Colonial Dynamics of Genocide

Imperialism, Identity and Mass Violence*


Modern empires have invariably been associated with violence. Historical cases such as the European conquest of the Americas or the British colonization of Australasia are viewed by some scholars as constituting or at least containing genocidal episodes. Yet this conclusion is problematized by the sheer variegation in the experiences of colonized peoples in different regions, who died in large numbers for many reasons, not all of them obvious, and many of them inextricably intertwined – for instance due to the impact of European diseases, massacres, onerous labour conditions, alcohol abuse, and even depression (and suicide) due to socio-cultural dislocation. The question of whether such cases of European imperial violence were genocidal, cannot be resolved without re-examining the conceptual evolution of genocide against the background of European imperial mass violence.

Rafal_Lemkin_plaqueThere is an acute contemporary urgency to this question. The relationship between violence and empire remains fraught with controversy, particularly in the wake of ostensibly ‘imperial’ adventures in the Middle East and Central Asia led by the United States, both before and in the context of the ‘war on terror’. Iraq provides a case-in-point. From 1991 to 2007, the total civilian death toll in Iraq as a direct and indirect consequence of Anglo-American invasions, socio-economic deprivation, infrastructure destruction, and occupation amounts to approximately 3 million over a period of sixteen years.[i] The scale of this violence is thus larger than some of the most well-known cases of twentieth century genocide such as in Cambodia, Kampuchea, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. Yet to be sure, this imperial violence is not a new phenomenon. Its truly overwhelming scale can be discerned from the human impact of postwar CIA and US military interventions in over 80 nations, often to deter independence movements and facilitate US capital penetration.[ii] Between “12 to 15 million people” were killed directly in these interventions “from 1945 to 1990,” with further incalculable “deaths of hundreds millions more as their economies were destroyed or those countries were denied the right to restructure and care for their people.”[iii]

These examples underscore the need to interrogate the relationship between imperialism, mass violence and genocide. Is genocide intrinsic to imperialist practices? If not, why does imperialism frequently involve diverse forms of mass violence against civilian populations? And if the concept of genocide excludes the aforesaid examples of imperial mass violence despite their prevalence, does this suggest that the concept itself needs re-evaluation? Of course, how scholars answer such questions depends ultimately on their preferred definitions of genocide.[iv] These range from minimalist exclusivist conceptualizations restricting its theoretical scope to a highly specified type of mass killing,[v] to maximalist inclusivist conceptualizations encompassing a wide variety of forms of group violence.[vi]

Conventional theories of genocide are state-oriented and primordialist. Genocide is seen primarily as the outcome of extremist utopian ideology linked to undemocratic modern bureaucratic nation-states, whose homogenizing structures generate conflict with pre-existing minority groups – a conceptualization that automatically precludes most pre-modern and modern imperialist practices of violence, and also throws little light on the dynamics of the ‘war on terror.’[vii] The problem is that this approach does not fully explain instantiations of genocide. The view that “genocidal elites perpetrate them in the name of a social utopia begs the question of the origin of such elites, why they are possessed by certain ideologies, and the nature of the crises that call them forth.”

These prevalent approaches are also in tension with the original sociological conceptualization of genocide elaborated by Polish Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), for whom genocidal perpetrators could be states as well as decentralized and dispersed groups such as settler-colonists. Critically, Lemkin’s insight into the inherently colonial form of genocide reveals the inner dynamics of its ideological radicalization process in the context of socio-political contestations, that can fuel the construction of new bifurcated “inside” and “outside” group identities and justify mass violence against the ‘Other’. This paper thus excavates Lemkin’s sociological definition of genocide to develop a working theoretical framework by which to understand the social causes of contemporary mass violence. It explores the implications of this framework by briefly exploring the examples of Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Indonesia, and how a Lemkininian approach might require if not a re-interpretation, a re-contextualisation of these genocidal episodes in a global context. The paper thus demonstrates that a Lemkininian model, arming us with a better understanding of the socio-political and transnational relations of ideological radicalization, could lead to more robust early warning systems, as well as a more refined understanding of how to respond preventively by transforming the specific process that can lead to the radicalised construction of exclusionary group identities that can culminate in genocide.

  • Raphael Lemkin: The Original Conceptualization of Genocide

The Violence of Modern Imperialism

The need to ground genocide studies in its origins derives directly from the very nature of the discipline. The term genocide, first coined by Raphael Lemkin from the roots genos (Greek for family, tribe or race) andcide (Latin for killing), was coined to conceptualize a hitherto unrecognized category of modern mass violence. Raphael Lemkin’s best known definition of genocide, published in his paper Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, describes it as “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”[viii] He focuses on “national, religious, or racial” groups, categories retained as his principal objects of reference, throughout his published work on genocide. Crucially, he argued that a national group can be targeted for genocidal destruction through means other than simply physical slaughter, including diverse political, social, legal, intellectual, spiritual, economic, biological, physiological, religious, and moral methods directed at the “foundations of life” of a collectivity.[ix] Thus, the “annihilation of groups themselves” does not necessarily mean their total biological extermination, but their dissolution through the liquidation of thedistinctive social relations that constitute the groups’ “foundations of life.” Most significantly, Lemkin explicitly delineates an irrevocable linkage between the logic of genocide and the dynamic of colonization:


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*Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation and Security (JCTS) Vol. 1 | No. 1

**Institute for Policy Research & Development; University of Sussex.

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN

[i] Dan Lindley, and Beth Osborne Daponte, Iraqi casualties from the Gulf War and its aftermath. (Cambridge, Mass.: Defense and Arms Control Studies Program, Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992). Andrew Cockburn and Patrick Cockburn  Saddam Hussein : an American obsession. (London: Verso, 2002); Eric Herring, “Between Iraq and a hard place: a critique of the British government’s case for UN economic sanctions” Review of International Studies Vol. 28, No. 1, 2002, pp39-56; Tina Susman, Tina, “Poll: Civilian toll in Iraq may top 1M”, Los Angeles Times, 14 September 2007

[ii] Mark Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power: British foreign policy since 1945 (London: Zed, 1995)

[iii] J. W. Smith, Economic Democracy: The economic struggle of the twenty-first century (New York: ME Sharpe, 2000)

[iv] David E. Stannard, American holocaust : Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Henry Reynolds, An indelible stain? : the question of genocide in Australia’s history (Ringwood, Vic.: Viking, 2001); Horst. Drechsler, Let us die fighting : the struggle of the Herero and Nama against German imperialism (1884-1915) (London: Zed Books, 1980); Doudou. Diene, ed., From chains to bonds : the slave trade revisited (Oxford: Berghahn, 2001)

[v] Steven T. Katz, The Holocaust in historical context, Vol. 1: The Holocaust and mass death before the modern age (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1994)

[vi] Israel W. Charny, Toward a generic definition of genocide (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).

[vii] Frank Chalk, “Redefining Genocide,” in George J. Andreopolous (ed.) Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), p58

[viii] Raphael Lemkin, Axis rule in occupied Europe : laws of occupation, analysis of government, proposals for redress (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law, 1944), pp79-95

[ix] Ibid., pp79-95

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