Redefining Genocide: Settler Colonialism, Social Death and Ecocide

Redefining Genocide: Settler Colonialism, Social Death and Ecocide

by Damien Short


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Redefining Genocide: Settler Colonialism, Social Death and Ecocide by Damien Short

Historically known simply as systematic mass killing of a group of people, human genocide is, in reality, an extremely subtle and complex phenomenon. In the highly controversial and original Redefining Genocide, Damian Short systematically rethinks how academia currently characterizes genocide and how it actually should define it in the future. Short uses close empirical analysis of several controversial yet underdiscussed case studies worldwide, such as Palestine, Sri Lanka, Australia, and Alberta’s Tar Sands. With intense examination of topical issues—such as fracking, environmental destruction, and the West Bank settlements—he reveals the key roles that settler colonialism, capitalism, finite resources, and the ecological crisis play in driving genocidal social death on a global scale. A provocative rethinking of how one of our world’s most disturbing aspects should be defined in the modern age, Redefining Genocide will be essential reading for all students and scholars of genocide studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781842779316
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 06/15/2016
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Damian Short is a reader in human rights and director of the Human Rights Consortium and Extreme Energy Initiative at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is also Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Human Rights.

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Redefining Genocide

Settler Colonialism, Social Death and Ecocide

By Damien Short

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Damien Short
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84277-931-6



Introduction: sociology and genocide studies

The discipline of sociology was as slow to engage with Holocaust and genocide studies as it was with the theory and practice of human rights. The legacy of classical sociology's emphasis on 'value-free' 'scientific' methodology, which precluded normative considerations (Short 2009:97), was perhaps the main reason why both areas of potential study remained under-explored by sociologists for so long. Back in 1982 Irving Horowitz suggested that when it comes to such things as human rights violations and genocide 'many sociologists exhibit a studied embarrassment ... feeling that intellectual issues posed in such a manner are melodramatic and unfit for scientific discourse' (Horowitz 1982: 3). Zygmunt Bauman was equally blunt when he commented that 'phrases like "the sanctity of human life" or "moral duty" sound as alien in a sociology seminar as they do in the smoke-free sanitized rooms of a bureaucratic office' (Bauman 1990: 9–10). For a time, the dominant view of sociologists working in the field was that the discipline had not been significant in shaping our understanding of genocide as a concept and as a practice.

In the years prior to serious sociological engagement with genocide studies, the Holocaust came to be seen as a paradigmatic, or even the only true, example of genocide. This bias towards the Holocaust, combined with a legal scholarly focus on the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948 (The UN Convention), produced a dominant view of genocide that focused on intentional mass killing of certain groups under the direction of the state. Nevertheless, as with the study of human rights, over time sociologists began to make some important contributions to genocide studies. Given that a primary task of the sociologist 'is the construction of a special kind of general concept', as Thomas Burger put it, it was not surprising that sociologists sought to engage in the debates over the meaning of genocide. Indeed, some of the most frequently cited definitions are from sociological studies dating back to the early 1990s, while sociologist Leo Kuper's seminal text was published in 1981.

In the definitional debates the major contentious issues have been: identifying the social groups capable of being victims of genocide, the centrality afforded mass killing, the type of genocidal 'intent' required and the exclusion of cultural genocide. Concerning potential victim groups, Alison Palmer, for example, points out the UN Convention 'definition excludes not only groups such as mentally handicapped or homosexuals, both of whom were targeted for destruction by the Nazis, but also political groups' (Palmer 2000). Adam Jones in his textbook captured the general consensus that has developed since the 1980s: 'I consider mass killing to be definitional to genocide ... in charting my own course, I am wary of labelling as "genocide" cases where mass killing has not occurred' (Jones 2006: 22).

In the early 1990s two influential sociological studies engaged with the definitional debates and made contributions of lasting significance. In a book on the History and Sociology of Genocide, which emerged from their teaching throughout the 1980s, Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn advanced a now frequently cited definition of genocide that sought to overcome some of the problems associated with defining groups by arguing that it is in fact the perpetrator that defines the victim group in genocides. For Chalk and Jonassohn (1990: Note 7) genocide is: 'a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator'.

Many social scientists now formulate their definition of genocide to include any group, be it a political, economic or cultural collectivity, with such groups being defined, as above, by perpetrator selection. In support of this position some authors cite examples from the two most prominent genocides. For example, Alison Palmer argues that during the Nazi genocides it was they who identified who qualified as a Jew or a mentally or physically handicapped person, regardless of the victim's self-perception (Palmer 2000). While in Rwanda identity cards specified the categories Hutu and Tutsi, such cards presented at checkpoints did not necessarily spare individuals 'whose skin was a bit too light, who were a bit too tall or whose necks were a bit too long' (Levene 2005: 80). As Levene suggests, 'if they looked like Tutsi they might as well be Tutsi. Ultimately, no social or any other science can determine how perpetrators define a group, whether this has some relationship to social reality, or is entirely something which has developed in their own heads' (ibid.: 80). This definition of victim group is thus infinitely open-ended, allowing for the construction of groups from the paranoid imagination of perpetrators.

Defining genocide in this way allows for the possibility that certain groups may be selected for destruction when prior to this act of selection no such groups existed. Although Chalk and Jonassohn did not draw specifically on labelling theory, their understanding of genocide is certainly informed by its insights. Labelling theory emerged out of the sociology of deviance and was fundamentally based on symbolic interactionist epistemology. Howard Becker's seminal1963 work Outsiders (1997 [1963]) is a classic example, which posits that the construction and destruction of enemies (or so-called 'deviants') depends on their labelling as such by the powerful (on this point see Fein 1993: 14). As justification for their position Chalk and Jonassohn cite W. I. Thomas's famous dictum that 'if people define a situation as real it is real in its consequences' (Chalk and Jonassohn 1990).

Even so, sociologist Helen Fein, in her seminal special edition of Current Sociology, suggests that the victims of genocide are generally members of previously existing real groups, whether conceived of as collectivities, races or classes, and who acknowledge their existence. In formulating her own definition of genocide, Fein sought to circumvent the problem of excluding certain types of groups by using the term 'collectivity'. Fein argued that the 'UNGC definition of genocide can be reconciled with an expanded – but bounded – sociological definition if we focus on how core concepts are related'. Taking the root genus, Fein argued that Raphael Lemkin and the UN framers had in mind 'basic kinds, classes or sub-families of humanity, persisting units of society', whose definition should be 'consistent with our sociological knowledge of both the persistence and construction of group identities in society' (Fein 1993:23–4). For Fein the distinctive sociological point is that such groups are usually ascriptive – based on birth rather than choice – often inspire enduring particularistic loyalties, and 'are the seed-bed of social movements, voluntary associations, congregations and families; in brief they are collectivities' (ibid.: 23). She thus settled on the following definition: 'Genocide is sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim' (ibid.: 24).

For Fein, then, any social collectivity could be a victim of genocide so long as the offending actions were 'purposeful' and 'physically' destructive. Such requirements were her attempt at answering two key issues in defining genocide: what should count as sufficient 'intent to destroy' and what sorts of action can count as genocidal destruction. As she points out, one of the main problems with the notion of 'intent to destroy' is that most authors conflate 'motive' with 'intent'. The words 'as such' in the UN Convention are no doubt partly to blame for this confusion as they require that groups be intentionally targeted because of who they are and not for any other reason such as economic gain or self-defence. Given that perpetrators may well have multiple reasons for genocidal action it is not surprising that Fein advocated a more sociologically realistic approach – sustained purposeful action. Under such a formula intent can also be inferred from action, which is entirely consistent with a long-established principle in British common law. However, when considering the type of action that counts as genocidal her requirement that a group be 'physically' destroyed is sociologically inadequate and at odds with Lemkin's understanding.

Recent sociological engagement has continued to engage in definitional debates, exploring the contentious areas of group definition, the centrality of mass killing and the role of intent, but within a wider attempt to explain exactly what genocide is – I have in mind here the work ofPowell (2007) and Shaw (2007). These contributions will be discussed in the next section, where I argue that much sociological work on genocide, barring a few notable exceptions, has downplayed or ignored both the importance of 'cultural genocide' to the concept of genocide itself and the relationship between genocide and colonialism; a relationship which has come under increasing scrutiny from historians writing in the field of genocide studies. A hugely significant dimension of these studies has been the recovery of Lemkin's own historical writing (some of which remains unpublished), and recovering the meaning of genocide for Lemkin is, as Martin Shaw points out, a necessary beginning for the sociology of genocide (Shaw 2010a:146).

Dirk Moses, Ann Curthoys and John Docker in particular have demonstrated that Lemkin was working on a far more ambitious history of genocide than any undertaken since his death, and that he was more open to the diverse manifestations of genocidal relations than many guardians of his heritage believed. Utilizing some of the key insights from such studies in the balance of this chapter I discuss why we should view cultural genocide as central to our understanding of genocide itself. By extension I argue that the concept is an appropriate term to describe the current experiences of many indigenous peoples living under settler colonial rule which has proceeded, as Patrick Wolfe observes, with a 'logic of elimination' (Wolfe 2006: 388). He writes:

So far as Indigenous people are concerned, where they are is who they are, and ... to get in the way of settler colonization, all the native has to do is stay at home. Whatever settlers may say – and they generally have a lot to say – the primary motive for elimination is not race (or religion, ethnicity, grade of civilization, etc.) but access to territory. Territoriality is settler colonialism's specific, irreducible element. (Ibid.: 388)

For indigenous peoples, then, 'land is life – or, at least, land is necessary for life. Thus contests for land can be – indeed, often are – contests for life' (ibid.: 387).

Cultural genocide as genocide

Writing about sociological approaches to human rights, Michael Freeman makes an important observation:

the institutionalisation of human rights may ... lead, not to their more secure protection but to their protection in a form that is less threatening to the existing system of power. The sociological point is not that human rights should never be institutionalised, but, rather, that institutionalisation is a social process, involving power, and that it should be analysed and not assumed to be beneficial. (Freeman 2002: 85)

Freeman's warning is just as applicable to the UN Convention as it is to many of the other United Nations Agreements on Human Rights and national rights institutionalization projects. Indeed, the narrowed-down final text of the UN Convention was the product of the balance of power between political interests and the exhaustive work of one highly significant individual – the term's inventor, Raphael Lemkin – in attempting to retain as much of his original conception as possible. During the UN debates over the contents of the draft UN Convention cultural genocide proved to be one of the more contentious elements. It elicited strong defensive responses from the colonial powers sensitive to criticism of their policies in non-self-governing territories (see Kuper 1981: 31; Churchill 1997: 411), such that the protection of cultural groups was ultimately left to conventions on human rights and minority rights (Morsink 1999). This outcome, as we shall see, dismayed Raphael Lemkin as it removed a key method of genocidal practice. It was also a seriously unfortunate position for indigenous peoples worldwide since their unique status is not adequately covered by the conventions on minority rights, which is why they pushed for their own international rights declaration for so long.

As mentioned earlier, it was 1933 when Lemkin spoke at the International Conference for Unification of Criminal Law in Madrid, and urged the international community to converge on the necessity to ban the destruction, both physical and cultural, of human groups, invoking the linked concepts of 'barbarity' and 'vandalism'. In his subsequent work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Lemkin combined the concepts of barbarity and vandalism to form a new, more comprehensive one – genocide.

Lemkin envisaged the crime of genocide consisting of the deliberate destruction of a nation or ethnic group:

1. by killing its individual members, i.e. physical genocide (derived from Lemkin's notion of 'barbarity');

2. by undermining its way of life, i.e. cultural genocide (derived from 'vandalism').

In a passage from Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Lemkin wrote:

Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor's own nationals. (Lemkin 1944: 79)

The second element of Lemkin's prior formulation, vandalism – the destruction of culture – was now a technique of group destruction (see Moses 2010). Lemkin's central ontological assertion here was that culture integrates human societies and consequently is a necessary precondition for the realization of individual material needs. For Lemkin, culture is as vital to group life as individual physical well-being.

So-called derived needs, are just as necessary to their existence as the basic physiological needs ... These needs find expression in social institutions or, to use an anthropological term, the culture ethos. If the culture of a group is violently undermined, the group itself disintegrates and its members must either become absorbed in other cultures which is a wasteful and painful process or succumb to personal disorganization and, perhaps, physical destruction ... [Thus] the destruction of cultural symbols is genocide ... [It] menaces the existence of the social group which exists by virtue of its common culture. (Cited in Moses2008)

'This quotation', according to Moses, 'gives us clues to Lemkin's conception of genocide. He was more concerned with the loss of culture than the loss of life' (ibid.: 12), as culture is the social fabric of a genus. Indeed, in Lemkin's formulation, culture is the unit of collective memory, whereby the legacies of the dead can be kept alive and each cultural group has its own unique distinctive genius deserving of protection (see Jones 2006: 13). National culture for Lemkin is an essential element of world culture and nations have a life of their own comparable to the life of individual. On this point Lemkin wrote:

The world represents only so much culture and intellectual vigour as are created by its component national groups. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contributions to the world. Moreover, such a destruction offends our feelings of morality and justice in much the same way as does the criminal killing of a human being: the crime in the one case as in the other is murder, though on a vastly greater scale. (Lemkin 1944: 91)

After finishing Axis Rule Lemkin set about researching for his intended magnum opus, a comprehensive multi-volume 'History of Genocide', covering ancient, medieval and modern periods. His notes for this project have recently been explored by a few genocide scholars and their reports make for revealing reading. Lemkin's notes are particularly instructive on the 'methods and techniques of genocide', which include:

physical – massacre and mutilation, deprivation of livelihood (starvation, exposure, etc. often by deportation), slavery – exposure to death; biological – separation of families, sterilization, destruction of foetus; cultural – desecration and destruction of cultural symbols (books, objects of art, loot, religious relics, etc.), destruction of cultural leadership, destruction of cultural centres (cities, churches, monasteries, schools, libraries), prohibition of cultural activities or codes of behaviour, forceful conversion, demoralization. (McDonnell and Moses 2005)


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Table of Contents


1 Definitional conundrums: a sociological approach to genocide,
2 The genocide–ecocide nexus,
3 Palestine with Haifa Rashed,
4 Sri Lanka with Vinay Prakash,
5 Australia,
6 Tar sands and the indigenous peoples of northern Alberta with Jennifer Huseman,
7 Looking to the future: where to from here?,

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