The following is adapted from a recent paper presented by The Hague Institute senior researcher Kjell Anderson at the Biennial Meeting of the International Association of Genocide Scholars in Siena, Italy.
Crimes against humanity and genocide are mass crimes, with numerous perpetrators and victims. Such crimes require a degree of organization in order to ensure concerted action. In its totality genocide is mass killing, yet for such mass killing to occur numerous individuals must commit the individual act of killing. How do such individual acts produce the collective act of killing, or, more accurately, how does the collective campaign drive individual violence? This paper will argue that genocide and crimes against humanity unfold through a dynamic interplay between hegemonic control and individual entrepreneurship, between collective motive and individual motive.
Criminal law notions such as motive are traditionally focused on the individual. As a rationale for individual action motive can never really be seen to be collective. Similarly intent, purpose, is largely an individualized notion. However, there is some recognition that motive and intent can have collective elements in forms of liability like joint criminal enterprise, conspiracy, and co-perpetration. Moreover, cultures of intent can be said to exist in the criminal liability of corporations. In international criminal law there is also some recognition that genocide and crimes against humanity are shared endeavors.
In the Rome Statute genocide can only occur when the individual intentionally acts with knowledge of a “pattern of similar attacks,” while crimes against humanity require a “state or organizational policy.” The very notion of genocidal intent, the intent to destroy racial, ethnic, religious, or national groups in whole or in part, implies collective action. Attacks targeting individuals by virtue of their identity (i.e. their membership in particular groups) are embedded in group prejudices. International crimes with such discriminatory intent, such as genocide, the crime against humanity of persecution, and the crime against humanity of apartheid are all mass hate crimes in that they target individuals as members of a group. Such crimes are socially-situated in the context of hate propaganda. Yet, collective motive, if such a thing could be said to exist, wavers and fluctuates as state messages and structures of authority interact with individual motive and localized factors.
Individual perpetrators are often risk-averse and would not act without a context of authorization from authority figures, peer co-action, and victim vulnerability. It is this space between the omnipotence of the perpetrator and victim vulnerability in which collective crimes thrive. Nowhere is this more true than in highly regimented, dehumanizing structures such as concentration camps and prisons. The vulnerability of victims is a product of deliberate policy. The perpetrator-victim relationship is essential for target selection. Through propaganda, all members of the victim group are associated with negative cognitions such as death, disease, filth, and degeneracy. They are often considered to be a threat to the very survival of the perpetrator group. As a result of this process all victims gain a high degree of symbolic attractiveness to perpetrators. Via the process of hostile framing, all actions of the victims are viewed through a negative lens. Moreover, the victims themselves become interchangeable – stigmatized objects to be acted upon rather than human beings who are full members of the moral community with its corresponding norms of reciprocity and protective effects.
It is a reflection of the variability of motive that multiple forms of violence often occur alongside each other. For example, in Rwanda in 1994 the Genocide Against the Tutsis, was accompanied by crimes against humanity against Hutus seen as sympathetic to Tutsis, war crimes arising from the ongoing civil war, and “ordinary crimes.” Such ordinary crimes during collective violence are themselves a fascinating area of inquiry. The chaos accompanying collective violence opens up a space of opportunity for individual perpetrators to perpetrate acts that arise from personalized motives. For example, a neighbor may be killed over a land dispute, without any intention to destroy the victim group as a whole and without any racialized motives. This poses significant problems for normal intent-based criminal law notions of individual culpability for genocide. Nonetheless, the definition of the victim group removes normal state protections against these individuals and allows for perpetrators to act as entrepreneurs in perpetrating their own personalized acts of violence. The state itself becomes criminogenic.
It is paradoxical that the sum of highly personalized motives can be a collective attack against the abstracted group. Yet, as Stathis Kalyvas observes in “The Logic of Violence in Civil War”: “civil war can be analyzed as a process that transforms the political actors’ quest for personal and local advantage into a joint process of violence” (2006). There is an alliance between local and national actors in order to carry out the collective enterprise of mass violence. Both acts of rescuing and acts of extreme violence are often beyond the bounds of the directed violence of the state.
The relationship between state-directed hegemonic violence and individual violence can also be seen as a relationship between principals and agents or between indirect and direct perpetrators. From the perspective of principals, agents may fail to carry out orders out of
- Goal variance (divergent goals),
- Information asymmetry (a lack of leaders’ information about the acts of their subordinates), or
- Ambiguity (unclear orders).
As this schema illustrates, information is key in the coordination of violence. This is represented in international criminal law in command responsibility where commanders are responsible if they knew or should have known that their subordinates were committing illegal acts. In recent years increasingly expansive notions of linkage (and overall control) between leaders and the acts of direct perpetrators have developed, but these have recently been curtailed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Perisic and Stanisic cases.
Direct perpetrators may respond to the demands of leaders through acquiescence, endorsement (if they share the same intent and motive as their commanders), internalization (where such demands become ‘embedded’ and come to be seen as internally-generated rather than externally-imposed), or resistance. The way that direct perpetrators react to the demands of authority figures is partially a function of their position in society. Professional soldiers are socialized to obey, while the obedience of civilians lacks this element of discipline. As crimes of obedience, genocide and crimes against humanity increase in likelihood with strong structures of control, whereas war crimes are often the product of weak structures and indiscipline. There is also an increasing tendency in conflicts to “outsource” atrocity to criminalized groups such as Arkan’s Tigers in Bosnia.
The current conflict in Syria is illustrative of many of these patterns of violence. War crimes are occurring alongside widespread and systematic attacks against civilians. In fact, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, up to 91% of the casualties of the war are civilians. There is a thickening of the density of massacres as the logic of violence shifts from securing strategic targets to the ethnic cleansing of homeland areas (i.e. government attacks against non-Alawite areas in coastal regions). There is also an increasing reliance on criminal groups such as the Shabiha militia to carry out such attacks. In Syria, as elsewhere, atrocities occur as a result of a complex interplay between state and organizational policy and individual entrepreneurship.