Revisiting Genocide: From Hegemonic Narratives to Plasticity

The last guest contribution to our symposium is penned by Myriam Fotou,  Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the ethics of hospitality, inquiring into conceptualisations of Otherness within an increasingly securitised intellectual and policy migration framework. She is currently working on people smuggling.


Ben Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation constitutes a deeply nuanced and impressively thought-out genealogy of genocide, offering a detailed account of its complexities and interaction with global politics. Focusing on the hegemonic understanding of genocide – the one we, as IR scholars, have tried over the years to grapple with in our research and teaching – it moves beyond it in an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how such an understanding predefines and constrains our comprehension and conceptualisations of violence and its destructive processes. Bringing in the Deleuzian logic of sense and his and Guattari’s work on the theory of concepts as assemblages (and Malabou’s plasticity in the second part of the book), it succeeds in dealing with the elusiveness and unease the concept presents most of us (or at least the less initiated to genocide studies) with. It argues convincingly for genocide’s ontological independence as concept, an independence that we must take into account when considering the possibilities of its future forms.

Ben Meiches’s book identifies a series of “unique dangers” deriving from the hegemonic understanding of genocide’s tendency to limit and suppress such future forms and any conceptualisations beyond the canon in general. First, the hegemonic understanding acts as a barometer of what truly counts as genocide, constraining more nuanced or multi-aspect genocide discourses, namely limiting the politics that respond to genocide per se. Secondly, it engenders mechanisms, institutions and other tools of global governance imbued by governmentality that in essence define who and what should either be protected or abandoned, leading to serious inequities and exclusions. Thirdly and closely related to the above, it does not allow any space to understand, articulate or even foresee future, novel or more loosely formed destructive and deathly processes that could count as new forms of genocide.

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Hegemonic Understandings of Genocide and Ontologies of Mass Violence

The third post in our series on Ben Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation comes courtesy of Alexander D. Barder, Associate Professor of International Relations at Florida International University. His current research explores the relationships between nineteenth and twentieth century geopolitics, race and violence. He is the author of Empire Within: International Hierarchy and its Imperial Laboratories of Governance (Routledge, 2015) and (with François Debrix) Beyond Biopolitics: Theory, Horror and Violence in World Politics (Routledge, 2012).


There’s a curious moment in Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics. In Chapter Six, Waltz argues that the recurrence of violence does not, in and of itself, distinguish international from domestic politics. “The most destructive wars of the hundred years following the defeat of Napoleon took place,” Waltz writes, “not among states but within them.” As he continues, “Estimates of deaths in China’s Taiping Rebellion, which began in 1851 and lasted 13 years, range as high as 20 million. In the American Civil War some 600,000 people lost their lives. In more recent history, forced collectivization and Stalin’s purges eliminated five million Russians, and Hitler exterminated six million Jews.”[1] To be sure, Waltz glosses over the fact that these examples actually reflect a combination of domestic and international factors. To simply situate them within the domestic realm is highly dubious historically.

What is interesting in Waltz’s gesture, however, is not only how a conceptualization of what the study of international relations is supposed to be essentially brackets the question of (genocidal) violence. What is also noteworthy is an amalgamation of violent events without necessarily discerning a specific genocidal event versus others. Benjamin Meiches’s text The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide takes this head on by problematizing not only how we should understand genocide as a crucial subject of international relations but also in terms of the very conceptualization of genocide as a discrete and self-evident event. In a very compelling but deeply sobering book, Meiches forces us to reflect much more carefully about the very conceptual scaffolds that genocide studies has erected since Raphael Lemkin’s coinage of the term. Part One is a convincing refutation of what Meiches calls the “hegemonic understanding of genocide” (12). Meiches shows how this hegemonic understanding of genocide, which developed through a mixture of academic studies and policy/political initiatives takes for granted objective metrics to discern a genocidal event, reifies the attributes of what is a (victimized) group, takes for granted a notion of juridical intent and normalizes what genocidal violence is supposed to look like. This hegemonic understanding of genocide is problematic, for Meiches, because it “depoliticizes” and “normalizes” mass violence within a constricted epistemology: only certain kinds of violence then merit the categorization of genocide which provokes a hierarchy of claims and counterclaims about its usage. Indeed, in contesting the hegemonic understanding of violence and its conceptual edifice, Meiches shows how its depoliticization actually reflected a political development and commitment to bracket certain forms of violence versus others, expand state powers to militarily address mass atrocities and to create legal and political institutions which serve and continue to serve the interests of great powers.

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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.

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The Politics of Annihilation: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to be hosting over the coming week a symposium for Benjamin Meiches’s important new book The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). Following Benjamin’s introductory post below, we will have a rich set of interventions from Jelena Subotic, Alexander Barder, Jessica Auchter, and Myriam Fotou before a final rejoinder from the author. All the entries in this series will be collated here. Previous symposia are also available.

Benjamin Meiches is Assistant Professor of security studies and conflict resolution at University of Washington Tacoma. In addition to his new monograph, he has contributed a variety of articles to International Political Sociology, Security Dialogue, Critical Studies on Security, and Review of International Studies.

 


“New conceptions require new terms” – Raphaël Lemkin (Axis Rule in Occupied Europe)

“To affirm is not to bear, carry, or harness oneself to that which exists, but on the contrary to unburden, unharness, and set free that which lives.” – Gilles Deleuze (Nietzsche and Philosophy)

Raphaël Lemkin coined the neologism ‘genocide’ in 1944 in a publication called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, a voluminous study that documented legal and policy changes in Europe under Nazi rule. Little did Lemkin know that less than a century later this term would become one of the most charged terms in contemporary politics. Indeed, within a generation, an explosion took place that transformed the concept of genocide from little more than a scholarly heuristic buried in the midst of a legal tome into the most symbolically vexing and affectively potent form of rhetoric in global politics.

Although barely seven and a half decades separates the genesis of the concept of genocide from today, a great drift took place during this period. Consider, for example, a popular and critical use of genocide discourse today. NK Jemisin, author of the brilliant science fiction series The Broken Earth, uses the character of Nassun to speculate about the meaning of genocide. In the text, Nassun is a member of a hunted group called ‘orogenes’ that suffer murder, enslavement, and torture over millennia. Through Nassun’s voice, Jemisin addresses the problem of genocide. Specifically, Nassun states: “But breathing doesn’t always mean living, and maybe…maybe genocide doesn’t always leave bodies.” In some sense, Nassun (or Jemisin) are correct to view this statement as a new (and important) image of genocide because, today, the dominant images of genocide focus primarily on the act of mass killing based on ethnic, religious, national or racial identity. The irony is that Jemisin’s (or Nassun’s) image of genocide, the genocide that may or may not leave bodies, resonates far more powerfully with the vision of genocide articulated by Lemkin and many of his interlocutors at the inception of this discourse.

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The End of The Hague Yugoslavia

The Hague campus of Leiden University today hosted the “Final Reflections” symposium of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Everyone from the institution showed up: current and past presidents, current and past judges as well as ad hoc judges, current and past prosecutors, media officers and archivists, plus a bunch of guests—gender advisors, professors, judges from other courts, and so on. Even the president of the International Criminal Court (ICC) spoke at the last panel. This was not a mere stock-taking exercise “between a variety of stakeholders,” says the agenda.  Rather, it was an opportunity for said stakeholders to reflect on the ICTY’s legacy, ideally via a set of “short but emphatic statement[s] on the importance of international criminal courts and tribunals – particularly in today’s political climate.”

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There’s A Focus On The Boats Because The Sea Is Sexier Than The Land: A Reflection on the Centrality of the Boats in the Recent ‘Migration Crisis’

Pallister-Wilkins.Profile PictureA guest post from Polly Pallister-Wilkins, Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. Polly’s work broadly sits in the borderlands between International Relations, Critical Security Studies and Political Geography. More specifically she specialises in the intersection of humanitarian intervention and border control. Her current research is concerned with what she terms ‘humanitarian borderwork’ building on previous research into humanitarianism, border policing and the political sociologies of walls, fences and security barriers. Her regional areas of focus are the Mediterranean, specifically Greece, and the Middle East. She has been an assistant professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Amsterdam since 2012 after undertaking her doctoral research at SOAS, University of London. Recent work has appeared in International Political Sociology and Geopolitics. She is also the editor of a forthcoming forum in Mediterranean Politics on the ‘Migration Crisis’.


Lesvos boat landing, November 2015.Pallister-Wilkins

I grew up watching Baywatch. Saturday evenings were the highlight of my week. All that sun, sea, sand and heroics. This may account for my poor bastardisation—and for this I apologise—of Warsan Shire’s evocative verse. In addition I am not suggesting that all focus is on the boats that transport people and the sea they cross even as journeys and modes of travel become a central theme in border and mobility policing and the study thereof. I am labouring under artistic license here.

The appearance of search and rescue operations (SAR) in the Mediterranean and Aegean—beyond those undertaken continuously by commercial vessels and the daily routines of state coastguards—is, Cap Anamur aside, a relatively new phenomenon. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) was the first non-state actor to engage in humanitarian driven SAR in 2014, joined in 2015 by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and later Seawatch in the southern Mediterranean. These actors are also present in the Aegean, a wholly different operating environment, with smaller SAR vessels, where they operate amongst a plethora of other groups and individuals focused on responding to the danger of the boat journeys of people on the move.

I have the utmost respect for those engaged in a range of practices that I call humanitarian borderwork. These humanitarian borderworkers, mostly volunteers, work tirelessly to alleviate the violence of a European border regime that makes safe and legal travel an impossibility for those seeking life. These people step in and step up to provide assistance for people on the move where Europe, its member states and its large-scale humanitarian organisations, so used to acting the sovereign and intervening elsewhere beyond the borders of Europe, have failed.

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‘Once more unto the breach’ – On Hilary Benn and Fighting Wars with Words

IMG-20150308-WA0003 (3)A guest post from Nadya Ali. Nadya is a Teaching Fellow in Politics and IR at the University of Reading. Her thesis was written on the topic of UK counter-terrorism and it’s role in the governance of the domestic Muslim population. Her research interests include gendered understandings of political violence and postcolonial approaches in IR. She is also a convenor of the BISA Critical Studies on Terrorism Working Group.


Shadow Home Secretary Hilary Benn has emerged as the unlikely oratory hero through his speech to the House of Commons during the debate on whether to carry out airstrikes in Syria. It has been hailed as ‘extraordinary’ and as one “that will go down as one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons”. Benn has been described as ‘the mouse that roared’ and now even as a potential leadership candidate. The effusive coverage of the speech comes in the aftermath of the successful vote which enables the extension of British airstrikes targeting Islamic State (IS) from Iraq into Syria. Leaving aside the context of internal Labour party politics, Benn’s words have a resonance and political utility that extend far beyond the party. Despite the plaudits and unlike Shakespeare’s Henry V, Benn did not deliver a great speech but simply the right speech.

His dramatic moment in the House of Commons was the culmination of the successful move to, once more, mobilise British military capability as part of the ‘War on Terror’. According to one journalist the speech was written while the debate took place with Benn sitting on the front bench. This was no doubt intended as a compliment but it needn’t be: everything he said was could have been lifted out of the ‘War on Terror Handbook of Justifications to Fight Wars’, if indeed it existed. Since 9/11 Western leaders have deployed the same set of claims about particular actors, states and terrorist organisations to make the case for military interventions. Benn ticked all the relevant boxes; he talked suitably about the ‘fascist’ threat of IS, of ‘our values’ and the necessity to use further violence.

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