In this edition of the Auschwitz Institute podcast, Jared Knoll speaks with Dr. Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, a scholar and activist on the topic of gender and gender-based violence in the context of genocide and mass atrocities. Last year she published an article titled “Gender and the Future of Genocide Studies and Prevention” in the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention, and in addition to having been an instructor at the Auschwitz Institute’s Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, she will be contributing to a forthcoming volume on the prevention of mass atrocities, edited by the Auschwitz Institute.
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Welcome, I’m Jared Knoll for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. Today we’re looking at an often overlooked and under-discussed aspect of mass atrocities: gender. Joining me is Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, a prolific speaker on the subject and author of an article last year called “Gender and the Future of Genocide Studies and Prevention.” Hello, Elisa. Great to have you with us.
Thank you so much. Great to be here.
Why do we need to consider gender and gender-based violence as factors in the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities?
Well, there’s several ways to answer that. I think the primary reason it’s important that we look at gender-based violence when we’re thinking about the prevention of mass atrocities is that it is a very early warning signal when a conflict is underway. There are specific types of gender-based violence that I believe have a high correlation with genocide down the road, and when we see them used by a certain perpetrating group — whether it’s a state, or a political party, or a cadre within an armed force — when we see them using these specific forms of gender-based torture and patterns of killing, and sexual violence in particular, we can predict with some accuracy the spread of this sort of violence to greater and greater numbers of people down the road, if it’s left unchecked. And that is if there isn’t any diplomatic, political, economic, or, as a last resort, military intervention.
It isn’t talked about very much, rape and violence against women, or at least they aren’t much focused on. What do you think that says about our concerns?
There seems to be an intellectual block, in a sense, in the study of genocide to considering rape as an integral part of genocide. Of course there are many scholars who do. But in policymaking circles, frequently the widespread presence of rape or mass rape in a conflict, when it’s not attended also by co-ed massacre sites, is seen to be a special category that we call mass atrocity but not genocide. So in other words, you have several cases where the existence of gender-selective massacres of men, alongside the mass rape of women who were allowed by and large to continue living, you see that pattern used as a way to argue that genocide had not taken place, but rather war crimes, or crimes against humanity, or this much less specific term, “mass atrocity.”
What roles do you think that culture and religion play in these occurrences? Do you think there’s anything to arguments for cultural relativity, cultural sensitivity, or are we dealing with human rights that transcend those borders?
Yeah, that’s a very interesting question, and I think it’s an important one. I see these as universals, simply because they occur in similar formats throughout most of the cases of genocide that I’ve looked at, and then also cases that aren’t commonly considered to be genocide that I would include within an understanding of genocidal processes, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, or the current conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. So there is a kind of a universal dimension to these, in that genocide expresses itself very similarly across cases. Where I think cultural sensitivity is really important, and where it becomes very interesting, is, you know, the differences in patterns. Why in certain places one kind of atrocity is more pronounced than another, for example. And what cultural factors lead to that, and whether or not those cultural factors then themselves have contributed to this genocidal process, or are they just being drawn on or implicated in the genocidal process because they exist. So those sorts of questions are very important.
I think genocide is a universal crime and that it is universally frowned upon, and should be, and so we can be safe to say that if there’s a culture that’s caught up in a genocidal logic over a long period of time that humanity needs to respond, that there needs to be some response to that. Where I think cultural relativism becomes problematic is when it treats different cultures in a kind of ossified and rigid way that actually shares some characteristics with genocidal thinking by imposing strict trenches between different groups that can’t be bridged through human conversation or dialogue. And I think that oftentimes one will find people retreating to that type of cultural relativism, when it appears, when the persons promoting the prevention of genocide are not investigating genocidal dynamics in their own societies. Where I’ve gotten questions related to cultural relativism is often in situations where it’s felt that Americans are always going around the world telling people to be aware of genocide and how to prevent genocide, without sufficient awareness of our own history of genocide and lingering patterns within our society that emerge from that history, as well as red flags that we have in this country. So to avoid that I think it’s very important that whenever we’re talking about genocide prevention, and in all of our studies of genocide, that we seek to be truly universal in the cases that we look at, right, and universal in the societies that we target for long-term prevention of genocide. And those should and have to include Western countries, including the United States.
In cases where we can identify those cultural causes that contribute toward genocide or can lead to that, do you think that it may be necessary, or do you think it may be justifiable, for the international community or for international actors to take a stand against those practices, against those factors?
Yeah, that’s a very interesting and sensitive question, and I’m glad you asked it. This question was very relevant of course to the debate about and the struggle against female genital cutting, right, or what’s often called female genital mutilation. And it was actually very harmful when there appeared to be a unidirectional command from on high that certain societies stop this practice. What was much more effective was when local NGOs — often aided by training or funding or dialogue with international bodies — but when local NGOs began initiatives to speak with the practitioners of this, to speak with parents, to speak with young people and leaders within communities to try and change the way that this practice was seen, and replace it with other practices that could ritually or culturally attain the same goals without actually harming young girls.
So I think that when we’re looking at long-term factors that contribute to genocide, one of the most important things we can do is be in dialogue with local human rights groups, local civics groups, local intellectuals, obviously — in a truly dialogic and equal fashion, where everybody’s laying out a set of ideas about what can lead to genocide. And so that you have, internally within a society, a genocide watchdog that is going to be much more sensitive and much more aware of the meaning of certain cultural practices and their potential dangers down the road than any outsider could ever be, unless of course they spent a great deal of time there and speak the language.
You’ve been talking a lot about Syria lately. There’s been a lot of concern in the international community about the possibility of genocide of the Alawites. Do you think that horse is already out of the stable?
Yes. I do. But it depends on how you look at it and how you’re defining things. Since we all agree, I think, that genocide is a process, I think we’re in the genocidal process. But perhaps we need to make a distinction between the process of genocide and the fact of genocide after the end of hostilities. It’s only of course in retrospect that we can be absolutely sure, right, or close to 100 percent sure, that something we would call a genocide happened. The Rwandan genocide looked very different at the beginning of the hundred days than it did at the end. And this was one of the problems with garnering international support for some kind of effective intervention there. And so it’s similar in Syria. However, what we do see in Syria is focused attacks on children. So not just killing by shelling, not that kind of impersonal killing, but very personalized, ritualized, torturous killing of children, both in front of their parents at the site of massacres, but also in detention, then I think that says something about the intent of the regime, or certain groups within the regime.
Can you tell us a little about your contribution to Deconstructing Prevention? Are there pertinent situations or issues you think we need to focus on that have cropped up since your 2012 article?
Yeah, that’s interesting. I think the rise of the use of the term “mass atrocity” is a very interesting thing, and it comes out of the despair that many felt during the genocide in Darfur, where it felt that a lot of the tension was taken away from the horror going on in Darfur and instead devoted to a very useless and highly politicized debate about whether or not this conflict conformed to the UN legal definition of genocide. So “mass atrocities” grew out of that sense of frustration. Who cares if it’s genocide, let’s just call it mass atrocities. But I think one of the reasons that could happen, that we needed to replace this powerful term “genocide” with “mass atrocity,” is that Darfur followed a very gender-selective pattern of genocide. And so you have men routinely massacred, whereas women were raped and allowed to continue living. And it was the fact of their continued existence that often was the reason that people were unwilling to call what was going on in Darfur genocide and instead wanted to call it ethnic cleansing, or civil war, or counterinsurgency. And so it’s out of a very gendered idea of what genocide is that this term “mass atrocity” has been created. So I think that we need to interrogate that. We need to look at why it is that we needed to create a term like “mass atrocity,” whether or not it’s effective to have an even more vague and debatable term, in a sense.
Gender and genocide was a long-term interest of mine. I didn’t know that’s what it was, but I’d always been interested in women’s Holocaust testimonies and the ways that the National Socialists sought to destroy women as women, and use children against them to do so, which is a common theme in testimonials and memoirs from the Holocaust. So I brought those two together and was doing work on gender and genocide, and then it was only through a fluke, in a sense, that Adam Jones, whose work I find to be wonderful and has been very influential on my own work, suggested me to the Auschwitz Institute to get involved in these genocide prevention — the Raphael Lemkin workshops and seminars that you guys hold. And so it was through that path, and it was really the Auschwitz Institute that got me thinking about how I can utilize my research on gender and genocide for genocide prevention.
Well, I hope you’ll continue to push our definitional outlooks on genocide and mass atrocities, and keep gender a part of the conversation. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Thank you very much.
Photo: Courtesy Elisa von Joeden-Forgey