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Weekly Links

By Taylor Marvin

René Beeh, "Dead Scottish Soldiers on the Battlefield near Ypres," 1916. Via the National Gallery of Art.

René Beeh, “Dead Scottish Soldiers on the Battlefield near Ypres,” 1916. Via the National Gallery of Art.

The major story of the week was a move by the Ukrainian government to forcibly evict armed pro-Russian “activists” – the exact term is controversial; many obviously have military training and equipment — who had occupied buildings in eastern Ukraine. Amid fears of a Russian invasionWhite House press secretary Jay Carney expressed support the Ukrainian government Monday, and discussed the possibility of additional sanctions targeting Russia. Given that Kiev had previously avoided any action that could be construed as provocation by Russia, this could be the crisis’ most dangerous moment so far.

For their part, as of Wednesday pro-Russian separatists claimed a victory. The Ukrainian military has reportedly seen defections to separatists, leading to the sight of armored personnel carriers with Russian flags in Slovyansk, in the country’s east. Russian media shows its own view of events in what the New York Times describes as “an extraordinary propaganda campaign that political analysts say reflects a new brazenness on the part of Russian officials.”

In Slate, Fred Kaplan writes that interim Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov’s statement that he would consider devolving power from Kiev to regional districts could signal the end of the crisis. “War is politics by other means,” Kaplan writes, “and a revamping of Ukraine’s power structure would accomplish Putin’s political aims by less costly means” than a Russian invasion. In my (totally non-expert) mind Kaplan’s analysis is sound, but it’s worth bearing in mind just how wrong the conventional wisdom has been throughout the crisis. When an anonymous Russian official threatened taking Crimea in late February many dismissed it as bluster, and an outright Russian annexation of the peninsula was thought less likely than engineering its de facto independence. This doesn’t mean Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine aren’t intended to just gain leverage, but only that predicting Russia’s actions has been very difficult.

And why did Russia give Crimea to Ukraine sixty years ago, anyway? (Via Jon Chicky.)

In South Sudan, rebels claim to have captured a major oil hub. Oil accounts for nearly all of the young country’s government revenue.

Moving westward, in the Central African Republic Muslim refugees fleeing to the safety of neighboring Cameroon are being attacked by militias. “How is this not genocide?,” Jay Ulfelder asked last week.

Ethnic violence troubles southern Egypt, ignored by security forces focused on going after the Muslim Brotherhood and other political enemies of the military government – as long as deaths roughly balance out, police figure feuds will eventually resolve themselves.

In Syria, government forces appear on the edge of a major victory in Homs, a rebel stronghold. But despite this success the Assad regime may be unable to ever recover Syria’s east and north, where opposition and Kurdish control is much stronger — though if the regime is able to completely clear western contested cities such as Homs and Damascus, it could increase the likelihood of a long-term three or four way informal division of the country.

Syrian women refugees fleeing the war face abuse and poverty abroad.

A look in photos at Venezuela’s colectivos, or pro-government chavista militias/social groups.

The Worst Kind of Torture

By Joseph Young

Nearly all states torture. Kingdoms, personalist and military dictatorships, and even democracies use this tool to coerce, punish or elicit information from dissidents.[1] What is the worst kind of torture? Much has been made of waterboarding, but the pear of anguish is one hideous device from antiquity. Strappado is a form of torture where a person’s arms are tied behind their back and pulled above their head. It also has a long history and has many variants. US security forces allegedly used this technique at Bagram air force base. What’s worse than either of these?

The Red Hot Chili Peppers

A new report details how the CIA put the Red Hot Chili Peppers on an endless blaring loop for the detainee, Abu Zubaydah. Supposedly, Metallica was also used against detainees in Iraq.[2] During the FBI’s ill-fated assault on the Branch Davidian complex in 1993, the Bureau played Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking.” In 1996, Peruvian security forces used patriotic music to both annoy the rebels that had taken hostages and to conceal their digging during the siege of the Japanese ambassador’s residence. Noriega, the ex-Panamanian dictator, received his own playlist in the late 1980s,[3] which included gems like “Don’t Fear the Reaper”[4] and “Never Gonna Give You Up”[5]. Of course, this is all mildly serious. Music, sensory deprivation, water-boarding, and the like are often termed torture lite, but as Darius Rejali and others have demonstrated, the long term effects can be as or more pernicious than torture heavy on the individual.

Loran Nordgren and colleagues have done a series of experiments to examine how people like us determine when an action is torture. What they find is that people’s perspective on torture is characterized by an empathy gap. In short, if we haven’t experienced the device or technique, loud noise, extreme temperature, or the like, we discount the pain caused by such methods. When we are exposed, even when the exposure is relatively mild, we then tend to view similar techniques as more painful and generally support their use less. This empathy gap, can explain at least one case in the US Senate. One of the most vociferous opponents of US enhanced interrogation is John McCain, who experienced similar (and worse) techniques during his time as a prisoner in Vietnam. So, is music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers torture? Go ahead and try it. Grab a copy of their greatest hits, lock yourself in a small dark room, press repeat and turn it up.

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Use the Force, Brazilian Protestors?

20th Century Fox, via Wikimedia.

20th Century Fox, via Wikimedia.

By Oliver Kaplan

This post contains spoilers for the original Star Wars trilogy.

At this summer’s World Cup soccer matches in Brazil there is a real chance of organized protests, either by soccer hooligans or as a continuation of the protests over government spending priorities that rocked the country last summer. To prepare for this, it was just reported that Brazil has purchased “masks inspired by Star Wars character Darth Vader to equip their anti-riot officers” (image and article here). Like the original Dark Lord of the Sith, the helmets are said to have voice amplifiers, not fog up, and even have an oxygen supply (and hopefully work better than that of the Spaceballs’ Dark Helmet, who famously ripped off his oversized helmet and comically gasped, “I can’t breathe in this thing!”).

The design of the helmet is intended to “provoke a psychological effect” among would-be protestors. And such a helmet may indeed provoke psychological effects, but perhaps not the intimidation or deterrent effects the planners are hoping for. Instead, the helmets could provoke an opposite effect, creating an association in the minds of protestors that the government is the “Dark Side” (if they didn’t already believe that before they took to the streets). Is that really the image the Brazilian government wants to project when the entire world will be watching?

Fortunately, some sillier Star Wars-related effects are also possible:

  • That it’s OK for the protestors to “dispense with the pleasantries.”
  • That joining the police is “the only way” to save the galaxy.
  • That the protestors will either protest or not, since there is “no try.”
  • That the police might actually be “your father.”

Lest we forget the parable of Star Wars, the Brazilian government may want to keep in mind that Darth Vader was ultimately defeated by (converted to) the Light Side of the Force. Even though the Brazilian government and police may find the would-be protestors’ lack of faith “disturbing,” going all Darth on them may be one force-leap too far. So, before the World Cup rolls around in June, officials may first want to ask one ever-important question: “What would Yoda do?”

Does Torture Work?

Guest post by Christopher Sullivan

More precisely, does committing torture enable state forces to limit subsequent acts of violence? Over the course of the past few decades, political practitioners and scholars alike have debated the merits of using torture as a tool to combat the international and domestic threats of terrorism and insurgency. Concerns over the morality and potential effects of torture have emerged again recently in response to the revelation of new material on CIA torture practices as well as the increasingly widespread application of torture in the Syrian conflict. Yet despite the rigor of this discourse, torture remains one of the most widely practiced instruments of coercion. An average of 80% of states are alleged to have practiced torture in any given year between 1981 and 2010, including nearly all states engaged in counterinsurgency operations. This suggests an enduring belief torture should assist the state in its efforts to target its enemies and reduce their capacity to commit violence.

Where evidence has been brought to bear on the subject, it has been at best anecdotal and at worst cherry picked to support the position of the claims maker.[1] Torture opponents often identify the case of Abu Zubaydah, the first high profile al-Qaeda member captured by the US. According to the FBI agent in charge of interrogating Zubaydah, using “conventional interrogation methods,” such as deception and rapport building, he was able to convince Zubaydah to identify alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. After Mohammed was named, however, the CIA began to torture Zubaydah, and, according to the FBI agent, this was the point at which he stopped talking.[2] Torture proponents, by contrast, tend to focus on Mohammed’s behavior once he was captured. The CIA claims that once they captured Mohammed he refused to provide them with any actionable intelligence. However, according to the Washington Post, after being “subjected to an escalating series of coercive methods, culminating in 7 ½ days of sleep deprivation, while diapered and shackled, and 183 instances of waterboarding,” Mohammed began cooperating with the authorities – providing them with details of both al-Qaeda’s organizational structure and plans for future attacks.[3]

The bias associated with selecting evidence to support particular arguments has severely limited our ability to draw general conclusions about the effects of torture from these cases. More evidence is likely to emerge in response to the recent US Senate vote to declassify a trove of relevant documents. However, at present there remains little systematic analysis on torture’s effects in either agency reviews of torture or in a nascent academic literature evaluating torture’s effects.[4]

Recognizing that the empirical evidence surrounding instances of torture presents inherent limitations and potential biases should not repudiate efforts to scientifically study the effects of this policy. Arguments negating our ability to systematically evaluate torture’s effects ignore recent advances in the measurement of state violence, and allow torture proponents to sidestep cause-effect questions with claims that, as Bagaric and Clark (2007) put it, such evaluations would lead to a “distracting and superficial numbers game.”

In a new article at the Journal of Peace Research, I bring to bear micro-level data from Guatemala to generate a systematic evaluation of how torture affects violence within the context of an organized insurgency. This is a case in which highly skilled military personnel tortured with near impunity. Among other tactics, agents of the Guatemalan military forced the victims to stand hooded for hours or days, forced them to eat excrement, forced them to stay awake for days at a time, refused to give them food or water, subjected them to electric shocks, stripped them naked, burned them with cigarettes, suspended them from chains, sexually abused them, submerged them in water, cut them and broke their fingers. Combining data from Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification with a research strategy designed to overcome many of the hurdles associated with causal inference, the analysis identifies how local-level dynamics of violence change in the aftermath of torture. The study examines torture’s impacts on subsequent killings perpetrated by both insurgents and counter-insurgents.

Two trends emerge from the analysis:

  • First, torture has no identifiable systematic association with decreases in insurgent perpetrated killings.
  • Second, torture is shown to be robustly associated with increased killings perpetrated by counterinsurgents.

Such evidence should lend pause to those who would consider employing torture, at least within the context of an insurgency. Justifications for torture do not rest on the contention that engaging in torture will reveal information, but on arguments that engaging in torture will allow state agents to somehow stop challengers from engaging in violence. If torture cannot produce discernable effects on insurgent violence then any immediate effects by torture, including the revelation (or non-revelation) of information, are of little consequence.

In this case, not only did torture display no relation to decreases in killings perpetrated by insurgents, but it had a somewhat pathological quality of being strongly associated with increases in other forms of counter-insurgent violence. The evidence suggests that insurgents were able to outmaneuver the forces employing torture, for example by adapting their organizations and strategies in response to torture or by rallying popular support against the use of torture. Subsequent counter-insurgent strategies appear to have been far less variable. The use of torture was strongly associated with increases in killings committed by counterinsurgents in the locality where torture took place as well, in some cases, in surrounding areas.

The evidence shines light on the impacts of one particularly controversial form of political repression. But it can also help resolve a puzzle that has vexed scholars for nearly 40 years — understanding more generally how violations of human rights influence decisions to participate in conflict. Questions remain about how other forms of government coercion influence decisions to commit violence or otherwise engage in collective action. It is also relevant to question how the impacts of repressive tactics such as torture might be influenced by the broader context of civil war violence and the institutions it generates. By looking at the operation of specific tactics within clearly demarcated contexts, rather than the operation of aggregate measures of repression, it should be possible to add nuance and scope conditions to improve upon existing theory.

Christopher Sullivan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan and a Fellow at Yale University’s Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence.

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Puzzling Patterns in Election Participation

By Barbara F. Walter

Afghan soldiers unload ballot boxes, 2009. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Thomas Dow, via Wikimedia.

Afghan soldiers unload ballot boxes, 2009. US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Thomas Dow, via Wikimedia.

Last Saturday, Afghanistan held its first presidential election since 2009. A surprisingly large number of Afghan citizens turned out to vote despite the fact that their safety could not be guaranteed, and despite the fact that fraud was likely. This stands in contrast to elections that have been held since November in Bangladesh, Nepal and Thailand, where large numbers of citizens have boycotted the polls specifically because the results were likely to be rigged.

Today’s puzzler is this: In a world where elections in developing democracies are rarely entirely “free and fair” why do some citizens choose to participate in fraudulent elections, while others refuse?

Weekly Links

By Taylor Marvin

Depiction of Roman Emperor Constantius II. Via Wikimedia.

Depiction of Roman Emperor Constantius II. Via Wikimedia.

A video imagining a future where Russian freedom fighters battle a fascist, expansionary, and — ludicrously — militarily dominant Ukraine provides an insight into the Russian government’s preferred narrative of the conflict.

In light of worst-case fears that Vladimir Putin will try and annex territory in the Baltic states, reporting that suggests that most Russian-speakers in Estonia would oppose such a move.

Anya Schmemann writes that Russia’s annexation is a serious setback, not victory, for “a middling power with a faltering economy and serious demographic problems trying desperately to stay relevant both on the world stage and in its own neighborhood.”

In Syria, the apparently extreme degradation of government forces after three years of war (via Robert Farley) and Charles Lister on the challenges of any plan to supply Syrian rebels.

Jeffrey Lewis, Brown MosesCheryl Rofer, and Aaron Stein all have convincing debunkings of a recent piece by Seymour Hersh arguing that the August 2013 chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime was actually the work of the Syrian rebels and Turkey. Basically, the technical details don’t support Hersh’s claim, and there’s no reason to think the Turkish government would pursue a false flag attack designed to bait the US into intervening.

More on the simplistic popular Western memories of the Rwandan genocide.

Foreign Policy has a long investigation into the failures of the African Union – United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, a force “bullied by government security forces and rebels, stymied by American and Western neglect, and left without the weapons necessary to fight in a region where more peacekeepers have been killed than in any other U.N. mission in the world.”

Rwanda, Remembrance and Research: Or, How Rwandan Violence Taught Me to Embrace Subnational/Disaggregated Conflict Studies and Integral Conflict Research

Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D., via Wikimedia.

Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D., via Wikimedia.

By Christian Davenport

Fourteen years ago I began a journey to understand the political violence that took place in Rwanda during the year of 1994. Toward this end, I brought with me the skills that I had at that time: 1) an interest in media as well as government-generated data and content analysis, 2) an approach that was pooled at the nation-year, cross-sectional and time series in nature, and 3) an interest in state repression/human rights violation. All of this would change when confronted with Rwanda. Indeed, after full immersion into the case (from about 2000-2004, as well as reflection over the next ten years), I moved from being mostly interested in media and government sources to being mostly interested in human rights NGOs; I became more interested in the variation within countries than between them; and,I was no longer just interested in state repression/human rights violation but essentially every form of political violence.

Rwanda has this type of effect on you.

At the beginning, my framing of the topic was pretty standard. I initially just focused on the violence of the genocide. I was sent to Rwanda on the heels of a USAID project to assist the Centre for Conflict Management at the National University of Rwanda to redevelop and train some mémoire students on research methods. This is all that the students and the members of the Center wanted to talk about, and all that I could find to read about Rwanda at the time. This is mostly what was talked about in the US – that we had failed to intervene and stop it. Once there, I began to hear about other things: the civil war (1990-1994) and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) victory (1994) as well as the end/termination of the genocide and civil war (1994). With this in mind, I began to expand my reading but this was 2000 and there was not a tremendous amount of rigorous work at the time. The rigorous work on state repression was less than ten years old at that time and the work on civil war was a little bit older than that.

What changed many things for me was a meeting with diverse human rights organizations (e.g., Liprodhor) held in the US embassy. During this meeting, it was expected that I would teach the organizations something about rigorous human rights measurement and what researchers were doing in the US. Although interested in these topics, I ended up learning more from the human rights organizations. For example, they were already collecting information on violent behavior (by type), across space and time. Indeed, there were quite a number of efforts being undertaken. They actually had not interacted with each other much nor did they think about collaborating with one another. I started to pull together meetings all over the country toward this end.

Mostly these efforts failed but they did reveal a tremendous amount of information. What was interesting to me was that without the categories that guided/limited political violence scholars, they identified all types of activities. We did not find armed conflict scholars studying armed conflict ignoring everything else; we did not find human rights violation scholars studying human rights violations ignoring everything else; we did not find genocide scholars studying genocide ignoring everything else; we did not find militia violence scholars studying militia violence ignoring everything else. Nope. We just found organizations collecting information on deaths, beatings, harassment, shootings, explosions and anything that would harm people.

With this in mind, my timeline for relevant events expanded. From the limited number of activities above, I began to look at the state repression prior to 1989, interstate war (1990-1993), the RPF occupation of part of Rwanda (1993), democratization (1994), intrastate/civil war (1994), genocide (1994), the RPF victory (1994), the end of the war and genocide (1994), post-war/genocide domestic pacification (1994-present), the invasion of Congo (1996-1997), the occupation of Congo (1997), the re-invasion of Congo (1998-2003), targeted assassination of RPF opponents abroad (1998-present), the systematic return of political opponents to Rwanda (1998-present) and Rwandan economic development (1999-present). This was no simple reading list and the sheer range of topics exceeded the parameters of any one type of political conflict/violence, which has been the standard way to study the topic. Indeed, this revealed that what was necessary to understand violence in Rwanda was nothing less than the whole field of conflict studies/contentious politics itself. Needless to say, this involved a bit more reading than I was ready for but what the hell. Like it was said in the film Apocalypse Now: “What else was I going to do”.

With the myriad forms of political violence involved, the number of explanatory factors and theoretical approaches began to expand. Much of the rigorous work has focused on political factors (democratization), economic factors (poverty and greed), social factors (networks) and psychological factors (e.g., fear, anger and a desire for homeland) – mostly on an individual basis. Research was further divided by methodological orientation. Some did interviews (with genocidaires, victims, survivors), some did focus groups (with the same), some did surveys, some did censuses, some did NGO data compilation of eyewitness records, some used government records/compilations. Most focused on the official Rwandan government forces but some focused on government-affiliated militias and Hutu mass population, whereas a select few focused on the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the invaders/rebels).

Outputs varied: some created popular books (like We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow…), some created journalistic articles, some created academic articles, some created films. Again, few looked across explanations, methods, perpetrators and venues. This was hard to do as each combination yielded some new insight. For example, focused on democratization, anger, interviews, the Rwandan government as told within books, one would be led to one constellation of insights. Focused on poverty, surveys, the RPF and articles, one would be led to another. You can imagine the other combinations and, let me tell you, they are there.

From reading this material, one becomes disenchanted with how social science approaches the topic. Everyone honchos their own theory, their own mechanism, their own data, their own perpetrators, their own anecdotes. It doesn’t really add up to much, in the final analysis. Economist reviewers rarely mention the anthropological work, political science reviewers rarely mention the criminological work, legal scholars rarely mention the psychological work, and so forth. As long as one stays with one’s own, they can get their work into print and the accumulation of collective wisdom remains elusive.

I for one began to find the work of demographers and psychologists (e.g., discussions of xenophobia) especially useful in examining Rwanda. This came from an increasingly awareness of just how many people were on the move. By conservative estimates approximately one half to two-thirds of the Rwandan population had moved at least some distance during the violence between 1990-1994. If this was the case, however, then why would the political or economic context at the beginning of the 1990 or 1994 matter for how the interstate/civil war and/or genocide took place? If this many people were on the move, then how would ethnic identification matter – especially if people might not have kept their IDs with them? Might it not be the case that individuals were killed because they were not known as opposed to because they were? Were most individuals killed where they were from or where they ran to? Where did all the piles of ID cards go? With the one forensic study undertaken by Physicians for Human Rights (that you can no longer find online by the way), they found only a handful of IDs along with a few hundred bodies. What does that mean?

I also find the work of criminology useful. For example, a different line of issues emerges concerning how people were killed. If one reads popular literature and journalistic accounts, it seems that the average killing was neighbor upon neighbor, family member upon family member and with machetes. If this is true, however, then there was an awful lot of killing being done by an extremely large number of people and almost non-stop. If this is true, then Rwanda contains within it several hundred thousand killers (or more) which if criminalized would effectively turn the nation into a police state. Is this physically possible? Is it the case that there are that many murderers running around the country and sitting in jail? Or, is it possible that people were killed 11,000 or 30,000 at a time because weapons were used like rifles, machine guns and munitions by trained military units? Or, is it possible that some were killed via machetes and some were killed via weapons? If this is the case, then there was a smaller number of killers involved and the whole society need not be treated as criminals? The differences between the different scenarios are important for this illuminates the causal explanations involved as well as provides some insight into what should be done following the conflict.

The issues above are useful to consider because confined to any one field of study, any one type of data and any one approach, researchers will be hindered in their seeking answers, which has largely been the case.

Even the questions are hindered by fields as political scientists examine the number of dead bodies, state-building, the number of women in office and/or (to a lesser degree) human rights violations and what preferences find their way into policy; economists examine investment, growth, income and/or (to a lesser degree) ownership; psychologists examine trauma, stress, happiness and reconciliation; legal scholars examine gacaca, punishment and the international legal process; and so forth. We study each of these topics as though they were unrelated to one another.

Rather than continue old practices, however, I would argue that conflicts like that in Rwanda call out for new practices. To understand Rwanda 1994 and afterward, one clearly has to disaggregate data by space, time, actor and action. This is the only way to figure out who did what to whom, where and why – acknowledging that precisely what one was talking about varied across dimensions. Genocide did not engulf all of Rwanda at all points in time, in the same way. Neither did the interstate war, civil war, sexual violence or random violence for that matter. To lump them all together or ignore some while highlighting others (which has been our practice until the current period) is not going to improve our understanding of what transpired then or what could happen later. Rather, it will hinder it.

What is called for at the 20th anniversary of Rwandan violence is a global interdisciplinary collaborative effort, putting forth all of our data on the table as if it were on one webpage. Of course there has been no official call. This is an unofficial official call. We as scholars of conflict and violence do not need to wait for an invitation. Like the promise offered by the Atrocity Prevention Board in the United States that should serve as a coordinating body between all scholars on the topic, we can create our own effort. I advocate keeping it more unofficial than official. As the current Rwandan government has a mixed record with regard to data release and distribution (indeed many of the human rights records that I acquired during my research are no longer publicly available except on my webpage for the project to be released with updated information later this week), it is wise if some more neutral location were to house the data (e.g., dataverse, the ICPSR or some other unit). With such a depository and the unification of data from different fields as well as the conversation that would ensue across fields, we can dramatically improve our insights into what happened. With such a depository, researchers could begin to ask questions that before would be unimaginable. With such a depository, researchers could begin to answer questions that before would be unanswerable. To address the magnitude and complexity of the horror that was Rwanda 1994 we essentially need a research effort that is equally massive and complex. Truth and respect demand such an effort. Decent social science demands it as well.

Not Just Victims and Perpetrators: Understanding Rwanda’s Genocide, Twenty Years-On

Guest post by Aliza Luft

Murambi Genocide Memorial, Rwanda. Photo by Aliza Luft.

Murambi Genocide Memorial, Rwanda. Photo by Aliza Luft.

One day about twenty years ago, a Hutu soldier in Rwanda accepted twenty-five dollars not to kill a Tutsi girl who had been forced into a ditch. As Allison des Forges recounts in the monumental Leave None To Tell The Story, the girl, Marthe, had annoyed the soldier when she didn’t return his greeting from the pit where she was cowering. “I’m going to kill her,” the soldier proclaimed to his friend. But as he took aim, one of the militia, who knew Marthe, intervened. “You shouldn’t kill this girl. There’s no point in that,” he said, despite killing other Tutsi earlier that same day. He pushed the soldier away and gave him money to leave.

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, journalists and academics still work to understand how the country erupted into violence in only one hundred days. They rightly return to the question of how Hutu civilians managed to massacre 800,000 Tutsi, many their neighbors and friends. But fewer examine how some people survived. While many Hutu went on killing, a few found themselves able to resist. Such resistance was often necessary for Tutsi to survive the genocide.

Recent research on those 100 days of horror includes testimony by civilian killers in Rwanda. Embedded in those stories, I have found tales of risky defections — attempts by Hutu to evade participation and help Tutsi during the genocide, as opposed to killing them. In fact, like the example of Marthe above, often those who participated in the Rwandan genocide were also involved, at other points in time, in saving.

Consider the story of Olivier, recounted in Lee Ann Fujii’s book, Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda. Described by Fujii as “every bit the willing executioner,” Olivier explains that it was impossible to save someone during the genocide because trying to do so would often come at the risk of death. Refusing to kill Tutsi meant being a traitor. And yet, Olivier saved his neighbor during the genocide despite massacring others. When he was alone one day, Olivier saw the neighbor — a little boy — trying desperately to escape the violence. Olivier pointed him in the direction of safety, pointing out which route to take so as to avoid getting caught by roving gangs of killers. When asked to explain his actions, Olivier says simply, “I ran into [the boy] when I was alone.” He adds later, “when you ran into someone when you were in a big group, it was hard to save someone.”

What does Olivier’s testimony and the story of Marthe, above, tell us about the Rwandan genocide, twenty years-on?

For one, it is easy to divide people into perpetrators and victims, but things are not usually so neat. We tend to think of genocides as black and white, or in the case of Rwanda, as Hutu vs. Tutsi. In reality, the truth is much more complicated. Many mediating factors, including access to money so as to “buy off” non-participation, proximity to other killers, one’s relationship with the possible victim, and sheer timing (was it earlier in the genocide, when fewer people knew what was happening in the capital where violence began, or later, as militia roved the country recruiting civilians to join in the war?), informed Hutu civilians’ decisions to kill or save Tutsi.

It is common to assume killers in a genocide are acting out of hate, or are monsters. Central to the way social scientists understand who participates in a genocide is the notion of dehumanization — the perception among killers that their victims are less than human. However, interviews often show how some Hutu civilians had nuanced perceptions of their victims, which led them to save some Tutsi, even as they continued killing others. We see this, too, in the accounts by Olivier and concerning Marthe. Despite being actively involved in the genocide, these killers saw some Tutsi whom they were willing to protect. As a result, it seems as if the process of dehumanization is actually an outcome of participation in killing rather than a precursor to it. Again, consider the following story, this time in an interview by Jean Hatzfeldt in his book, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak.

Married to a Tutsi, Jean-Baptiste felt pressured to participate at the risk of having his wife killed if he refused. “Jean-Baptiste, if you want to save the life of your wife Spéciose Mukandahunga, you have to cut this man right now,” the others told him. Jean-Baptiste describes the scene of his first murder as crowded and hectic. Some men shoved him forward, others blocked him from running with their elbows. He struck a blow with his machete and immediately recoiled in horror. “When I saw the blood bubble up, I jumped back a step.” Later he describes adjusting to the process of killing. In his own words, “at first killing was obligatory; afterward we got used to it. We became naturally cruel. We no longer needed encouragement or fines to kill, or even order or advice.” Alphonse, another Hutu interviewed by Hatzfeld, explains similarly, “man can get used to killing, if he kills on and on. He can even become a beast without noticing it.” It wasn’t before the genocide that many Hutu saw their Tutsi neighbors as less than human. Like with Jean-Baptiste, many, in fact, were married to them. Only over time did Hutu stop perceiving their Tutsi neighbors as equals, stop perceiving their actions as murder.

Finally, many Hutu Rwandans did not willingly go to slaughter their neighbors. Many did not see the war as an opportunity to enact long-sought revenge. In fact, many of them were coerced by local authorities, or succumbed to peer pressure at the risk of being labeled a traitor. Political Scientist Ravi Bhavnani, in a 2006 study published in the Journal of Peace Research, refers to these killers as “reluctant perpetrators,” people who chose to kill because the cost of non-participation was too dangerous. Here, in-group pressures shaped Hutu’s actions toward their Tutsi neighbors moreso than any particular feeling of hatred. A final quote, in an interview by Scott Straus and Robert Lyons in their book, Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide, shows just how tortured the decision to participate in genocide was for some:

My older brother had a Tutsi wife. She was there [at a church] with their children. When he went there, the head of the parish asked for food and beer. He went to get them at a center. But while he was at the center, the burgomaster came and said, “Where are you going with those things?” When my brother explained that the priest had asked for food for the refugees, the burgomaster found the killers and took them to kill my older brother. The group did this. But my brother was not dead; he was in agony. The priest came to see what had happened. The priest then went back to the church to get a car to bring my older brother to a health center. I went to see him there. When I arrived, the burgomaster said, “You, you have brought food for the Tutsis. So that you do not begin again, you take a machete and you have to decapitate your brother.” I refused. The burgomaster asked the reservist to force me to decapitate my brother and said if I refused the reservist would kill me. The reservist took me and gave me a machete. He put a gun behind my head and said, “If you do not cut, I will fire.” So I cut. That is my crime.

Paying attention to times at which Hutu tried to save Tutsi, or even negotiated to save some while participating in the murder of others, highlights just how awful genocide is. Before the start of genocide twenty years ago in Rwanda, many Hutu were living their lives separate from politics, side-by-side with their Tutsi neighbors. Knowing this does not mean we should forgive the behavior of Rwanda’s Hutu killers in 1994. But if we wish to prevent another genocide, or perhaps to better understand the ongoing crises in Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Syria, it helps to take into account that many of those caught in the violence are regular people, trapped in a horrible situation. To recognize this does not excuse the killers’ behaviors. But perhaps it makes them more understandable.

Aliza Luft is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Visiting Research Scholar at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. Her research examines how people make decisions to support or resist genocidal regimes.

Geographical Ignorance and Americans’ Views on Ukraine

By Will H. Moore

Yesterday at the Monkey Cage we learned that the worse Americans were at “pinning the tail on the donkey” with respect to Ukraine, the more they supported intervention in the Ukraine. The post comes with a cool map that depicts the American survey respondents’ attempts to locate Ukraine (click that link only if you are willing to tolerate evidence of serious ignorance), and after eyeballing it I got to wondering whether Americans’ ability to locate Ukraine is strongly and positively correlated with their belief about whether Obama wears “mom jeans.”[1] Unfortunately, the post’s authors do not tell us. They do let us know that Independents were considerably more likely to properly locate Ukraine (29%) than Democrats (14%) or Republicans (15%); youth trumped experience (27% to 14%, respectively); and that respondents with college degrees outperformed those without (21% to 13%, respectively). And then it occurred to me that these results seem at odds with what we have learned from Matt Baum’s studies of soft news consumption and foreign policy.

Baum teaches us that knowledge of international politics has grown with the growth of “soft news” sources that focus upon drama, scandal and sex to draw audiences (2003 book, articles: 2002, 2004, 2006). The basic idea is that people who otherwise would tune out stories about international politics are exposed to it when these shows (e.g., Oprah, Entertainment Tonight, The Daily Show, etc.) cover international news stories. Thus, the “inattentive public” has become more knowledgeable about foreign affairs than they were prior to the advent of infotainment programming. Yet, Baum also finds that this inattentive public is considerably more isolationist than then more informed “attentive public.” And that is what caught my eye: the results on Ukraine run strongly counter to what Baum has been finding. And that has me wondering what might explain it.

My best guess is that partisan differences do: ill-informed Democrats and Independents tend to be isolationist, as Baum would have us expect, but ill-informed Republicans tend to be in favor of intervention.[2] Hence my crack about “mom jeans.” But that possibility does not jibe strongly with what we learned about half of the correlation: partisans’ ability to locate Ukraine (Dems and Repubs are equally poor at it). With luck this post will entice the authors of the Monkey Cage post to delve into their data and tell us the answer.


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Weekly Links

By Taylor Marvin

Revue l'Illustration, Execution of Madagascar officials by the French, 1896. Via Wikimedia.

Revue l’Illustration, Execution of Madagascar officials by the French, 1896. Via Wikimedia.

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Brazilian military coup. The coup remains divisive in Brazilian society: Colin M. Snider notes a recent disruption in the country’s congress when a right-wing politician’s supporters hung a banner celebrating the military’s actions because ‘thanks to you Brazil isn’t Cuba.’ Pablo Uchoa remembers the torture of his father, torture Brazil’s military is only beginning to investigate. In an intersection between politics, memory, and social media, the social media team of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff — herself tortured by the military regime — recently changed her page’s Facebook profile picture to an image of her at the time.

As violent political unrest continues in Venezuela — the death toll from ongoing protests reached 39 this weekPresident Nicolás Maduro attacked the opposition in a New York Times op-ed as seeking “to reverse the gains of the democratic process that have benefited the vast majority of the people”; the message is notable for attempting to speak to a US audience, a possible indication that the government fears the prospect of US sanctions. Last week Thomas O’Donnell looked at the government’s economically-risky strategy of pulling out the stops to alleviate shortages in the short-term.

In Crimea, signs of a modernizing, more professional Russian Army, at least among the forces deployed to the peninsula. Joshua Foust passes along a look at Chechens’ view of the annexation.

A Ukrainian government inquiry says that members of the special police were responsible for firing into crowds in Kiev’s Maidan.

Foreign fighters streaming into Syria to battle the Assad regime are weakening the rebels and discouraging Syrians from joining opposition forces. On a similar topic, how the Assad regime, seeking to channel Syria’s Islamists into the Iraq War, helped create the jihadi networks that then turned against it (via Danny Hirschel-Burns).

Via Joseph K. Young and EM Simpson, the challenges of tallying Syria’s war dead.

In the wake of an ugly incident in Bangui where Chadian soldiers killed 30 civilians in disputed circumstances (via Laura Seay), Chad is pulling its forces from the African Union force in the Central African Republic in protest of claims they have aided mostly-Muslim ex-Seleka fighters. Via Jay Ulfelder, the UN now hopes to evacuate 19,000 CAR Muslims from regions where they are threatened by anti-balaka militias.

The International Crisis Group has a new report on Nigeria’s efforts to combat Boko Haram.

Encouraging news in the push to make Mozambique landmine-free, including the story of a young man who lost his leg to a mine and “says he lost his confidence and could not face the world until he was lucky enough to find people to help him believe in himself again,” later founding an organization to help those affected by mines.

Some of the challenges facing Afghanistan’s upcomingand consequential — elections.

The 2013 Human Security Report was recently released.


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