On April 7, the world will observe the 21st anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Assistant Professor Hollie Nyseth Brehm explains how sociology can inform efforts to understand — and maybe even prevent — genocide.
After millions were killed during the Holocaust, the international community vowed to prevent genocide from occurring in the future. The phrase “never again” echoed throughout the world, and the United Nations established a convention against genocide, defining genocide as actions taken with the intent to destroy a group.
Despite this global vow, genocide has happened again. In fact, more people were killed in genocide over the course of the last century than in all homicides, manslaughters and related crimes; and the majority of those deaths occurred in the past 50 years.
This staggering statistic motivates my research on genocide.
Where does genocide occur?
While genocide was once thought to be a random event, several decades of study have found that it is not. These studies, as well as my research, examine the characteristics of countries that have experienced genocide in order to understand the situations under which genocide is more likely to occur.
For example, countries that are already undergoing some form of violence that threatens the government — like civil wars, revolutions or coups — are much more likely to experience genocide. Genocide is also more likely in countries that exclude certain segments of the population from political and economic life and where leaders have few restraints on their powers.
These country-level factors help social scientists and policymakers comprehend why genocide takes place in certain parts of the world, though social scientific research can also inform our understanding of who implements this violence.
Killings by "ordinary" citizens
After the Holocaust, the world was shocked to learn that many of the people who committed genocidal violence were, by many standards, “ordinary” citizens.
More recently, I studied who committed genocide in Rwanda, a small country in East Africa where upwards of 1 million people were killed in 1994. Members of the political elite planned this genocide to target an ethnic minority (the Tutsi), but hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens committed many of the killings.
Ntarama Church Genocide Memorial in Rwanda
Using records from community-based trials, my research team analyzed the characteristics of people who took part in the genocide. Surprisingly, we found that the average age of people who committed genocide was 34. This is much older than expected, as most explanations of crime and violence suggest that people stop committing crime (or do not commit crime in the first place) due to the age-graded social controls in their lives (like marriage or employment). Shared understandings of expectations of adult citizens also drive these patterns, as people are supposed to settle down as they grow up.
During genocide, however, this process can be turned on its head.
Genocides are frequently framed through the lens of duty and honor, and perpetrators often believe they are acting to protect their family or nation from outsiders who are seen as dangerous or even subhuman. In this sense, Rwandan citizens were called upon to defend their nation and their families, so crimes of genocide were thus aligned with the expectations of responsible adult citizenship.
Going forward, much research remains to be done, though the social sciences have many tools for understanding why this violence takes place and who commits it. Perhaps one day it will be actually possible to truthfully say “never again.”
Header image: Mass graves at the Nyarubuye Church Genocide Memorial in Rwanda