The Meaning of Genocide and the Political Stakes of Naming

Following Ben Meiches’s introductory post yesterday to our symposium on his new book The Politics of Annihilation,  we welcome a first guest contribution from Jelena Subotic. Jelena is Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University, Atlanta. She is the author of two books: Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the Past in the Balkans (Cornell University Press, 2009) and Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism (Cornell University Press, forthcoming, 2019). She is the author of more than twenty scholarly articles on memory politics, national identity, human rights, and the politics of the Western Balkans.

In his deeply thoughtful book, The Politics of Annihilation, Benjamin Meiches invites us to reconsider one of the fundamental concepts in the contemporary study of mass violence – the concept of genocide. He then asks us to separate the construction of the term genocide from its political usage. Meiches carefully traces the development of the concept of genocide, and in the process challenges the conventional narrative that situates the birth of the term squarely with the individual entrepreneurship of Raphael Lemkin in the mid-1940s. Instead, Meiches demonstrates, Lemkin built on a vast array of already existing scholarship in philosophy and international law. The concept of genocide – and Lemkin’s understanding of it – was immediately contested both theoretically and politically and has remained an unsettled field of meaning, prone to politicization.

It is this political power of the concept of genocide that truly bothers Meiches and that forms the heart of the book. As The Politics of Annihilation persuasively demonstrates, the fluidity of the concept of genocide has allowed for pervasive international hypocrisy – where only some conflicts, in some countries, among some groups, in some time periods get to be understood and processed as genocide, while many other instances of mass atrocity, brutality, and political murder do not earn the same designation, leaving them outside political conversation but, much more important, also outside any meaningful political response.

Meiches is particularly concerned with the fact that the conceptual framework of genocide that focuses on mass killing rooted in ethno-religious identity ignores many other horrific instances of violence, including contemporary campaigns of mass atrocity, past colonial extermination campaigns, as well as ongoing displacement and eradication due to climate change. We have a concept, Meiches shows, that is so limited in its scope that it sets the bar for recognition and response so high that it prevents meaningful action. At its strongest, The Politics of Annihilation argues that the concept of genocide allows for more genocides to go on, unchecked, unnoticed, and with impunity. The implications of this argument, therefore, are not only academic; they are also firmly political.

This symposium comes at a time when the discussion about the language of mass violence is consuming the public discourse in the United States. With the introduction of a system of camps for Central American migrants set up by the Trump administration since 2018, and with the amassing evidence of horrendous conditions migrants, especially children, are subjected to in these spaces, there is a raging debate about whether we can call these camps concentration camps (which by the very definition of concentrating undesired people extrajudicially in indefinite detention they certainly are) or whether the use of the term is offensive as it minimizes and trivializes the unique history of Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Migrant camp at the US-Mexico border in Tijuana (November 2018)

It is here that the issue of language Meiches warns us about is directly and painfully obvious. The problem with the current debate about ongoing mass violence against migrants in the United States is that the debate has become one about language and not one about the violence. It is the political gatekeeping of the use of certain historical terms and the prohibition of analogizing from the past to today that is freezing political action. And, as Meiches documents so thoroughly in the book, this institutional gatekeeping when it comes to language use is itself a form of political action, one that perpetuates the system of violence that nominally it was set up to prevent.

But this issue of language policing – especially policing the language of mass violence – and its political implications is an issue of great concern well beyond our current moment of state violence in the United States. For example, the understanding of the Bosnian genocide as genocide continues to be the issue of extreme political potency, twenty-five years after the war ended. While the Bosniac victims of violence have always conceptualized their experience as one of victims of genocide, as they experienced a systematic attempt at annihilation specifically due to their religious and ethnic identity, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has determined that it was only in Srebrenica, in July 1995 that an act of genocide occurred when Bosnian Serbs troops and Serbian paramilitaries killed 8,000 Bosniac boys and men over the course of five days. According to the ICTY’s ruling, the “other” violence that was committed in Bosnia since 1992 did not qualify for this designation.

This determination has extremely significant political consequences – in a political world where ethno-religious genocide is the “crime of crimes” and, as Meiches shows, other types of violence do not merit the same kind of attention and response – the fact that genocidal violence was unleashed on Bosniac civilians very early into the war, in the spring of 1992, has remained completely outside of the major narratives about the Bosnian genocide. In this case, it was not even a different kind of conflict, a different historical period, or a different group of victims. All that was different between the killing in Prijedor in 1992 and killing in Srebrenica in 1995 was the technology and method of murder.

But this stratification of violence – affixing different labels onto the same conflict, victims, and murderous ideology – matters enormously for the everyday politics in genocidal spaces, both during and after the violence. The fact that Srebrenica – and only Srebrenica – has been determined to be the “place of genocide” in Bosnia has created a particular type of post-genocide identity of the city, where Srebrenica has trouble rebounding and reintegrating in the aftermath of the mass atrocity. It has also created much resentment elsewhere in Bosnia, in cities and towns across the country where crimes are forgotten, memorials do not exist, and talk of reparations falls on deaf ears.

Srebrenica Potocari Memorial (2005)

Even further, the designation of genocide for some mass atrocities and not for others also allows for a very particular type of denial of responsibility. Genocide is such a high bar to meet that, as long as it exists in the conversation the responsibility for other, “lesser” mass crimes is also avoided. This is why the Prime Minister of Serbia can so routinely argue that genocide did not happen in Srebrenica and Serbian forces were not responsible – because by denying the “crime of crimes” she can also more easily deny all the other, “lower-grade” violence carried out by the state she now represents. The injustice of the violence, and the injustice of recognizing and elevating only some violence as “genocide,” and other unspeakable horrors as not-quite, continues.

Benjamin Meiches has done us all a huge service by analytically exposing the deep conceptual and political problems inherent in the construction of “genocide.” It is a deeply erudite, learned, and passionately argued case for deconstructing one of the most consequential concepts in the studies of mass violence. About time.


One thought on “The Meaning of Genocide and the Political Stakes of Naming

  1. Pingback: Toward a New Concept of Genocide: A Reply | The Disorder Of Things

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