The Decisiveness of Genocide


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon Sr.

Historical Accounts of Genocide

            What is worse than war? Genocide. Genocidal murder is responsible for the elimination of 170 million lives. This is more than the international wars of the twentieth century combined (Stanton 2013). Political leaders initiate genocidal killings because it works favorably toward achieving their political goals. In 1915, the Turkish government orchestrated the Armenian Genocide for the purpose of establishing a new empire with one language and one religion (World Without Genocide 2013). This political crusade led to the elimination of approximately 1.5 million Armenian deaths. In 1975 Khmer Rouge party leader “Pol Pot” engineered the Cambodian Genocide reducing 25% of the population. Educated in France, he was passionate about establishing a “Mao” (Chinese) Communism in Cambodia and initiated the elimination of any potential opposition. In 1992, Slobodan Milosevic envisioned a Serb-dominated state and masterminded the Bosnian Genocide. His influence on other opportunistic Serb leaders inspired the elimination of all Bosniaks and Croats and led to the death of approximately 100,000 people. The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 was supported by the government of Rwanda and carried out by two Hutu radical militant groups (Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi) and resulted in the loss of approximately one million lives. The Darfur Genocide in 2003 (currently in effect) was spurred by Sudanese President Omar Bashir who supported Arab militias in the systematic murders of Darfurians. Nearly half of one million lives have been lost (World Without Genocide 2013). Other incidences of genocide are omitted here, including the Holocaust, to avoid redundancy, but tell similar stories of individuals or groups who invested in genocide as a means to achieve political gain. Furthermore, in every genocidal event that occurred, normal people made a conscious choice to participate after effective divisive rhetoric mechanisms had been employed and underlying social, racial, economic, and other forms of political tensions were enflamed. A further investigation of each of the genocides reveal a lack of fear on behalf of the perpetrators to initiate the genocides, an effective force of deterrence, and a lack of will to stop it.

Decisive Realism

            There is ample reason to believe that leaders are not afraid to initiate genocidal killings most likely because of a history of non-intervention coupled with an actuality of impunity. Although the international relations theory of realism has offered an ample framework for understanding international affairs, it has normalized non-intervention and justifiably rationalized ‘turning a blind eye.’ The world court ruled symbiotically that it could only interpret the ‘right to intervene’ as one that derives from a policy of force (which has given occasion to criminal abuses in the past), would be retained by the most powerful states, and could pervert justice (Chomsky 2010). The United Nations panel drew a similar conclusion regarding ‘the right to protect’ using military intervention (force) without authorization from the Security Council after the South Summit condemned the NATO bombing of Serbia under the guise of ‘intervention.’ It is important to note that it took only three weeks for NATO bombings to end a three-year Bosnian Genocide.  Further, if a state has the power to engage in unauthorized intervention, it doubly possesses the power to avoid intervening. Intervention, then, is left to the discretionary will of states and morality may be trumped by political incentive. In realist terms, national interest is at the heart of any decision to intervene or not intervene. Through the lenses of realism, a lack of the security dilemma and absence of relative gains for a state’s interest would discourage intervention regardless if the entire state was removed from the world’s map. “Until state leaders, their political advisors, and national security scholars are persuaded to accept the political, legal, and moral reality that the Holocaust modified realist norms of state sovereignty, little progress can be expected in stopping genocide (Campbell 2004).

Legitimizations and Academicians of Genocide

            In Worse than War, international author Daniel Goldhagen exclaims, “The UN largely exists to protect state sovereignty and many UN members have a history of eliminating their own people” (Goldhagen 2009). State sovereignty is embodied in a state’s right to be immune to the intervention of others in its affairs. The idea of protecting sovereignty and intervening in genocidal affairs is loftily complex. Furthermore, when leaders depend on intellectual advisors to make sound decisions it is imperative that those intellectuals are objective and not engrossed in subjective political biases or what Julien Benda Redux referred to as ‘political passions’. One of the most influential genocide scholars of all time, Raphael Lemkin, was noted as wielding his intellectual authority as a genocide expert to “help maintain the American South in its white supremacism and history of genocidal engagement (Docker 2010, 14). Sarah Danielson echoes Benda’s work by stating “it has become clear that intellectuals are not only participants of genocidal regimes, but often the very architects and legitimizers of genocidal policies” (Danielsson 2005, 393). Benda was not against political engagement but against those who singularly chased political ideologies, parties, and politicians passionately consumed in racism, classism, and nationalism (Danielsson 2005). He had no problem with universal political ideas that could be applied to everyone equally and fostered justice. However, he abhorred the failure of intellectuals to use their intelligence to prevent killings that arose from hatred. He concluded the failure stemmed from alignment and agreement with hateful political aims. Danielson offers Noam Chomsky’s refusal to admit that there was a Cambodian genocide as a modern example. Israel Charney postulates that although democracies should protect freedom of speech, they must not allow efforts to legitimate violence and draws special attention to countries that have enacted legislation against denials of the Holocaust and other genocides (Charney 2000). He argued, “If a history of manifest evil can be denied, certainly evil intentions can also be relegated to the realm of the denied or unknown and surface in “innocent,” and well-intended behaviors” He listed sixty-nine academicians who denied the Armenian genocide. After putting forth the evidence of the intentional denials of revisionists, bigots, governments, and anti-Semitic groups he offered a further contribution to a psychology of denial by indicating ‘innocent’ denials. He summarized all types of denial as mechanisms for spreading lies (Charney 2000).

Mind’s Eye on a Solution

            Dr. Gregory H. Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, puts forth that genocide is a process that develops in eight predictive stages; classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, identification, extermination, and denial (Stanton 2003). This categorization offers a great framework for identifying and soliciting international intervention. Stanton encourages the development of universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions, that actively promote tolerance and understanding, and that promote classifications that transcend the divisions (Stanton 2003). Any forms of hate symbols, propaganda, and crimes should be outlawed and punished. Governments and citizens engaged in genocide should be investigated and have arms embargoes imposed on them. Security should be provided to human rights workers and assets of extremists seized and visas denied (Stanton 2003). An international alarm should be triggered warning of a potential genocide similar to a major tornado warning accompanied by militarily prepared interventionists. Legal instruments should be devised that overcome ambiguities (that can be relegated to subjective interpretation) that bind national leaders to prevent and intervene in matters of genocide. This will require genocidal and national security intellectuals to be diligent, honest, and ethical when reporting the facts of genocide to policy makers. Accountability of perpetrators should be strengthened by minimizing discretionary gaps in international policy regarding genocide. Moreover, the International Criminal Court (ICC) must be supported by the international community and its leaders who are serious about stopping genocide. There remains no better alarm of seriousness than indictment of those found guilty of genocide. Maybe then genocidists like Adolph Hitler will not be able to mock the international community by asking, “Who, after all remembers the Armenians?”

Realist Maneuvers

            Although realism does not offer the most optimistic approach to a situation, it does provide a realistic view. “The most likely psychological explanation of “innocent denials” is that by denying the events of genocide, the denier seeks to protect his perception of a sane, decent and ‘human’ world. To face the truthful pictures of human beings bashing infants against the wall or throwing live people into fires means facing that many of us are driven by large measures of evil and that the world in which we live is, in many ways, truly rotten” (Charney 2000). Realists have already abandoned this illusion of innocence and should continue sorting through the truthful pictures to find answers to genocidal problems. Scholars of realism should incorporate a view of national security that deters threats by incorporating genocide seen as a threat to one nation as a threat to all. Accountability should be predicated around who has the most immediate and effective response potential. This would require an agreement from the international community that recognizes and upholds a moral obligation to protect human life from political motivations. Any leader found guilty of genocide should be punished unsparingly followed by national sanctions. This would protect human life and still accomplish the goal of protecting sovereignty. National sovereignty should be recognized only when national leaders have played by the rules. Likewise, rules for claiming sovereignty should be clearly outlined and agreed upon by the international community. Hegemonic power would have no problem influencing cooperation amongst states that invest in genocide to make relative gains.

Persuasive Perplexity

            When national leaders believe they will not be granted impunity, then they will be deterred from engaging in genocide to meet their political goals. They will strive intellectually to be more creative, more civil, and focus on becoming masters of soft power. “Julien Benda’s work stands in judgment of all intellectuals who were capable of perceiving the emerging dangers in Europe but deliberately chose to close, or avert their eyes, or enthusiastically welcome it” (Danielsson 2005). There remains a need for intellectuals to remain objective in their studies and order policies in a universal manner that ensures safety not as a greater good for the greater number, but for the greatest possibility to protect all. Constructivists would rightly assume that international norms may change over time and therefore people’s values and perceptions of genocide could too. To that note, as political leaders become less capable of garnering support for genocidal engagements, the prospect for genocide will decline. In purview of moral choices Kristen Monroe leaves us this reminder: “ethically, the critical point is simple: we can find self-esteem and self-respect only when others help us claim it. We can claim it in ourselves, only when we grant it to others” (Monroe 2011, 507).


Campbell, Kenneth J. 2004. “The Role of Individual States in Addressing Cases of Genocide.” Human Rights Review 5, no. 4: 32-45. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 26, 2013).

Charny, Israel W. 2000. Innocent denials of known genocides: A further contribution to a psychology of denial of genocide. Human Rights Review 1, no. 3: 15-39,

Chomsky, Noam. 2010. Genocide denial with a vengeance: Old and new imperial norms. Monthly Review 62, no. 4: 16-20,

Danielsson, Sarah. 2005. “The intellectual as architect and legitimizer of genocide: Julien Benda Redux.” Journal Of Genocide Research 7, no. 3: 393-407. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed October 26, 2013).

Docker, John. 2010. Raphaël lemkin, creator of the concept of genocide: A world history perspective1. Humanities Research 16, no. 2: 49-III,

Monroe, Kristen Renwick. 2011. Ethics in an age of terror and genocide: Identity and moral choice. PS, Political Science & Politics 44, no. 3: 503-507,

Stanton, Gregory H. Genocide Watch. 2013. (accessed October 27, 2003).

World Without Genocide. Armenian Genocide. August 6, 2013. (accessed October 27, 2013).

Worse Than War. Directed by Mike Dewitt. Produced by Mike Dewitt. Performed by Daniel Goldhagen. 2009.


2 thoughts on “The Decisiveness of Genocide

  1. Pingback: 2013 – 2014 Genocide in the Pacific or even worse? | We dream of things that never were and say: "Why not?"

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