Why study genocide?

The question I am most often asked by people when they find out I have a nonprofit that works on genocide or that I am getting a PhD in Holocaust and Genocide Studies is “Why?” People have a very difficult time wrapping their head around why anybody would want to study genocide. But there are actually several very good reasons to do so and they affect the global community. Although one can certainly make the case that there is a moral reason to study genocide, there are practical reasons as well.

A glaring reason to study genocide is that it is sadly not a crime of the past. Modern genocide began in Southwest Africa and has continued through the Holocaust up until today. Recent genocides include the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Yazidi in Iraq. How many people are even aware that this is still happening? We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to those that still suffer from this most heinous of crimes.

That brings us to the other practical reason to study genocide. Only by studying genocide can we hope to prevent its occurrence in the future. By studying genocide, scholars can see factors that are common among genocides. These so-called risk factors are things that make genocide more likely to occur. If such factors can be identified, an early warning system can be developed.

Why is the development of an early warning system important? Such a system is important because it means that the international community could intervene before lives are lost with what are called upstream prevention measures. Early prevention is much less costly in terms of money and lives lost. Of course, political will is needed for early prevention to occur, but that is a separate post. Early prevention measures include things like publicly calling out the genocidaires, economic sanctions, and talks between conflicting parties.

There are some early warning systems out there already, but much improvement is still needed. According to a 2002 paper written by Barbara Harff, professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, most warning systems predict genocide too late in the process. Dr. Harff has played a key role in helping identify commonalities among genocides and developing an early warning system. Many of the current models give false positives. Although it may be better to be cautious when predicting genocide, we also can’t constantly raise false alarms lest we be accused of crying wolf. What is also needed for a good early warning system is a solid definition of genocide, something Marcus Steiner covered in a previous post.

Study of genocide is critical, not just so that we don’t forget what happened in the past. It certainly is not something that is for the faint of heart. I truly believe that those of us who study genocide feel called to do so in some way. We must also be able to not only recognize when genocide is occurring, but eventually be able to predict its occurrence. Only in this way can we hope to be rid of the scourge of evil that is genocide.

About the author:

Christi Yoder is the Executive Director for the Center for Genocide Research and Education. Her research specializations include risk factors, sexual violence in genocide, and geographic information systems. She holds a M.A. in International Human Rights from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and is currently a Ph.D. student at Gratz College in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.