Dirk Moses on the Diplomacy of Genocide and the Sinister Ambition of Permanent Security [Part II]

This is the second part of Ferenc Laczo’s conversation with Dirk Moses. You can read the first part here.

Ferenc Laczó: You not only critique the concept of genocide and its political implications but also develop an alternative explanation and suggest a new overarching concept. You argue in the book that the social fact of racial or religious difference or even prejudice does not cause mass violence; it is the securitization of groups, whether racialized or otherwise defined, that drives excessive forms of violence. 

Would you be willing to discuss how concepts of state security and military necessity function and why you think they lie at the heart of major acts of state transgression? What can the key analytical term you suggest, that of permanent security, help us grasp better than competing concepts? On a more methodological level, may I ask how you draw on the accounts of perpetrators of mass crimes in the book, and why?

Dirk Moses: I worked on the question of genocide in Australia, and I edit the Journal of Genocide Research, so I ended up at least with an amateur familiarity with numerous cases, whether genocide in the colonial context of North America, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, or the Rohingya in Myanmar, many cases in the twentieth century, such as Stalinist crimes against Soviet civilians, and of course the Holocaust. One of the virtues of comparative work is that you begin to discern patterns and logics in civilian destruction.

The pattern is not necessarily the recrudescence of racial hatred which then manifests itself in state annihilation policies. It’s rather the political rhetoric of security. Groups are targeted not only because they are hated, but because they are perceived as threatening. 

This leads me to conclude that we need to look much more carefully into what causes mass violence against civilians. I talk a lot about paranoia in the chapter on the Nazis, for example. Their perception of threats was not objectively accurate, of course, but we need to get into the heads of perpetrators to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. That obviously doesn’t mean accepting their propaganda at face value. But given that they believed their own propaganda, their threat perceptions clearly have causal power.

You asked me about the concept of permanent security: it’s not a term I invented. Rather it comes from a Nazi war criminal, who was hanged after his trial at Nuremberg by the Americans: Einsatzgruppen leader Otto Ohlendorf whose Einsatzgruppe murdered 90,000 Jews in East Central Europe and in the Crimea area. 

In his trial, Ohlendorf was asked why he did this, to which he responded that Jewish children would have grown up to become partisan enemies. The prosecutor was shocked and challenged him, to which Ohlendorf replied that he had to understand that the Germans didn’t just want regular security but permanent security: they were building a thousand-year Reich. 

This rhetoric of attacking and murdering Jewish women and children reminded me of the rhetoric on the American frontier about “nits make lice”: killing infant Native Americans before they grew up to become warriors who could confront settler colonialism. 

Here was a rhetorical link that speaks volumes about the mentality of states and perpetrators engaged in violent expansion. They are not dealing only with threats today but preempting future ones. There is a radical temporal dimension here that is deeply utopian in a sinister sense. 

This is where the paranoia comes in: trying to predict who could be dangerous and eliminating them in anticipation. It inevitably involves expelling, incarcerating, terrorizing and/or killing non-combatants, whether women, children, or men. That was the Nazi attitude towards Jews who, with the left, were held responsible for the German loss of the First World War and the chaos of the Weimar Republic.

This temporal slippage has led to confusion about the causes of such persecution. Because Jews were not engaged in a violent insurgency against the Nazis in or outside Germany, the image we have of the Holocaust is one I call non-political: Jews attacked solely for being Jews, attacked on the grounds of identity rather than for their political agency. That image then made its way into the Genocide Convention.

As I suggest above, if you look more closely – and as I reconstruct in detail in the book – Jews were attacked because they were considered a dangerous threat, at least a potential one, however outlandish the notion. It is thus important to understand perpetrator mentality and the paranoia that goes with it. 

In doing so, you can place the Nazi case on a spectrum of different intensities of paranoia with other cases rather than in a distinct category of non-political violence – a category that supposedly differs from other cases, which occur in the context of civil wars, occupations, and so forth. 

Because of the Holocaust’s incredible aura, it functions as genocide’s archetype or ideal type, which gets me to your question about the political function of genocide. When people try to argue that say the American policy in Vietnam is genocidal, as Jean-Paul Sartre and other leftists did in the late 1960s and 1970s, liberals and conservatives who defended American policy, even if they agreed that it was excessive at times – and they did acknowledge that there were massacres like the one in My Lai – they would say that it doesn’t resemble the Holocaust. 

That slippage between genocide and Holocaust is consistent in the public debates about the legibility of genocide. Whether you categorize something as a genocide appears to depend on whether the victims can be seen to resemble Jews in the Holocaust.

The common argument goes that, say, the Vietnamese do not because members of that group were engaged in a rebellion. In other words, they aren’t being killed as such solely on the grounds of their identity. They are being killed because members of their group are insurgents. What’s so fatally disastrous about that kind of reasoning is that people accept a kind of a collective guilt ascription and legitimation. 

To make this clearer: people will agree that what happened to Jews was awful but when it comes to other cases, they might end up saying rather outlandish things. This also goes for one of the debates that has been going on in Germany this summer, which you alluded to in your kind introduction. The historian Götz Aly said the intentionality of the Holocaust is unique because Nazis killed Jews just for being Jewish. He distinguished this from the case of German South West Africa before the First World War where German forces committed what many now regard as a genocide. That was different, Gegenwehr, a defensive act, because of an uprising by the Herero and the Nama under German occupation. Aly implied that the Germans were reacting to African aggression. True, they were excessive in doing so, but the intentionality was different. I question this reasoning because it’s buying into the colonial view that arrogated to Germans the right to be governing and exploiting the Africans in the first place. There can be no question of Gegenwehr in these circumstances.

If you use an imperial approach to history, you then see that the German expansionism into Africa and the German expansionism into East Central Europe during WWII carried with it similar logics of partisan or colonial warfare. To be sure, the circumstances differed: the population densities, the capacities of a small German Schutztruppe in German South West Africa compared to the Nazi war machine with hundreds of divisions are obviously very different. But the paranoia about security is the same. The attempt to search for once-and-for-all solutions, to annihilate an ethnic group that’s considered dangerous is also the same as is the racist settler colonial utopia. 

Driving the Herero and the Nama into the desert after having defeated the uprising, then pushing the rest of the civilian population into the desert to kill them is governed by the same logic of annihilating future threats as the Holocaust. It’s very difficult for some people to get their heads around that because we’ve grown up with this stark distinction between attacking a group solely on the grounds of identity and then contrasting that with attacking a group because members of it were engaged in an insurgency.

Ferenc Laczó: Let us also talk about what you and others have called “the diplomacy of genocide” and the type of memory regime our strong contemporary focus on genocide has contributed to. First of all, how have states, lawyers, and various activists related to genocide claims in recent decades? In other words, what are some of the key characteristics of the broad field of fighting for genocide recognition and of contesting that label? Second, what have been some of the key effects and what might have been some of the less salutary effects of victim-identification and Holocaust memory in your view?

Dirk Moses: There are many different actors operating in the space I call the diplomacy of genocide: state of ficials – and, of course, states themselves are complex amalgamations of different departments, different lobbies, and different ministries with their specific agendas – the media within a state, peace activists, diaspora groups from both “sides” within a particular state trying to gain attention and put their message across in the media. Then you have opposition politicians who are in touch with these diaspora groups and/or peace groups, especially if they’re in their electorate, who are then trying to get attention in the press or in Parliament, and so forth. Even within a national sphere, then, we witness complex interactions by actors with various agendas. Transpose that to an international sphere and the complexity is compounded because the violence usually takes place in another country. The diplomacy of genocide is also taking place at the level of the UN and international newspapers, like the London-based The TimesThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, and so forth.

The general pattern seems to be that the representatives of the victim group or the group that wants to draw attention to its victim status, both in situ and in their diasporas, will claim that genocide is taking place – as, for example, Uyghur activists are doing today in relation to China. You will then get certain sympathetic members of a humanitarian lobby who will agree with them. This was particularly the case in the Darfur activism about 17 years ago. One observes consistently that Holocaust references are mobilized in advocating for the genocide label: “this is like the Jews in 1942” or, somewhat more indirectly, “these victims are being attacked solely on the grounds of their identity. It has nothing to do with the fact that there’s actually a civil war going on.” 

There’s thus an attempt to depoliticize the agency of the victims and to make them resemble the “exemplary victims”: the agentless Jews. I’m not saying Jews were agentless in the Second World War – Jews resisted their persecution in many ways – but that’s the prevalent image: innocent victims of state terror attacked just for being who they are. That usually requires a distortion of the empirical reality in subsequent cases.

To give you an example: during the various Balkan wars of the early 1990s, advocates for the Bosnians were seeking American intervention and using the language of genocide, to which US Secretary of State Warren Christopher (1925–2011) justified his reluctance to commit the Clinton administration to intervention by using the Holocaust archetype to his advantage: “It’s somewhat different than the Holocaust,” he determined. “It’s been easy to analogize this to the Holocaust, but I never heard of any genocide by the Jews against the German people.” There were, he continued damningly, “atrocities on all sides,” suggesting that victim agency disqualified the genocide label. 

This is the slippage that takes place and usually at the expense of the victim group. If the Holocaust is so distinctive or unique, to use this theological language that some people deploy, then it’s impossible, by definition, for other cases to resemble it. And yet if the Holocaust is the archetype or Weberian ideal type of genocide – as is consistently implied in the way discourse functions, even if that is not in the legal documents – then it’s virtually impossible for victim groups to be legible as victims of genocide because their case doesn’t resemble the Holocaust. That’s one of the main problems of genocide. 

The Holocaust is in the DNA of the genocide concept because its definition was redescribed in the Genocide Convention to remove the element that Lemkin put in to create the coalition I talked about. This also accounts for the fact why there is this notion of genocide as the crime of crimes.

It wouldn’t be such a problem if there wasn’t this hierarchy in international crimes, at least in the public imagination, with genocide at the top. If crimes against humanity was the crime of crimes instead of genocide, we wouldn’t be having this conversation and I wouldn’t have had to be writing this book. After all, crimes against humanity is much easier to prove since you don’t need the special intent and it’s applicable not only to ethnic, racial, and religious groups but to all civilians.

My next comment comes from my own experience as a teacher: it is remarkable to see even students who are Sri Lankan Tamils come to me at the university after I teach a genocide course and say “how do we get our suffering in Sri Lanka to be recognized like the Holocaust? How did the Jews do it? What’s their secret?” as if it’s a question of marketing. The point I am making here is not to expose these students whose families were suffering terribly in Sri Lanka, but to point out the enormous symbolic attraction that a plausible genocide allegation has for victim groups.

To reiterate: in doing so, they try to portray their case in Holocaust-like terms because they’re making the link in their own heads. They’re not necessarily always looking at the Genocide Convention. That’s what the international lawyers do who are much more concerned with the black letter of the law, as you would expect lawyers to be – they just think “can I prove these various elements in the facts that I see before me?” 

I’m currently in a large group email chain with others involved or interested in the Uyghur case:  social scientists and historians, experts on Xinjiang, lawyers, advocates, and politicians. It’s fascinating to see how the lawyers react compared to the others to the allegation of genocide that a formal but non-official tribunal came out with recently. They’re uninterested in Holocaust analogies. However, in public consciousness, those analogies are relevant: they are politically significant, and we therefore need to talk about them.

In a regime of memory in which the Holocaust is considered unique and yet also an archetype for a generic crime, we have – as I’ve said – problems of recognition for crimes that can’t be made to resemble the Holocaust. That includes quite a lot of civilian destruction, which is what I’m concerned about. 

When I teach a class on genocide, I ask students “what’s the largest mass casualty event of civilians in the 20thcentury and is it categorizes a genocide?” It’s not. Consider the 45 million deaths in the Great Leap Forward in China. Genocide is not the right legal category; that’s one reason it’s not on the agenda of a genocide class. But what good is the genocide concept if it excludes that, as it also excludes the US flattening of North Korea in which millions died, and if it excludes the atomic bombing of enemy civilians? 

The principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants that the International Committee of the Red Cross guards as the hallmark of “civilized warfare” – if there’s such a thing as civilized warfare – if that’s our moral precept, then there are a lot of exceptions to it. One of the arguments of the book is that the exclusion is deliberate: that by fetishizing genocide as “the crime or crimes,” we posit the language of transgressions much higher than before Lemkin invented the concept. We accept as “not so shocking” all the stuff that’s beneath that very high threshold of genocide.

Ferenc Laczó: The Problems of Genocide also discusses the rise and institutionalization of comparative genocide studies as an academic field. You assert – and I am quoting – that “after briefly parting company in the 1970s and 1980s, when the humanitarian conscience challenged permanent security in all its modes, they again became one and the same entity – as they had been for much of the previous 500 years” and that much of the field of comparative genocide studies in fact started to serve as an academic handmaiden of American global ambitions. In what ways has this academic field served such ambitions? More generally, what do we know today about the connections between liberal internationalism and the violence entailed in attempts to permanently pacify the globe? Do you perhaps see a new civilizing mission developing around genocide prevention and prevalent contemporary modes of “the politics of pity”? 

Dirk Moses: It’s important for your readers to understand what I mean by a moment in the 1970s and 1980s when permanent security was being identified as a problem and criticized. Although no one used the language of permanent security at the time, there were a significant number of legal and other academics in the US and elsewhere who were mobilized by opposition to the Vietnam War, including many liberals: not just leftists. 

They wrote significant works, set up research centers, and got a hearing in public from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. They challenged the American security state and particularly a rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons. There was an important peace movement in the 1980s: some of the older readers will remember the standoff between the Soviets and the Americans around the deployment of Pershing missiles in Germany to challenge the Soviet stationing of SS-20s. I write about them in chapter 10.

There’s a change in the 1980s when American interference or intervention in the outside world comes to the fore – just think of American support for right-wing dictatorships in Latin America. You could date this change to the presidency of Ronald Reagan when the chagrined restraint of the post-Vietnam years quickly came to an end. 

Genocide Studies develops after the critical moment as its uncritical liberal successor. It’s just a handful of scholars in the 1980s who wrote some important books that served as the early bibles for the field. This group of scholars grew into a more international network in the 1990s, but the field was really concentrated in North America, consisting mainly of Jewish and Armenian scholars who were interested, often for family reasons, in genocide. 

To their credit, they were less interested in the uniqueness of the Holocaust as scholars, although they did believe in that idea, than in comparison because they wanted to be able to talk about genocide prevention today. One reason I became involved in this field is because I shared their general ethics: I was very interested in advocating for the indigenous Australians or at least writing about them and being a useful scholarly ally.

Genocide Studies was challenged in real time: the Rwanda genocide and the situation in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. Then you had this moment of humanitarian intervention, for example, in Kosovo in 1999. Samantha Power writes her book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (2002) about sins of omission – instances where America should have intervened but didn’t. Power’s book made a big impact and became scripture for many members of the Genocide Studies community in the US. 

I went to my first Genocide Studies conference in the US as a graduate student in 1999 and recall the atmosphere quite well. I remember, for example, the deep criticism that Mark Levene, a very important British scholar, received for challenging the clear but unstated assumption that the US should be the vehicle for preventing genocide around the world. Levene came out of the peace movement and anti-war studies. He was also into international and diplomatic history and into environmental activism. He was deeply suspicious of all empires and of the state generally. He was rebuked for daring to challenge that Samantha Power-style consensus that had developed in Genocide Studies in the 1990s. 

That scholarly community was thrilled by the NATO bombing of Serbian forces in 1999. Many of them were also not against the war on terror. If they were uneasy about certain aspects of it, they divided the world in a very Cold War way between the non-Western states and entities that were oppressing their minorities and Western powers, especially the US, who should rescue them; there was a sort of white rescue fantasy built into a lot of this activism. In saying that, I don’t disparage the sincere efforts of committed colleagues who work on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which doesn’t necessarily involve military intervention. 

In fact, there are a range of policy options available to the international community to pressure states that are oppressing their minorities or conquering another state and then doing the same there. Obviously, I deplore those acts. If there are ways of applying pressure on those states, then those options should be investigated. However, the asymmetries of the gaze are troubling for many of us and can’t be disassociated from the disastrous Global War on Terror policy.

In response, a number of us formed our own Genocide Studies association called the International Network of Genocide Scholars in 2005, which is the one that sponsors the Journal of Genocide Research, the journal I edit, the oldest journal in the field. What I and others observed – and this is where the diplomacy of genocide comes in – is that the Genocide Studies community would mobilize the language of genocide to condemn America’s geopolitical enemies, but it didn’t have much to say about the crimes of America’s geopolitical allies and still less about US policy. Whether genocide is the right concept I leave aside for the moment, but there was just no interest in those crimes at all. 

One of the reasons I think we need to come up with a new concept to explain why states engage in the oppression and destruction of civilians is to get beyond the fetishization of certain types of civilian distraction at the expense of others. This would allow us to observe that there aren’t “goodies and baddies” in international relations – everyone’s a potential baddy.

If anyone has cleaner hands, though, it’s the human rights NGOs. Their reports, like those of Human Rights Watch, for example, need to be taken seriously. As might be expected, they are selectively read and received by states. For those who are looking to be activists, I would direct them to those kinds of organizations rather than wanting to become diplomats where you’re inevitably going to have to make terrible compromises.

Ferenc Laczo: The violent potential of state sovereignty clearly continues to threaten civilian destruction of people securitized as threatening. The hope of your book is “to promote civilian protection by a revaluation of international law and the dominant memory regimes.” In this spirit, you plead for the outlawing of the deeply sinister ambition of permanent security. As a final question, let me perhaps ask you about some of the positive developments you see. Would you say there is a growing understanding of the strategic logics underlying mass violence and a stronger focus today on outcomes rather than perpetrator intentions as compared to say the 1990s? More specifically, how do you view the rise of the new “atrocity paradigm” which includes genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes all at the same time?

Dirk Moses: It’s a good place to start where you ended your question: why is there this new concept of atrocity crimes? This concept has been developed by scholars like David Scheffer and others in recent years, and it’s been adopted by the UN Secretariat in a Framework of Analysis document in 2014. The concept bundles genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Although ethnic cleansing doesn’t have legal standing, it has been rhetorically bundled into this new concept – even though it is already included in crimes against humanity since the transfer of civilians is part of a crime against humanity.

The concept of atrocity crimes has been developed because genocide is so difficult to prove; so much so that lawyers usually resort to crimes against humanity and especially war crimes. Most of the successful indictments will be for those two – which are obviously bad enough. My view is that if we didn’t have this peculiar hierarchy, such successful indictments would be considered a great victory for the victim group. But the victims still insist on the genocide accusation. It is such indictments and prosecutions that get the most attention: genocide has this negative aura that the others don’t. The lawyers nonetheless go for what they can get through the courts, which is crimes against humanity and war crimes.

I see the idea of mass atrocity crimes as a necessary development at the United Nations level, one that was forced upon it by the impossibility of this architecture inherited from the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. 

Outside in the community, people see a beautifully designed, integrated architecture that the international community has at its disposal, but it’s highly incoherent in some ways. As I’ve explained, it’s virtually an accident that we got “genocide” after the Second World War. 

Genocide and crimes against humanity also overlap in so many aspects. At the same time, crimes against humanity is much more an outcomes-based crime: a crime of strict liability. The fact that a military officer, say, deported civilians is all that needs to be proved. You only need actus reus (“guilty act” in Latin), you do not need mens rea (“criminal mind” in Latin). You don’t need to prove the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, “as such” – an intention that was meant to destroy the group in something like a metaphysical way, erase it from the Earth, and so forth. 

I think there is a very uneven situation in global affairs. There are divergent or contrapuntal trends that are very difficult to generalize. In practice, there is this outcomes-based approach, but in the public mind the image of the sinister, malevolent leader that wants to annihilate a group, like in the Holocaust, is still very central.

When I look at the activism around the Uyghur case, I see the same patterns that I’ve studied concerning the 1960s and 1970s in relation to the Biafra case in Nigeria and the East Pakistan case (now Bangladesh) in 1971 where victim groups were constantly pressing for a genocide recognition and there was an intense resistance to that by the perpetrator states – which is obviously predictable – and then there was also the mobilization of Holocaust imagery by all sides to either make an analogy or to say that the analogy doesn’t work. As I see a persistence of that structure of discourse today, I’m somewhat pessimistic. 

That’s also why I think we need to move away from this idea of a “crime or crimes” and move to a notion where we problematize the security claims of states with greater intensity. For example, the Chinese state says we’re not attacking the Uyghurs as such, we’re putting them in education camps in Xinjiang because we want to make sure that the secessionist tendencies of the Uyghur population are liquidated. It’s not genocide, it insists, but a legitimate security operation. 

They will get away with that geopolitically, because no one is going to prevent the Chinese state from doing what it wants: this is what great powers can do. But they are still very sensitive about their image in global affairs. They will be running a security argument that it’s against terrorism that in part resembles the global war on terror arguments advanced by Western powers; the latter have set themselves a trap by harping on terrorism as a legitimator for foreign policy. Obviously, terrorist attacks were problems, and states need to do something about them, but going into continuous, permanent warfare with flying missiles in other parts of the world may not be the right answer.

If you problematize security rhetoric by a state rather than trying to engage in nitpicking about whether its conduct is genocide or not, then you can have a conversation about whether the security measures are legitimate or not, and whether they rise to the level of permanent security. 

Here’s a concrete way of thinking about it. When dealing with the secessionist violence that did occur some time ago by Uyghurs – not by many of them, but by some – the Chinese state could have arrested the perpetrators and placed them on trial. That would have been a legitimate and legal security measure. Instead, they are implementing a permanent security policy by incarcerating a large proportion of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang for a permanent reeducation program, and also affecting the birth rate, apparently to diminish the Uyghur population and increase the Han population in order to prevent future secessionist possibilities. 

That’s permanent security because it’s about preemption; it’s about preventing security threats in the future. Doing so necessarily entails massive human rights violations. 

The mere fact that you can identify this utopian future-oriented dimension to the policy, which is clearly discernible in Chinese government statements and is apparent in practice, reveals its criminal dimension. It should shock us, and it clearly does shock many people’s conscience, but we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about why other than referring to genocide. My point is that you could criminalize that policy without having to get caught up in Holocaust analogies or sidetracked whether it’s genocide or not. For the Chinese, if they can say it’s not genocide, then they’ve supposedly won, as it were.

How do we know that states operate like this? When the United Nations special investigation into the Darfur case in Sudan concluded in 2005 that genocide was not taking place, but instead crimes against humanity plus the crime of persecution, there were audible sighs of relief from Khartoum and in many African Union states: nothing to see here, it’s just crimes against humanity. I regard it as highly regrettable that crimes against humanity is seen as less grave than genocide. But this is what you get when genocide is anointed as the “crime of crimes.”

The book is also interested in why we find certain transgression shocking and other ones not. Why don’t we find shocking permanent drone warfare against non-white civilians in which tens of thousands, if not more, are killed over a ten–twenty-year period? I know there are moments when people are upset, for instance, when the New York Times recently exposed the fact that an American reprisal missile in Afghanistan killed ten people, apparently seven of them children, but such news disappears two or three days later. 

Genocide is not the right word here, so we need to devise a vocabulary that criminalizes that kind of state policy. For these circumstances I suggest “liberal permanent security”: the utopian aspiration to make the world safe for western civilians for all time by serially killing many non-western terrorist suspects preemptively and attendant civilians with them. My view is we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders. We should be reassessing our global security policies.

Read the first part of this conversation here.

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