21st Century: Genocide and the state of international activism

To millions of people across the world, the term genocide refers to the systematic decimation of a group of people. Yet genocide in and of itself refers to a much broader sense of subjection, one which is explained through the roots of holocaust that generally lies in interwar periods and sinks back into the history of rising tension between two distinct groups. Having grown up hearing about the Armenian Genocide and Holocaust, I assumed that a genocide consisted of killings. Though I knew cultural loss, ethical conversions, other sorts of non-murder assault were a part of genocide, I considered these as genocidal effects and not necessarily a main aspect of it. Primo Levi exemplified this point in his work regarding the “gray zone” in which he revealed the moral ambiguity in the Holocaust, essentially disseminating the over-simplified ideas that we, as the general public, have about the victims and perpetrators of genocides. The actual qualifications of a “genocide” too have expanded in my perspective beyond just physical massacre to mental harm, prevention of births within the group, and the transfer of children. Looking back on the Armenian Genocide, these aspects apply as men were forced to watch the torment of others (which caused psychological, even permanent, trauma and children were sold into slavery or converted to Islam, leading to a loss of religious culture for many Armenians. In the Holocaust, too, concentration camps led to millions of Jews and other discriminated races losing their sense of identity. Especially in this genocide, measures were taken to prevent births and thus to terminate the possibility of expanding the number of Jews. In the Rwandan Genocide, mental and physical harm was also inflicted upon people especially in the form of rape. Mothers and families were forced to watch their daughters raped and assaulted by Hutus.

It’s especially fascinating to me to study the differences between the three largest genocides: the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan Genocide. The term “genocide” wasn’t coined until after the Armenian Genocide, and of these three, the holocaust of the Armenians remains the only one largely unrecognized by majors powers of today, including the U.S. According to the Turkish government, the deportations were a means of defense when some Armenians began to side with the Russians during World War I and just as many Turkish Muslims as Armenian Christians died during this time. Hence, Turkey claims that there was no real attempt to wipe out the Armenian race. This situation especially raises the question: what constitutes a genocide? In the case of the Turks or Armenians, history sides with the Armenians. The Armenian situation was a long withstanding one in the Ottoman Empire, dating back decades and especially during the late 1800’s Hamidian Massacres when hundreds if not thousands of Armenians were killed. Thus the deportations, mass massacres, rape, child transfers, psychological tortures, primitive physical abuse, among other atrocities towards the specific group of people, Armenians do in fact point to genocide. Yes, while other smaller Christian minorities were also included in the annihilations, the same could be said for the Holocaust, the genocide against the Jews, in which minorities like Gypsies and homosexuals were killed as well. What makes this particular incident a genocide is the nature of systematic discrimination based on race and in part religion. Whether the Turkish or U.S. government recognize the Armenian Genocide is irrelevant in arguing that it indeed did occur. Recognition, in my belief, is something different than proving existence–recognition is a means of healing, a means to reconcile with the past, a means to demonstrate responsibility to the world, a means to prevent future genocides from occurring. If one genocide can be forgotten, can’t another? Can’t many more?

This leads us to question, why genocide occurs. In the Armenian Genocide, Holocaust, and Rwandan Genocide, mass-murders and other terrors of genocide were undergone during, most prominently, a brief interwar period between a general body of oppressors and a minority that had been a “troublesome” entity throughout the history of the two groups. In the case of the Armenians, the Ottoman Empire was already threatened during the time WWI began. The Balkan Wars, for one, preceded the Great War and essentially led to loss of territory for the Ottomans. With the Armenians declaring their desires for an independent nation, the Empire was threatened. Armenians, the relatively wealthy and Christian minority, were now a political threat with political demands. Not to mention, some Armenians (mostly on the border of Russia) were joining the Russian forces against the Ottomans, who had allied with Germany against the Russians (Ottomans declared Jihad against the West in 1914). Hence, the fear of disloyalty to the state during wartime and military crisis alarmed the Turkish Ottomans, especially the rising nationalists — the Young Turks — who were modernizing state-builders and committed to a racially-religiously homogenous community. The roots of the Holocaust were similar, with anti-semitism in Europe dating back 500 years. The Jews, another stateless people, were a unique evil and threat to nationalism within Germany and Eastern Europe especially. With German discontent about the Treaty of Versailles and Great Depression hitting, the Nazi party took power. In the 1930s, Jews’ civil rights were removed, businesses were burnt down and boycotted, and most notably, Jews were turned away as refugees from countries like the U.S. While the specifics of the pre-Holocaust time were not exactly the same as those of the pre-Armenian Genocide, the major similarity lays in the notion that both the Jews and Armenians were seen as political threats who had been the sources of rising tension in their respective regions of residency. Similarly, in the Rwandan Genocide, the Tutsis and Hutus had had years of conflict after colonization by the Belgians and the relatively recent racialization of the two groups. All three cases, therefore, had vastly alike roots of intergroup tensions that were enacted upon during war (Armenian Genocide, Holocaust) or through war (Rwandan Genocide). Thus, wartime violence was used almost like a cover for the murders and tortures of millions of people. It could be said that without war, these genocides would have been nearly impossible. For the case of the Armenians and Jews, I believe this to be true. During WWI and WWII, the West was preoccupied with the matters of global war. During the Rwandan Genocide, however, the war at hand was a civil one and thus the West had potentially opportunity to step in. How much this would have helped, though, is unclear.

In any case, when the holocausts actually began, it’s difficult to understand how the common people, even those with more power, could have gone along with such atrocities. How could actual, everyday people become perpetrators of a genocide? In regards to the Holocaust, Browning claims that the true reason for the transformation of ordinary men into mass-murderers relies on the core tenets of human nature and socio-psychological factors. Conformity was the first major one of these components, one that I believe also applies to the Armenian Genocide. Deferring to widespread anti-Semitism campaigns and repeatedly being told that Jews were a sub-human race, policemen eventually mentally gave in to this idea while also yielding to authority who continuously reminded them of the Nazi ideals and visions for the Final Solution also stimulated these conceptions. Likewise, in the case of the Armenians, religious differences and constant struggle competing with a wealthy minority already had raised tensions between Turkish commoners and the Armenians. Furthermore, the adjustment to wartime procedures and duties, which includes maintaining order in enemy zones, meant taking up the job of executions. While many of the men may not have enjoyed or wanted to partake in these killings, some eventually became desensitized to the crimes they were committing. Maybe this allowed them to not think too much about the lives they were taking, thus easing the job they were set to do (and hence also easing the task of deferring to authority). Perhaps another reason that so many men were able to take part in the mass-murders had to do with the time period that they were living in. In hindsight, we find the acts of mass-murder repulsive but if we were in the same situation during that era, who’s to say we wouldn’t do the same? Fifty years from now the generation ahead may think many of today’s acts as atrocious too. In other words, our morals grow and change overtime, depending on the factors around us (i.e. state of the nation, politics, tech, etc). And in times when we fear for the security of our country, we may partake in actions that would otherwise be seen as deplorable. Therefore, Browning’s “ordinary men” may not seem so “ordinary” to us today, but in that time, it is likely that they were a representation of typical men. I believe this to be true in terms of mass murder, but I still cannot conceptualize how (despite cases of, potentially, mob mentality) how individual men could traumatize–psychologically and physically–individual human beings. For instance, how could Hutus so carelessly rape so many innocent girls and women in front of their families without a second thought? Off that note, how could Hutu women stand by these acts and, even more so, how could they encourage this by actively participating in the genocidal terrors themselves (Rwanda: Not So Innocent — When Women Become Killers)? How could Ottoman perpetrators bring themselves to crucify young girls by nailing them down? How could those committing the Holocaust belittle other humans to a point of treatment, arguably, less than even that of even animals for as Primo Levi writes in Survival of Auschwitz, “Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand.” I don’t know the answers to these questions. Despite historians’ and psychologists’ theories, I simply still find it unimaginable. To me, there is no justification. There is no redemption of constructed “conformity.” There is only inhumanity and sadism. So then, is the root of human nature truly this ugly? I believe this in part. As children, we all once or twice squashed an ant or killed the bugs we saw as “pests.” Perhaps the human enemies were just that–pests. Or it’s possible that the perpetrators numbed themselves to become robot-like in emotions so that they wouldn’t feel their victim’s pain as they killed and violated. Whatever the cause, the important thing is to realize that humans, unfortunately, are so vulnerable to feeling included, so keen to thrust everything into groups — them and us — that they often lose sight of a greater point: we are all human. Nothing more, nothing less.

International activism is extremely grand in scale today, still riding the human rights movement but also encompassing a newer field of social entrepreneurship; however, the form of activism has begun to root itself in the technological hype of our current society. While the past has shown activism in the form of international law (i.e. Geneva Conventions), today’s form is geared more towards the internet-tech era that integrates human rights and humanitarianism under the social media platform. Take for example, the movement that continuously promotes raising awareness for hundreds if not thousands of causes. Whether it’s the Twitter #YesAllWomen tag or the Facebook photo filter for the Paris attacks this past year, social media has changed the way the international community responds, and the speed at which it responds, to global crises. Michelle Obama’s “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign was, in my opinion, one of the most powerful in recent years in terms of humanitarianism. The campaign essentially called for the government to rescue the 219 Chibok schoolgirls abducted on 24 April 2014. The social media world erupted with the #BringOurGirlsBack movement, uniting the public around the cause and encouraging those who did not know about the situation to tune in and raise awareness. While voices on social media may not have made much of an obvious difference, especially since a year following the campaign the girls were still missing, it did manage to aid world focus on the issue at hand and stimulate a sense of urgency within world leaders. Of course, international law and the U.N. still play vital roles in how we view things like human rights. Last year, approaching the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, international human rights lawyers like Amal Clooney laid their cases before the European Court of Human Rights against a Turkish politician who denied the 1915 Armenian Genocide. This demonstrates how the worldwide community is still cognisant of past and present mistakes and is, at the very least, attempting to remedy those wrongs through court trials and through drawing upon international human rights laws. Today’s worldly activism, as already exemplified, does a phenomenal job at creating a following, bringing millions together under one cause. Nevertheless, the biggest problem with our global society is our fleeting attention span. As said earlier, a year after the movement, only a few girls managed to escape back home.

History continually proves the same trends in generating a following, for but only a brief time. In the Armenian case, the international community knew much about the situation in years prior to the Genocide. During the late 1800’s, newspapers across America were calling out to garner humanitarian aid for the Christians living in the oppression of the Muslim Ottomans. The movement was effective in that people were willing to give to a cause they could relate to (in this case, religiously) and continued to follow the situation even throughout the Genocide. However, after WWI, the Armenians received increasingly little amount of attention. Their time, in international terms, was over. People were moving on to other causes and worrying about their own states. Armenia was left a failure, both in the sense that the goal to create an Armenian nation-state had failed and the fact that even though the international community was well aware of the genocidal attacks against the Armenians they managed to forget that such an atrocity had even occurred (the U.S., which had supported the Armenians in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s has still not recognized the Genocide). So maybe we haven’t changed all that much internationally? Maybe the form and role of media in our campaigns change but the people’s mindset does not?

In any case, the human rights movement is not irrelevant but still very much a growing international field. Looking at today’s headlines, we see countless appearances of “human rights.” For instance, on 20 April 2016, CNN published an article delineating how mass murderer Anders Breivik’s human rights were breached in prison. Specifically, the court ruled that the defendant was treated inhumanely/degradingly while in prison. It’s interesting that human rights today really is applicable to every person, whether that is you or me or a convicted murder of 77 people. The Breivik situation reminds me of the Nuremberg trials in that the trials were the most groundbreaking point in terms of how individuals were punished. Of course, in Nuremberg the situation was completely different–individuals were tried as perpetrators of genocide–while in the Breivik case human rights were being used in defense of a convicted man. This goes to show that today all men are held to the same standards no matter their past situations. Human rights, therefore, is really applicable to all humans.

Still, human rights is not the only current humanitarian “trend.” Social entrepreneurship has taken a fast ride in popularity in recent years. For many people, this is great as they can turn their passion into profit for a cause. The welcoming entrepreneurship industry also promotes change for social issues and places the power of change into the hands of the individual entrepreneur, who is granted a sense of freedom and courage to take initiative. Not to mention, people are more willing to spend time and money on a company if it is giving back to the community. For example, Kiva.org allows any person to give a micro-loan of at least $25 to a business owner or entrepreneur in a developing country. Hence, social platforms can be used for both brand awareness and giving back while encouraging inspiring solutions without having to necessarily report back to a boss. For social entrepreneurs, communities become the solutions and not beneficiaries of their given product or idea. With different people tackling different issues, the international world is granted a wider range of solutions for more problems. The government, too, is aided by the generation of innovative solutions and the testing of new theories for social change by these entrepreneurs.

But though the phrasing of “social entrepreneurship” is recently popularized, the history of humanitarianism shows examples of it growing within the past two centuries. In 1881, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross, which even today remains true to its mission of providing emergency assistance to people in need. Almost immediately after its founding, the Red Cross supported global issues reaching into the depths of Eastern Europe to Armenia, where Christians were suffering. The Cross’ founder even paid visit to the region herself, demonstrating the committed initiative of this entrepreneurial corporation. In the second World War, the Red Cross again went to Holocaust concentration camps to help those in need. Nearly a century after the conception of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch sprung up in 1978. In the end of the 20th century, the Watch served an important role in detailing the Rwandan Genocide. The 1994 Human Rights Watch World Report, which covered news from Mexico to Estonia to Nagorno Karabakh, wrote of the Rwandan Genocide the following:

On February 8, the RPF violated the ceasefire in effect since the previous July and drove Rwandan troops farther south. After this resumption of the conflict, Rwandan soldiers took vengeance on Tutsi civilians and opponents of the regime.

Although this passage is merely part of the long report on the proceedings of the genocide, it shows that the organization was attuned to what was happening in Rwanda and taking initiative to show the international community this side of the world.

What’s interesting to me is how selective attention comes to play in world events. In the 1994 report, I noticed that there was a report included on the Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijani conflict (one that even in 2016 has created disruption in the region). The first line of the report states that the conflict was at the time in its fifth year. I searched every world report preceding the 1994 one. None mentioned this on-going conflict in the region. The lack of notice for tension–even during a war–in this region attests to the fact that we, as a community, are unaware of many major conflicts throughout the globe and that no matter how much we try, our selective attention will get the better of us, maybe at a point when it’s too late. (Sidenote: Having traveled to the Nagorno-Karabakh region many times, it still amazes me how the region–though having much progress–is still suffering from the after effects of this war. You can still see the remnants of bombed villages, you can see the caves where people would hide and use as shelter from raids, and most importantly, you still hear of soldiers captured near the borders of Karabakh and Azerbaijan).

Social entrepreneurship initiatives like the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch ultimately set the path for today’s organizations that aim to bring about social change. SmileyGo, for instance, is a data-driven philanthropy platform founded in 2014 whose mission is to “empower corporations to give smarter” by revolutionizing the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) industry for more educated means of philanthropy. Within a few months, SmileyGo was able to expand from its origins in the Bay Area to eight other countries, where it connected U.S. corporations to nonprofits in the developing world. Thousands of companies and organizations like SmileyGo have sprung up and with initiatives by schools, like Duke University, the possibilities of social entrepreneurship are endless.

Limitations are also prominent in social entrepreneurship, however. For instance, The individual is elevated and less attention to the team. We seem to place greater emphasis on those who are in charge (CEOs, Founders) than the actual team that makes things happen. It’s also interesting to think of the scale of social entrepreneurship in terms of economics. Growing up in the Silicon Valley especially, I realized how much individuals feel the need to start their own companies rather than joining or partnering with ones that already exist. Therefore, many different organizations essentially work separately towards a common goal, thus not paying attention to current efforts towards the issue at hand and wasting valuable money and resources that could be put to better use by solving the social problem together. Looking back at the past, we see the impact of joint effort. In the Second Sino-Japanese War, seven agencies conjoined to form the United China Relief and provide aid thereby strengthening their support in the region. If organizations like Mission for Orphans, a grassroots organization reaching out to orphans, and Rizikitoto, a very new startup that connects iOS app revenue to orphans living in Uganda, perhaps the efforts of both would be more pronounced.

Part of the problem also resides with the word “entrepreneur.” Many of those who start businesses consider themselves entrepreneurs. However, an entrepreneur is someone who takes a risk in an area of innovation–with many of today’s social entrepreneurs tackling societal issues in similar manners (as I discussed earlier), are these people really entrepreneurs? Also, I don’t believe that one has to have their own business to be considered an entrepreneur. While several of today’s “social entrepreneurs” including those at Duke do start their own companies, it’s important to note that even within bigger corporations (i.e. Google, Facebook) individuals can be entrepreneurs through their contributions. For instance, Facebook’s product design team created photo filters that essentially bring awareness to social causes and allow people to show their solidarity with events like the fairly recent Paris bombings.

Lastly, ideas of social entrepreneurship are often implemented before any sort of testing or extensive research in the field. While it’s great that new approaches are considered for existing problems, the scope of the innovation’s sustainability and the ends of the idea are often less thought out compared to the primary conception. NanoFOD is a newer tech startup that is dedicated to providing more effective means of radiation measurement (i.e. in radiation therapy, nuclear events). However, due to their limited ability for testing, the accuracy of their product is uncertain even to the researchers and engineers of NanoFOD. This means that, say, if there was a nuclear explosion, only then would we be able to truly test the impact of this product when it’s already too late. In the past, we’ve also seen how humanitarian efforts (not necessarily through social entrepreneurship) have failed. A notable crisis is the aid given during the Ethiopian famine when the international community did not give the conflict much thought until a BBC reporter provided footage of suffering people in the region. Following this, millions came together behind this movement, even celebrities such as Bob Geldof. However, what many thought to be a drought-driven famine was actually a measure taken by the Ethiopian government. Unknowingly, therefore, aid was provided straight into the hands of the government instead of the actual suffering populations in the region. Hence, this misguided deliverance of aid prolonged the tragic situation in Ethiopia. While these two examples are extremely different in terms of context, they both show that to actually make an impactful, accurate, and successful impact, you need a means of intensive research and testing.

Unlike the 20th century, I don’t believe the era we are living in today will be a century of genocide as many of the major issues today are increasingly global in scope; the international community will need to work as one to combat natural threats to humanity, including climate change. However, although I don’t believe that genocide is something we must simply live with in our militarized, nationalist world, I believe the global community will only uncertainly be able to effectively stop genocide, if it is the case.

Climate change has been one of the most alarming threats coming into the new century, with news coming out nearly every day regarding the impact of climate change on the natural environment, including risks to coral reefs, water supply, and agriculture. In the near future, it’s likely that refugees will come from a broader scope of background than was seen in the 1900’s, when many people were relocated because of discrimination and other such issues. This new scope may include the side effects of climate change–for instance, those living near the equator may find that even a half degree rise in climate may prove intolerable in sustaining their current lifestyle. It is likely that legal bodies, such as the U.N., will revisit international law regarding refugees, including the 1933 Refugee Convention that gave way to groundbreaking thought in regards to refugees. Though the regulations outlined in the Convention provided refugees with securities such as the reassurance of the right to non-refoulement to refugees, it did not grant neutralization or many political rights. The 1951 Refugee Convention addressed many of the issues in the first convention and was followed by further improvements in the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, especially broadening support for refugees from different parts of the world (the 1933 convention was tailored specifically towards Armenians and Russians). Today, the major point that the international community should focus on improving is how to address the treatment of refugees with the vast expansion of technology. With tech-facilitated globalization, the status of people all over the world is increasingly made relevant to each and every one with access to resources like the Internet. Hence, the condition of refugees is also made wider known. Could international law possibly take a turn in the future to incorporate refugees within the “sharing economy” of today, that is exemplified by many tech companies like Uber and Airbnb. What if the same sorts of resource partitioning are used towards refugees? While this may be difficult, perhaps, to include in international law in this sense, within a domestic sense, apps like Yerdle, an application which began signing users in late 2014 and which provides a means for users to exchange goods, could be used to aid refugees. In fact, over 8,000 companies currently provide shared experiences, ranging from 321Lend to Project Expedition. Going back to climate change, people living in areas severely affected by alterations in climate could potentially use resource sharing apps and other technologies to make more financially and environmentally economic decisions.

Still, while technology may be a solution to global issues, the international community still must learn to cope with individual countries that are in need of support–in need of a means to prevent war and prevent genocide. The 2003 Sudanese Genocide marked the first major holocaust of the 21st century, yet only a year into the genocide did the media of the conflict become widespread. While the U.S. declared the ethnic conflict between the Black African farmers and the Janjaweed a genocide in 2004, no other permanent member of the U.N. followed suit. The international attention brought to Sudan through media, it was not enough to end the conflict soon enough (with peacekeeping talks and initiatives ongoing from 2004 through 2007 and on). The reactivity of the global society failed to quickly terminate regional strife.

On a similar note, Nagorno-Karabakh–the contested landlocked region between Armenia and Azerbaijan that has experienced violent conflict since 1991–is undergoing similar circumstances with the Azeri forces firing on civilian settlements and violating ceasefire agreements most recently on 24 April 2016. While the U.S. and E.U. have tried to assuage the conflicts in the regions, several headlines in the media write of their failures in the area. With 30,000 lives lost and 1 million residents seeking refuge after the first round of the war, the international community needs to learn to be successfully proactive in the situation. Otherwise, it’s not unlikely that the situation will digress into a state like 2003 Sudan. Although the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict could be seen less of as a genocide and more of as a war for Artsakh liberation (Artsakh is another term used for the contested, ethnically Armenian area), the two situations are vastly alike in the progression of conflict and the response elicited internationally. The response to the Sudanese genocide was very much reactive and ultimately did not end tensions until years after its start; the Nagorno-Karabakh issue is now eliciting a more proactive (at least attempting) response to the issue though the original conflict 25 years ago hardly received much attention. Perhaps if the international community demonstrated higher levels of activism back then, the tensions in the region would be better assuaged.

I still do not believe this century, though still young, will be one of genocide, but I do think that we must learn to better our responses to ongoing and possible conflicts. For instance, a major point of issue on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the lack of  cooperation between Washington and Moscow regarding the issue. In fact, following Vice President Biden’s attempts to negotiate peace the day before violence erupted, Putin has been acting alone through active diplomacy in the situation, unmatched by President Obama. Thus, while the U.S. remains fairly quiet on the conflict, Russia has been working eagerly to assert control in the area and, even, to reconstruct its international appearance post its recent situation in Ukraine. If globally we cannot even put aside politics and unite as one to fight against violence, how successful will we be in preventing and ending atrocities like genocide? It’s very possible, in my opinion, to allay rising occurrences of war and genocide, but how effective will each attempt be? The answer is uncertain at this point.

Looking towards other situations, however, the international community isn’t always as polarized as in the Nagorno-Karabakh situation. The U.N. is often criticized for its failure when it comes to genocide prevention and/or successful intervention (i.e. Sudanese Genocide, Iraq War), but in many ways it has helped fortify international law and regulation. For instance, people are risking their lives today in Syria to collect government documents and hide them in caves in order to undergo ICC trials after tensions subside. This particular action demonstrates the reliability on internationalism to correct current wrongs. Even in terms of proliferations (i.e. nuclear weapons proliferation), the U.N.’s existence is a historically anomalous phenomenon as it provides a platform for world leaders to come together and work out problems before resorting to violence. Moreover, with the rise of social media, citizens around the world are more attuned to problems from Mexico to India to Russia. This hyper-alertness places more pressure on individual nations to cooperate with one another and combat a variety of issues that could increasingly include genocide. Perhaps the attention that is given to these conflicts, even if that attention is brief, could alert the international community on rising genocide-like conditions, such as long-term regional conflict and rising interstate political threats among other genocidal symptoms that we saw with the major holocausts of the past. Without a doubt, the future is embedded within this increasingly communicative system of politics and globalization that only with time will strengthen to better tackle future problems, like refugee issues related to global climate change, which have in part already set roots in present time.


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