Roots of Genocide: Francis M. Deng discusses cultureal denial, self-hatred and prejudice.

Francis M. Deng has traveled to some of the most violence-ridden parts of the world. He has visited areas marked by the killing of hundreds of thousands of people, even millions, as in the Holocaust. He is currently the special adviser to the U.N. secretary general for the prevention of genocide. When Deng greeted me in his office one sunny morning, the peaceful view of the East River through the large windows made it difficult for me to think of so painful a subject as genocide. But Deng, one of the busiest members of the U.N. staff, immediately addressed the issue.

“When genocide takes place,” he said, “there is often a general denial by the perpetrators; and those who might be called upon to intervene are reluctant to acknowledge that it is even happening.” That is why it is better to focus on prevention, detecting the problems early on, while positions are still fluid and have not yet hardened into denial. It is also necessary to develop tools that range from diplomatic intercession to well-targeted sanctions, and to realize that many actions can be taken short of military combat.

Deng explained that the International Criminal Court serves as a useful deterrent if those who commit atrocities realize that they will be held accountable, that impunity cannot be tolerated. The arrest of the Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic, now behind bars in The Hague, offers one example of the court’s actions. The fact that Karadzic remained in hiding in Serbia for 13 years, however, is a reminder that judicial efforts can be thwarted by a population that protects a criminal in its midst.

Deng’s homeland is Sudan, where the ongoing conflict in Darfur has led some to label as genocide the approximately 300,000 deaths there. Genocide, he said, “is an extreme form of conflicts of identities. It involves conflicts that may be based on race, ethnicity, religion or nationality; and these in turn are marked by a great deal of discrimination and exclusion.” The problem is widespread and cannot be confined to specfiic regions or countries, though some are more vulnerable than others. Rwanda, which he visited shortly after the 1994 genocide, comes to mind as one of those vulnerable countries, as do Bosnia and Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, with its killing fields.

“I went to Bosnia in 1992 at the peak of the conflict there,” Deng said, “and it was extraordinary to realize that the two groups of people who hated each other so much, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, were all but indistinguishable in their facial traits. It was mostly only by their names that you could tell them apart.” Hatred in situations like these can also involve self-hatred because of shared characteristics. He said that in Rwanda, “while some people fit the profile of a Hutu or a Tutsi, there are a lot of shared elements, so it’s not always easy to tell them apart.” Deng once asked a foreign minister in Burundi whether it was possible to distinguish between the two, and he replied, “Yes, but with a 35 percent margin of error.” In other words, identifying members of the two groups was not easy.

Using his own country as an example, he observed, “If you go to Darfur, it’s difficult to tell who is an Arab and who is an African, because people there who consider themselves Arabs can be darker skinned than Africans.” Appearance is not enough to distinguish them. “If you hate a group on the grounds of race, and yet you have some of their racial characteristics,” Deng said, “you are really hating a part of yourself.”

The seeds for what is happening in Darfur go back to the 1950s and 1960s, when southern Sudan endured a 17-year civil war that Deng said was “just as atrocious as what is happening in Darfur.” The conflict stopped for a decade but resumed in the 1983; over two million people were killed, with exactly the same kinds of atrocities. Although human rights groups tried to call attention to the situation, sometimes even calling it genocide, Deng said “the world at the time did not give it as much attention as is now being paid to Darfur.”

A proliferation of regional conflicts is affecting Sudan. “What we need to do, even though it might be too late there,” Deng told me, “is to get back to looking at the cause of problems nationally and comprehensively, so that you bring peace to Sudan as a whole and not isolate Darfur from the rest of the country.”

Redefining National Sovereignty

Deng underwent extensive preparation for his work on genocide prevention through his previous assignment as the U.N. secretary general’s representative for internally displaced persons. The term “internally displaced” can cause confusion. As Deng explained it: “People sometimes refer to them as refugees; but refugees, in fleeing violence in their own country, have been able to cross international borders and therefore qualify for assistance through the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. I.D.P.’s, on the other hand, although fleeing violence too, are trapped within the boundaries of their own nation.” Deng found that identity was a painful factor in the lives of people trapped within their own borders.

In many of the countries he visited as the U.N. representative for internally displaced people, there was a virtual crisis of identity in terms of how a nation is defined. Disadvantaged goups demanded recognition as citizens with all the usual rights of citizenship. That, however, is frequently thwarted because “all over the world when conflicts displace people, Ihave found serious dvisions based on factors like race, ethnicity, religion and culture.

“So instead of being cared for by their own governments, these displaced populations are neglected, sometimes even persecuted, as if they were allied with the enemy.” Although they must look to the international community for relief, the same nation that is dispossessing its own people may invoke national sovereignty to prevent international access to these people. That, Deng continued, “is when in our work on the I.D.P. mandate, we began to recast sovereignty as responsibility, a concept which we had developed at the Brookings Institution’s Africa program.”

When speaking with displaced persons, Deng said, “I would ask, ‘What message do you want me to take back to your leaders?’ Invariably they would say, ‘Those are not our leaders, we have no one in this government who speaks on our behalf.’” He described one such situation while visiting displaced persons during a mission to a country in Latin America. “In the eyes of the government here,” the people told him, “we are not even citizens; we are no better than criminals; and our only crime is that we are poor.” According to Deng, internally displaced persons are not only marginalized; they are often neglected or persecuted.

A nation “should be ready to call on the world for help to do what was its responsibility in the first place,” Deng observed. “If you apply the idea of sovereignty as that kind of responsibility, you can also apply it to the prevention of genocide.” The U.N. General Assembly adopted the so-called responsibility to protect at the World Summit of heads of state and government in 2005. Deng’s earlier work on sovereignty as responsibility contributed to the development of the responsibility to protect.

Genocide sometimes includes what Deng referred to as “culturocide.” Take the case of Sudan, for example, said Deng: “A group might seize power and promote its own self-perception in terms of ethnic, racial and cultural identity. But Sudan is a country of multiple cultures and ethnic groups; and since gaining independence from the United Kingdom, the dominant group that calls itself Arab—though in fact they are actually a mix of Arabs and Africans—has been trying to fashion the country in its image as an Arab nation, trying to Arabize and Islamicize everyone.” Had they succeeded, the result would have amounted to culturocide because, Deng said, “a human being is not just a physical entity, but a cultural entity too. If you destroy a people’s culture and thereby assimilate them, you have also in a sense eliminated them.”

According to Deng, the extreme poverty of one group within a population may result in conflict that leads to mass violence. To the extent that poverty implies a disproportionate sharing of basic resources like water and grazing land, such disparity can generate a reaction among disadvantaged groups that leads to deadly internal strife. The dominant group might retaliate with a war that becomes genocidal.

Denial of responsibility for genocide can also play a role in the aftermath of conflict, as was the case in Germany after the Holocaust, which took the lives of six million Jews. In Germany after World War II, Deng said, “there was general denial of any wide responsibility, as if the millions of deaths in concentration camps were the work of one evil human being. I would hear people say, ‘Thank God he’s gone, Hitler wasn’t even German, but Austrian by birth.’” But now and then Deng encountered someone who would admit to having supported Hitler: “I met one man who had been a member of Hitler’s youth group who said, ‘I once thought Hitler was the best thing that had ever happened to Germany.’” At least he acknowledged where he had come from in his thinking. But for a while it was as though the nation at large was in almost total denial, attributing the horrific crimes of the Holocaust to a single individual. Germany has since widely been acknowledged as having faced up to its history that there was a national responsibility for what happened. “Instead of denying such evils, and attributing them to individuals,” said Deng, “we should ask ourselves what conditions produce a universal evil like the Holocaust. By doing that, we can better deal with a Hitler in our communities and in ourselves. What’s involved is a universal fault.”

Universal Human Dignity

Deng spoke of a tendency to demonize others when we fail to recognize that human dignity is universal and carries with it certain inalienable rights. “During my work with internally displaced persons, Iwas once in an Asian country where there was conflict. In a provincial town, Iwas joined at my table for breakfast by a lawyer who was strongly on one side of the conflict. When he learned that I was in his country looking into the human rights protection for those displaced by the war, he said that those ‘were not human beings but animals, and therefore had no human rights.’”

Deng recalled a childhood memory as a member of the Dinka tribe, the largest in southern Sudan: “We knew of other tribes we feared were human lions. Some filed their teeth, which confirmed for us that they were man-eaters. But once my brothers and I left home for our studies and got to know these groups, we realized we had unfairly demonized those groups.” Every group, he said, tends to see itself as the ideal of what humans should be and to perceive others in negative terms. By traveling and encountering many types of human beings, said Deng, “you begin to free yourself of the constraints created by a narrow circle that inculcates all kinds of prejudices against the outside world. Ideally, the sooner we get to know one another, the greater chance we have of getting rid of our prejudices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. The assumption that education will free us of our prejudices is displaced, because it depends on the content of the education.”

“When conflicts have gone on for decades,” Deng said, “instead of questioning why we are allowing our people to suffer and die, we should be asking what is causing this and how can we get to the roots of the problem and find a solution.” In the end, he said, it is a question of what recognition you give people, what equality you guarantee them along with basic respect and social recognition. That recognition, he added, would have to include a fairer distribution of resources, beginning with such basics as water and grazing land. “It requires a degree of wisdom to recognize that sharing is in the mutual interests of everyone,” said Deng. “It’s so basic, yet many are unwilling to think in those terms.” But what is particularly needed, he reiterated, is prevention—worldwide programs to raise awareness about what causes mass conflicts and genocide and how, being detected early on, they can be prevented. It is also important to look for models of successful management of diversity to be emulated and models of mismanagement of diversity leading to conflict, which should be avoided.

Theo Verbeek
8 years 5 months ago
Very insightful. Very applicable too to Palestine, but that is probably a too hot potato for a catholic magazine to publish in its letters. Not very likely that the present ruling government will even admit that there was ? is ? a holocaust
8 years 5 months ago
MORE TO COME? I was very disappointed when the article concluded with the words "It is also important to look for models of successful management of diversity to be emulated and models of mismanagement of diversity leading to conflict, which should be avoided". I hope a future article is planned that will develop this notion and actually identify and discuss some of these models.

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