Viewpoint by Jonathan Power
LUND, Sweden (IDN-INPS) - After Hitler’s Final Solution – the elimination of the Jews – came Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge and the murder of two million of the country’s people. After that came Rwanda when at least a million of the Tutsi people were slaughtered en masse by the Hutus. More recently we have seen large-scale killing in Sudan and now in Syria. The latter two can’t be called “genocide” – the attempt to totally eliminate a people – but the first three certainly were.
However bad that sounds the evidence is, whether it be genocide or mass slaughter, there has been significantly less of it during the last 50 years, despite the fact that most of us recall the horrors – thanks to the TV news producers’ mantra “if it bleeds it leads” – not the steady lessening of its frequency.
We are in the middle of a long-term downward decline in mass violence. Both frequency and intensity are much reduced. Even the recent increase in violent instability in the Middle East, North Africa, the Central African Republic, northern Nigeria and southern Sudan has not reversed this overall decline.
In his landmark book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, MIT professor, Steven Pinker, writes that this decline in atrocities is part of a broader and longer decline in violence. He attributes that trend to changes in cultural and material conditions that increasingly favour and reward our cooperative instincts over our more violent ones.
Genocide scholar, Ben Valentino, spotlights two forces at work – a decline in the intensity and frequency of civil wars and the collapse of communism. He argues that civil wars are becoming rarer because since 1945 the world has seen the emergence of stronger central governments combined with a sharp rise in the practice of democracy.
At the same time the collapse of communism removed both the perpetrators and the motive behind some of the worst mass killing in modern history and “nothing has really replaced communism as an ideology for mass killing”. Both superpowers during the Cold War prolonged and intensified armed conflicts by supporting rival sides.
Africa got more of its fair share of the superpower meddling. Nevertheless, Sub-Saharan African states have had fewer numbers of wars than Asia and the wars in Africa on average have been less long than those in Asia and the Middle East.
African wars and the more recent lack of wars have been well studied. A new book, Making And Unmaking Nations by Professor Scott Straus of the University of Wisconsin, asks the interesting question why genocide does not happen. He argues that answering this negative question is essential to finding an answer to the positive question of why genocide does happen.
He looks at a number of African cases – Kenya, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Sudan, Rwanda and Mali.
Mali’s history is particularly telling. In the early 1990s there was much talk that Mali might be heading into a genocidal civil war between the black, sedentary, mostly southern groups on the one hand and the “white”, nomadic Tuareg and Arab groups on the other. In the 1960s there had been a rebellion of northerners that was violently and brutally crushed. However, the perpetrators of violence against civilians went unpunished.
In 1991 there had been a military coup which led to a new constitution and elections. A democratically elected president, Alpha Oumar Konare, came to power but rivals and street protestors regularly contested his authority. Violence hung in the air. Tuareg civilians were being killed. Tuareg victim groups claimed there was a risk of genocide. By 1994 the existing peace agreement was crumbling and a nativist militia with an explicit ethnic cleansing policy had come into existence.
Konare, rather than simply ordering his army to repress the violence, initiated a series of regional and local community meetings in which people could air their differences. The army incorporated former rebels into the armed forces. Konare took every public opportunity to drive home that his foremost concerns were national unity, the peace agreement, inclusivity and tolerance.
This peace lasted a decade. But new insurgencies broke out in 2006 and 2012. A new president did the same as his predecessor. Amadou Toure told Malians to embrace each other and worked hard at arranging forums for dialogue.
Six years later he was deposed in a coup. In 2012 a group of insurgent Tuaregs and Islamist fighters advanced on the capital.
French military intervention soon followed, and the rebels were driven back. Later that year new elections were held and another peace-making president came to power, Ibrahim Keita.
The message of Mali is that mass killing can be avoided. When there were good presidents in power violence sharply decreased. Unfortunately, in the end, French soldiers had to right the ship. But they proved that successful peace-keeping at the right time can work. Mass murder doesn’t have to succeed. [IDN-INPS – 5 July 2016]
Note: Jonathan Power syndicates his opinion articles. He forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS.
Photo: Student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people on Virginia Tech's campus in 2007. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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