Volume 1, Issue 1

Forecasting and Detection of Genocide*
  By John G. Heidenrich
In this excerpt from his book, John Heidenrich discusses the social factors that often precede genocide. By establishing a model that appreciates the complexity of each factor, it becomes possible to predict genocides while they are still preventable. He elaborates on the potential ability of a structure to implement the model and serve as an effective safeguard against genocide.
In December 1998, President Bill Clinton announced his administration’s intention to create a Genocide Early Warning System (GEWS) that would use secret and nonsecret reports to forecast and detect places of possible genocide. It was not a new idea. In 1977 two Israeli social scientists proposed such an idea wherein a central information center could receive, categorize, and investigate reports of trouble. In 1985 a similar proposal was made in a United Nations study: “

In cases where evidence appears of an impending genocidal conflict — mounting repression, increasing polarization, or the first indications of an unexpected case — an effective early warning system could help save several thousands of lives. . . . Intelligent anticipation of potential cases could be based on a databank of continuously updated information which might enable remedial, deterrent, or averting measures to be planned ahead.”

The GEWS project initiated by Clinton did not have much time to warn of the trouble then-brewing in Kosovo, but the later Kosovo War of 1999 can be seen as a lesson more than a failure. Having three or four months of early warning, while better than no warning at all, is not much time to prevent a genocide. For instance, to arrange a multinational peacekeeping force typically takes the UN at least three months of planning and preparation — and that is after the Security Council has debated the issue and agreed to act. Ideally, therefore, a genocide early warning system should forecast a genocide, or at least genocidal trouble, several months or even years in advance. Since the forecast needs only to be credible, not a prophecy, this is not too ambitious a timetable. If it encourages preventive action, the forecast succeeds by not coming true.

The first publicly available indication of a group’s genocidal intentions can be its own ideological or religious literature. That of Nazism, Marxism-Leninism, Arab Baathism, Rwandan “Hutu Power” and Serbian nationalism appeared years before the genocides those ideologies spawned, indeed years before their followers achieved political power. In the case of Hitler’s (notoriously boring) book Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), even an analyst without the patience to read through every page can still see that almost every chapter expresses hatred, tyrannical notions, and anti-Semitism.

Even the most secretive of genocidal regimes must spout propaganda to promote its agenda. Its propaganda might be mixed with talk of peace, as the Nazis’ initially was, or attempts might be made to channel it towards a particular audience, as in Rwanda in the early 1990s, when hateful anti-Tutsi radio broadcasts were aired in the country’s indigenous language while more conciliatory messages, to deceive foreign listeners, were broadcast in French. Nevertheless, a core of hateful propaganda exists, it is publicly available, and it can become an important clue in forecasting a genocide.

Most contemporary genocides are detected early by the international news media, although the coverage can be sparse. Even totalitarian countries have hosted the presence of foreign correspondents, including Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Khomeini’s Iran, and even Hussein’s Iraq. Moreover, in countries where even a little press freedom is permitted, some of the best reporters available are native journalists. Even as Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia kept Serbian television under state control and promoted newspapers that spouted the party line, the regime allowed independent newspapers and even radio stations a surprisingly high degree of press freedom. Articles by independent newspapers and journalists, if interesting, are sometimes cited, summarized or even reprinted verbatim by international newswire services.

Also available are television news organizations, among them Cable News Network (CNN). In general, however, television news tends not to be very timely for genocide-detection purposes. For a story to be considered “worthy” of television coverage, television producers must make the story photogenic, summarize it in brief sound bites, have no other story more “news worthy” to broadcast in its place, and hope the viewing audience finds the story interesting, for otherwise they may not broadcast such a story again. By the time these broadcast requirements are fulfilled by a genocide-related story, such as a massacre, the larger crisis underlying that massacre is usually already days, weeks, or even months old.

Other groups capable of reporting genocidal activities include non-governmental organizations. A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a private, not-for-profit group devoted to improving human welfare through charitable assistance, economic development, or political reform. Perhaps the most famous is the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC has representatives all over the globe, supplying its Geneva headquarters with assessments of ongoing crises and early warning data about places to which the ICRC may soon render assistance. Even more eager to share their concerns are NGO’s that monitor human rights. Some, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, are global in their coverage. Religious groups are usually among the first people to learn of a religious persecution, especially against their own faith. Religious groups are not generally called NGO’s, but the difference is negligible if not nonexistent. One anti-slavery NGO is even named Christian Solidarity International (CSI).

International organizations offer further possible sources for genocide early warning. UN agencies have employees all over the world, including its most volatile places. The United Nations also has entities and officials specifically responsible for the investigation and promotion of human rights issues, most notably the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). A “special rapporteur” is an issue-specific investigator, typically a university professor on loan to the UN for a period of weeks, months, or years. He or she visits the relevant country, or countries, to talk with government and opposition leaders, local UN personnel, Egos, the news media, and others with pertinent information. A report is then produced that can be very informative. A few countries with especially notorious regimes have a special rapporteur specifically assigned; there is a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iraq, for example. Others monitor genocide-related issues in several countries. Most of their reports are publicly available.

Academia consists of independent research institutes as well as universities. Since genocide is a problem that can be studied from several different intellectual perspectives, several academic disciplines can be consulted aside from the obvious ones, such as political science. At Harvard University, for example, the Harvard School of Public Health is very concerned about the problem of genocide and has done some insightful research. Anthropologists are also concerned; the American Anthropological Association even has a Committee for Human Rights, responsible for studying and promoting action against “ethnic cleansing” and other human rights abuses. Sociologists, law professors, criminologists, and even theologians have studied the problem of genocide. Their insights are as worthy of review as those of political scientists and Holocaust scholars.

In a field as emotionally sensitive as genocide studies there are a great many opinions, and consequently quite a few notions of what causes genocide and what to watch for. But these notions are not necessarily based on an objective analysis of the relevant facts. For example, the relationship between economics and genocide is not always straightforward. Propaganda can exploit economic resentments, but severe economic troubles do not necessarily cause mass murder; indeed, they rarely do, for otherwise genocides would be as frequent as business cycles. That said, at least some relationship does seem to exist between economics and genocide. The Nazi regime, and likewise many Marxist-Leninist regimes, did avidly confiscate the property of the groups they persecuted and, as a result, amassed immense amounts of wealth. But did those regimes plunder their victims — and then murder them — solely because the overall economy was in trouble? Or were there other reasons as well? Many genocidal regimes have preferred to impoverish their countries rather than stop a genocide that, in cold economic terms, is no longer profitable.

Overpopulation is another notion commonly presumed to cause genocide, via an intense competition for limited space and resources. In propaganda, at least, it has certainly been used as an excuse for genocide: Hitler asserted that the German nation needed more lebensraum (“living space”) and so he started World War II. But analysts should be careful about attributing any particular genocide, such as Rwanda’s in 1994, to a cause as simplistic as “overpopulation.” Overpopulation alone does not explain every genocide. In 1925 the Soviet Union was the world’s largest contiguous country, with a population recently decreased by several millions due to the massive casualties and emigration caused by the First World War, the Russian Civil War, and by the first years of Communist rule. Finding a vacant apartment may have been an urban problem in a few Soviet cities, but by 1925 the overall Soviet economy was recovering well and overpopulation was not a countrywide problem. Yet it was in 1925 that Stalin initiated mass collectivization. Nor does overpopulation explain why Stalin later purged the Soviet Communist Party and Red Army. While an analysis of demographic trends may reveal something for genocide forecasting, those demographic trends must not become the forecast itself.

The core of the forecasting effort needs to be the identification of group identities and how they are being politically manipulated, because group identities and politics (“identity politics”) define what a genocide truly is: the intentional destruction of a particular group, not an incidental group.

Another common notion about genocide is that some occupations are more conformist, more violent, and hence more potentially genocidal than others. This notion, though some evidence does support it, can nevertheless lead to some counterproductive stereotyping. As an example, military and police institutions have a conformist, sometimes violent “culture.” In countries where severe abuses of human rights have occurred these institutions are frequently culpable and, for that reason, they should be watched in every country. However, the idea that people with military and police careers are predisposed to violence– especially in comparison to those in the apparently more civilized fields of art, music, philosophy, literature, medicine, law, or academia — is simply false.

It might come as a surprise to learn the original occupations of people who later orchestrated the worst genocides of the twentieth century. Adolf Hitler began as an aspiring artist. Joseph Goebbels wanted to be a journalist and novelist. Heinrich Himmler began as a part-time chicken farmer. Adolf Eichman began as a traveling salesman for an oil company. Martin Bormann was once a farm hand. Joseph Mengele was a genuine physician who had earned his medical degree while also earning a degree in philosophy. Slave labor was exploited in the Nazi ministries of both Robert Lay, an ex-chemist and trade unionist, and Albert Speer, an architect. Hans Frank, the Nazi overlord of Poland, began as a lawyer. Some Nazi leaders had military experience, others did not. Herman Goering distinguished himself in World War I as a fighter pilot. Adolf Hitler, literally in the trenches at that time, earned one of Germany’s highest medals — the Iron Cross, First Class — but in rank Hitler rose only as high as corporal.

Of the Marxist-Leninists, Vladimir Lenin began as a lawyer, Joseph Stalin studied for the priesthood at an East Orthodox Christian seminary, Genrikh Yagoda (who headed Stalin’s secret police) began as a pharmacist, Nikolai Yezhov (who replaced Yagoda) labored as a semi-literate factory worker, Lavrenti Beria (who replaced Yezhov) studied industrial engineering, Mao Zedong studied the Chinese classics, and Pol Pot studied carpentry and later radio electronics. Some were born to middle-class backgrounds, others were the sons of peasant farmers. Some had military experience; others, notably Lenin, did not.

In any genocide the involvement of soldiers and policemen should not be ignored, but neither should their roles be exaggerated. Political directives and hateful propaganda play decisive roles, roles that are not necessarily performed by soldiers and policemen. Many people wanted to dispose of Hitler, but the group that came closest to succeeding were anti-Nazi conspirators within Germany’s own traditional armed forces. Among the supporters of those conspirators was Hitler’s own chief of military intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Abwehr. More recently, in Myanmar in the 1990s, the Burmese democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, herself the daughter of a general included several retired generals as her closest colleagues — all of them opposed to Myanmar’s military dictatorship. And in Serbia in 2000, the popular uprising that deposed Slobodan Milosevic was secretly spearheaded by current and former members of elite military and police units.

Having a proud heritage has not kept military institutions out of politics, but in even totalitarian societies it has given those institutions a relative independence. This is a major reason why dictators such as Stalin and Hussein have inflicted genocide against even their own soldiers. Stalin’s Great Purges murdered or imprisoned approximately half of the entire Soviet officer corps: some 30,000 professional military officers, including most of the USSR’s best generals and admirals. (They were sorely missed when Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941.) Such dictators, needing a force they can more readily trust, have also been known to create their own personalized militaries: the NKVD/KGB troops of the USSR, the Republican Guard of Iraq, the Waffen-SS of Nazi Germany, the paramilitary units of Milosevic’s Serbia — with names like the White Eagles, the Gray Wolves, and the Serbian Volunteer Guard (“Arkan’s Tigers”). Treated as an elite rival to the traditional military, the very existence of this alternative force, along with its special privileges and elite mystique, all depend upon the future survival of the regime — a fact that its members are well aware of, energizing their dedication.

* * *
Some forecasting models have been developed by the scholars who study genocide as a phenomenon. By comparing and contrasting different genocides to obtain empirical data, they have uncovered “indicators,” which are events or preconditions in a society. Each active indicator marks another step toward genocide. The models tend to be very elaborate, but their underlying premises are easily summarized. A society at risk of experiencing genocide has few if any checks and balances restraining its regime; in other words, dictatorships have much more capacity for genocide than do constitutional democracies. The risk is even higher if the society is psychologically and sociologically stratified into potentially rival group identities. The risk is higher still if at least one of those group identities practices morality in ways that deny the dignity of their perceived enemies, such as with mass contempt or hatred. This usually reflects a quasi-religious ideology such as Nazism or Marxism-Leninism. History is also indicative. If, in the past thirty years, genocidal acts were committed in that society and were socially rewarded (i.e., the perpetrators were punished lightly, if at all), than a definite danger exists that those acts will be repeated. Indeed, those acts may be gruesomely exceeded if, in the past four years, that society’s government has either broken down or, instead, has entrenched its power by violating human rights on a large scale. Outwardly, the last noticeable indication before an organized genocide begins could be the start of a war, a rebellion, or a very intense propaganda campaign that portrays a particular group (a group identity) as a demonic enemy and public scapegoat.

Even without forecasting models, the day a genocide will likely begin can sometimes be guessed. This is possible when the date of an obviously related event is publicly scheduled. In the cast of East Timor, a UN-supervised referendum on independence from Indonesia was scheduled for August 30, 1999. As the day approached, pro-Indonesian militias supported by elements of the Indonesian Army increasingly brutalized many Timorese to frighten them from voting. It was easy to predict that the coming referendum could be followed by even worse violence, especially if most Timorese voted for independence. And that prediction turned out to be true.

An “early warning center” is devoted to forecasting places of potential trouble and issuing alerts accordingly. It is different from a “watch center” which, while also responsible for issuing alerts, only monitors ongoing events. It is also different from a system of early warning spread among several departments or even agencies. A criticism sometimes raised against early warning centers is that, historically, having enough early warning has rarely been a serious problem. The warnings were usually there, specified in secret reports by the relevant agencies, but those warnings were ignored. Early warnings do not always produce early action.

There is a difference between having some early warnings versus having an early warning center, however. Key decision-makers and their staffs typically have very busy schedules as a multitude of people, meetings, events, and reports vie for their daily attention — with little hint of which potential crisis somewhere deserves their attention at the expense of more immediate issues. But an early warning center can help identity and urgently emphasize which situations they should watch and heed. With its special sources and unique analytical methods, an early warning center has few if any bureaucratic peers. This privileged status renders its warnings very difficult to dispute — or ignore.

Being able to emphasize such warnings, repeatedly, at the highest levels instead through intermediaries, is a lesson an independent, UN-sanctioned commission of inquiry underscored after reviewing the UN’s abysmal response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Almost a year before the genocide erupted in earnest, the UN had

“published a report which gave an ominously serious picture of the human rights situation in Rwanda. The report described the visit to Rwanda by the Special Rapporteur . . . Waly Bacre Ndiaye, from 8 to 17 April 1993. Ndiaye determined that massacres and a plethora of other serious human rights violations were taking place . . . Although Ndiaye — in addition to pointing out the serious risk of genocide in Rwanda — recommended a serious of steps to prevent further massacres and other abuses, his report seems to have been largely ignored by the key actors within the United Nations system.”

The warnings did not end there. Three months before the main genocide, Canadian Major General Romeo Dallaire, the force commander of a small UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda called UNAMIR, received some information he deemed to be so dire, and yet so credible, that he faxed it back to his superiors in New York. Some excerpts:

“Force Commander put in contact with informant by very, very important government politician. Informant is a top-level trainer in the cadre of the Interahamwe-armed militia. . . . [The informer, a Hutu, was] ordered to register all Tutsis in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave was that, in 20 minutes, his personnel could kill up to 1,000 Tutsis. . . . [The informer provided us with this information because] he disagrees with anti-Tutsi extermination.”

Unfortunately, the UN Headquarters at that time did not have a genocide early warning center. Consequently, Dallaire’s fax became one of but many reports received daily from UN peacekeeping forces scattered all over the world. The Security Council was not very interested, although neither was it shown Dallaire’s fax. Some senior officials in the UN Secretariat later testified that they, too, were not shown Dallaire’s fax when it first arrived. If a genocide early warning center had existed in the UN, that center could have noticed Dallaire’s fax and treated it as but the latest piece in a growing mosaic of ominous clues and worrisome reports. Very soon, if not immediately, that center could have alerted the highest officials. It could have presented more than a single fax, but indeed its entire analytical assessment and its evidence — all of which, when presented together, would have been extremely difficult to ignore. And to ensure that its warnings were fully understood, the center’s staff members could have had face-to-face contact with the people they informed, if necessary on a daily basis.

If that action is early enough, months or years before a genocidal crisis erupts in earnest, the situation can be handled between governments by assistant secretaries of state and by deputy foreign ministers, or even by ambassadors, embassy charge d’affaires, consuls, and attaches. They are the foreign policy professionals of their governments, seasoned by experience and often quite knowledgeable about the regions wherein they work. They may not possess the full political power of their president or prime minister, but at that much earlier time, when events are still fluid, they enjoy considerable authority and flexibility. They thus have more chance of guiding the situation down a more peaceful path before that society becomes too polarized by its rising hazards, and before too many political moderates are either killed or politically marginalized. That is what a genocide early warning center should be designed to facilitate.
*Excerpted from “Forecasting and Detection of Genocide,” Chapter Four of How to Prevent Genocide: A Guide for Policymakers, Scholars, and the Concerned Citizen (Praeger Publishers, 2001), by John G. Heidenrich

Copyright (c) 2001 by The Genocide Prevention Center. All rights reserved.