Thursday, December 6, 2007

Congo's Gend-orilla-cide or, How Much Worse Can It Get?

If three million dead humans in central Africa isn’t enough to capture the interest of the international community, perhaps the fact that as many as 18 endangered gorillas have been killed will, suggests Sebastian Berger in an article entitled “Congo Conflict Threatens Endangered Gorillas.”

Meanwhile, the Council on Foreign Relations reprinted CFR fellow Michael Glerson’s emotional op-ed from The Washington Post in their weekly e-newsletter. “A Different Kind of Genocide” details the rape and sexual mutilation of various women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The focus of his piece seems to be proving not that these are bodily integrity violations against human beings, but that somehow the rapes constitute “genocide” – and, perhaps, that somehow this is "different" from regular genocides.

Three problems with his argument:

First, the use of rape as a tool of genocide (to say nothing of regular old terrorizing) is hardly new.

Second, since genocide is a crime against groups, not individuals, saying rape is “genocide” hinges on depicting women not as individuals but as exemplars of group identity, as if being raped as an ordinary person for any of a variety of other reasons women get raped in war isn’t bad enough. Presumably, the “real” crime here is that some “nation” is being destroyed.

Third, he’s not clear about which ethnic or racial group is trying to destroy which – rather important for a claim of genocide. No surprise considering the complexity of this conflict, which has involved seven state armies and numerous militias fighting for a variety of reasons.

Glerson’s claims of “genocide” are not based on any serious socio-cultural, gender, or legal analysis. What we have here, I think, is simply an effort to draw attention to the DRC and to sexual violence.

His aim is laudable, but his method has pitfalls.

Claims of genocide are like an epithet people fall back on out of desperation to condemn acts of political violence. But they rarely have the desired effect. (The crisis in Darfur was labeled a genocide years ago and no meaningful military intervention materialized.) And such claims have an important consequence: that of diluting people’s understanding of what the term “genocide” actually means.

By the way, the legal definition can be found here.

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