look at the eccentric life of the ‘Greek Robin Hood’ who robs banks, gives to the poor, and has escaped from jail by helicopter twice.

Several Brookings fellows debate what’s driving ISIS’ strategy. Robert Engell argues ISIS is simply obscuring bigger problems in the Middle East. Vice News has a new documentary series shot while embedded with Islamic Front fighters in contested Aleppo. Frederic Wehrey and PVG guest contributor Ariel Ahram look at the pros and cons of creating a National Guard in Iraq. Bridget Conley-Zilkic of the World Peace Foundation criticizes militarized atrocity response in general and American airstrikes in Iraq in particular. Finally, Matthieu Adkins weaves a compelling narrative of those that dig civilians out of the rubble in the aftermath of barrel bombs, “Smaller chunks of concrete were picked away, larger ones levered free, webs of rusted rebar were sawed in half. Finally, they opened a hole through the floor, and there they were: The brothers crouched down by their beds, chalk-white but seemingly unharmed. It was as if they had been etched back into the world.”

The Mexican drug war has a high death toll, but it’s hard to know exactly the scale of the tragedy when hundreds of people can disappear without a trace.

Berit Bliesemann de Guevara identifies the International Crisis Group’s bias.

How to build democracy? Brian Levy argues for an incrementalist approach based in realism. In Tunisia, democracy is growing largely thanks to reasonable politicians. Somewhat relatedly, Rachel Strohm supplies evidence that weak central states do not always breed disorder. While Israel is certainly not a weak state, it is privatizing violent authority to settlers in the West Bank.

Rwanda’s government is increasingly cracking down on internal threats, real or imagined.


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