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Genocide and identity conflict

By I. William Zartman

Genocide doesn’t burst out unannounced. It is preceded and prepared by identity conflict that escalates from social friction to contentious politics, from politics to violence, and eventually to targeted mass killing. The United Nations in 1946 defined genocide as “a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups” and redefined it in 1948 as “acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” It can be carried out by rebel movements, but it is more frequently the work of the sovereign state.

More strikingly, it is generally not an aggressive but a defensive reaction — pathologically defensive, against a perceived existential threat. Instigators of identity conflict feel themselves targeted, ultimately for extinction, by another identity group whom they feel must be defeated and ultimately exterminated,. So, in a security dilemma, they themselves target the perceived threateners for extinction. Whether this fear is realistic or not is irrelevant; often it is not, usually it has some grain of evidence taken out of proportion, and sometimes it is at least ostensibly accurate. But the point is that political entrepreneurs sell this fear to their client public to gain their support. Peacemakers have the challenge of removing the potential tinder before the arsonist gets to throw a match at it.

Options to prevent this situation are fraught with dilemmas. What is required is a separation of the political entrepreneurs from the public, a move presenting dilemmas in free societies. Democratic rights of free association and speech provide such entrepreneurs with space to mobilize their public (the tinder), overtly or covertly, around identity markers. Removing the fears of identity groups and protecting identity diversity separate the public from the political entrepreneurs’ appeals. This means a return to (or toward) the ideal condition of normal politics, where government responds to the fears, needs, and demands of all of its citizens and the citizens regularly review the record of the government in adequately providing this response.

However, such fears are often deep-rooted, and trust in constitutional arrangements and agents of authority is shallow. Alternative actions to create social, economic, and political conditions that reduce the need and opportunity to mobilize around identity markers are expensive and may alienate other parts of society. If the motivating fears cannot be exorcized, then measures must be taken to disarm those who mold them and render them incapable of causing damage. This is a necessarily intrusive challenge, especially when the political entrepreneur is the government. Telling governments (or rebel movements) that their fears are groundless and that they should be nice to their minorities is not an easily welcomed message.

Obviously, not all identity conflicts end in genocide, so it becomes important to understand the mechanism by which some do. Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean “violent conflict”; the violent stage is an escalation from the initial, political stage of incompatible demands and cannot be understood in isolation from it. The non-violent stage of demonized conflict is the predecessor of genocide itself. Most identity conflicts go through the usual conflict evolutions to victory, stalemate, or fatigue. One side wins, the conflict reaches an impasse and turns to negotiation, or the demonizers weary of their efforts and leave their images in their public’s subconscious for a later day’s use. But some go on, ever escalating the images of the Other until they reach the ultimate confrontation, confirming the fears of the opponents.

Entrapment is the motor of the mechanism. Leaders become entrapped vis-à-vis their public. They have identified the scapegoat and now they must do something about it. Leaders become entrapped vis-à-vis each other; they enter into spirals of outbidding that force them into action. Leaders and followers alike become entrapped vis-à-vis the Other; they must increase their defenses against fear and threats and so enter into the security dilemma and a “spiral of vengeance.” Followers become entrapped vis-à-vis each other; they must follow the mass paroxysm of their neighbors or become its victims. Thus, it isn’t enough to understand the mechanics of genocide; one must understand where it comes from and the mechanics of its origin.

What can negotiation do in such a situation? And what can external parties do to foster negotiation of the measures that are necessary to prevent conflict escalation down the slippery slope toward mass killing and genocide? Blocking that slide means first listening for the frequent early warnings and taking early action. What is needed is a process that removes the feelings of zero-sum threat and fear, and that process has to come from positive interaction between the parties.

That means negotiation, including dialog, ripening, and preemptive accountability, to forestall identity conflict escalation. Intervention when the slide is temporarily arrested (“lest it happen again”) includes monitoring and reconstruction, followed by reconciliation and remediation, once the violence has been brought under control. The blockage of such interaction is what makes the conflict; removing the blockage is the first step towards managing escalation, and the nature of the blockage or conflict imposes its requirements on the substance of the negotiations. Two types of contributions to a solution are available: structural and attitudinal, with continual interrelations between the two. Attitudinal changes are necessary to embark on structural solution searches; effective structural solutions give confidence to parties that there are systems in place to protect identities and make structures stick. They are symbiotic.

I. William Zartman is Jacob Blaustein Professor Emeritus at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington DC. His books include Cowardly Lions: Missed Opportunities to Prevent Deadly Conflict and State Collapse and Negotiation and Conflict Management. He is the co-editor of The Slippery Slope to Genocide: Reducing Identity Conflicts and Preventing Mass Murder with Mark Anstey and Paul Meerts. All three editors are on the Steering Committee for the Processes of International Negotiation Network at the International Institute for Applied Systems.

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