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About Martin Shaw

 Martin Shaw is research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and the University of Sussex, and professorial fellow in international relations and human rights at the University of Roehampton. Among his books are War and Genocide: Organised Killing in Modern Society (Polity, 2003); The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005); and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here




Articles by Martin Shaw

This week's editor

Rosemary Belcher-2.jpg

Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Labour and the comfort zone

If Corbyn wins, he will have to be willing to accept some radical changes to the way that politics works.

How the SNP-Tory dynamics shifted the 2015 election

Fear of the SNP drove voters to the Tories - a fear that Labour's leadership candidates are failing to discuss.

Development resistance threatens election upset in Devon

In one seat in the South West, the bookies list the main challenger is an independent. What's going on?

Boycotting Israel: the situation has changed and I have changed my mind too

The latest Israeli assault on Gaza is for one scholar an occasion to rethink the fundamental arguments for and against a boycott of the country.

Russia-Israel: domestic politics and serious blowback

The Ukraine and Gaza crises alike demonstrate the risks of aggressive policy based on short-term calculations. Vladimir Putin and Binyamin Netanyahu's war-as-politics invites damaging long-term consequences.

Sochi = Syria: boycott the Olympics

The crimes of Bashar al-Assad's regime and its support by Vladimir Putin demand an answer, says Martin Shaw.

A very British Marxist - and his son

Britain's most vehement conservative newspaper, in the course of an assault on Ralph Miliband, father of the Labour Party leader, accused the Belgian-born academic of having "hated" the country he found refuge in and fought for. Martin Shaw offers both a personal and political take on the ensuing controversy. 

Syria and Egypt: genocidal violence, western response

Genocide is both taking on new forms in the era of democratic revolution and exposing the defective reactions of western states, says Martin Shaw.

Paths to change: peaceful vs violent

The diverse experiences of the Arab spring renew the question of whether non-violent movements are more effective than armed struggle in achieving the overthrow of authoritarian regimes, says Martin Shaw.

Israel and Hamas: momentum of war

The latest war over Gaza leaves unchanged the underlying roots of conflict, even as regional changes are narrowing the potential for a long-term settlement.

The United States and "atrocity prevention"

The formation of an official agency charged with helping Washington identify and address threats of atrocity around the world is notable. But the United States's own foreign-policy record raises serious questions over its likely impact, says Martin Shaw.

The Holocaust and genocide: loose talk, bad action

The dangers of genocide denial are widely recognised. But the politics of "genocide mobilisation" - and the legal and discursive infringements that often follow - can also be a barrier to historical understanding and justice, says Martin Shaw.

2012, the next upheaval

The coming year will see a fusion of the global political and economic trends that accelerated in 2011. The results could be ugly as well as hopeful, says Martin Shaw.

Welcome to Little Tory England

The British prime minister's breach with the European Union is part of a wider political process leading England towards a meaner, harder, narrower and unfairer future. But the resources to stop it happening are also there, says Martin Shaw.

Libya: the revolution-intervention dynamic

The success of Libya’s uprising is welcome - even if both the rebel movement and foreign support for it reflect the inevitable contradictions of politics. The challenge now includes holding account all perpetrators of atrocity, says Martin Shaw.

International justice, wild west vs ICC: a coming crisis

The killing of Osama bin Laden and arrest of Ratko Mladic highlight the precariousness of international order and international law as much as their advance, says Martin Shaw.

Libya: popular revolt, military intervention

The changing dynamics of the Libyan conflict highlight the contradictions of "humanitarian intervention" when pressed to serve the western way of war, says Martin Shaw.

The global democratic revolution: a new stage

The popular risings in the Arab world belong to a wider historical process of worldwide democratic advance. But the disastrous events of the post-9/11 decade have made it far slower and more conflictual than was needed, says Martin Shaw

Street politics, violence, and media

The student movement in Britain against the government’s tuition-fees and spending policies faces inescapable political questions over the character and limits of democratic protest, says Martin Shaw.

Iraq, war and WikiLeaks: the real story

The tranche of American military documents released by the WikiLeaks project contains a wealth of detail about the coalition's indifference to civilian life. But the materials also tell a deeper story of “how” war has killed in Iraq, says Martin Shaw.

The politics of genocide: Rwanda & DR Congo

A revisionist reading of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 endorsed by Noam Chomsky confirms the moral blindness of the denialist left, says Martin Shaw.

The Holocaust, genocide studies, and politics

A compelling argument among scholars of genocide reflects the gradual development of the field beyond its point of origin, the Nazi murder of Europe’s Jews. The questions include whether and how different episodes of mass killing should be seen in a common frame; how such a development changes understanding of the Holocaust; and how historical interpretation and modern political argument intertwine, not least over Israel and anti-semitism. Martin Shaw, both participant and observer in this debate, presents an overview of its core issues.

Nigeria and the politics of massacre

The brutal violence against people of a different ethnicity or religion seen in the central Nigerian state of Jos is the most common face of genocide worldwide, says Martin Shaw.

Britain and genocide

The official annual commemoration of a century of genocide and its victims should be accompanied by a responsible awareness of Britain’s own historical record, says Martin Shaw. (This article was first published on 27 January 2009)

Sri Lanka: power and accountability

The degrading aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war demands international action to ensure protection of its civilians from their overweening rulers, says Martin Shaw.

The Karadzic trial and Bosnian realities

The trial of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is a test of justice and accountability over terrible crimes. But the trend of events in Bosnia itself also demands the international community’s urgent attention, says Martin Shaw.

DR Congo: arc of war, map of responsibility

The reports of an upsurge of violence in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may at a glance appear little more than a continuation of the persistent conflict in the country over much of the last two decades. Yet a closer look reveals not just the particularity of what is happening in one corner of Africa, but the ingredients of a wider arc of endemic conflict across a huge swathe of the continent.

Israeli settlements and “ethnic cleansing”

An intense political engagement over the question of West Bank settlements is continuing between the Barack Obama administration in the United States and the government of Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel. A failure to resolve the issue would be fatal to any chances of real progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

A particular rhetorical weapon is being employed by self-proclaimed supporters of Israel in the United States in relation to the settlements: that any dismantling of these communities and removal of their inhabitants would amount to "ethnic cleansing". The use of such a term makes an explicit association between any withdrawal of the settlers from the West Bank and (among many other cases) the systematic expulsions that took place during the wars of ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

The argument is being made for immediate political purposes, as the pace of engagement in the new round of regional diplomacy quickens (see Alex Spillius, "Obama close to securing Middle East peace talks", Daily Telegraph, 26 August 2009). But some of its rhetorical potency derives from the fact that it connects to historical experience and political reference-points in the region as well as beyond. The "ethnic cleansing" case thus deserves closer examination: but might it lead in directions that its proponents would not wish to go?

A subtle warning

A prominent Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, has circulated a report to sympathetic individuals and organisations on behalf of the Israeli Project (TIP). This outlines what it calls "the best settlement argument": "The idea that anywhere that you have Palestinians there can't be Jews, that some areas have to be Jew-free, is a racist idea. We don't say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel. They are citizens of Israel. They enjoy equal rights. We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews" (see Gilad Halpern, "Pro-Israel group: Obama settlements policy backs 'ethnic cleansing' of Jews", Ha'aretz, 23 August 2009).

The advice of the Israel Project - whose board of advisors includes twenty members of the US Congress, from both parties - represents an interesting variation in the response to perceived threats. Israeli politicians and their allies have long argued that Arab and Islamist opposition to Israel's existence portends a new holocaust. The most prominent example is the reaction to the anti-Israel rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the holocaust-denying Iranian president, in 2005 (interpreted by no less than the International Association of Genocide Scholars as a "public expression of genocidal intent"). The Israel Project's approach (albeit now somewhat qualified by its founder) represents a subtler and apparently more realistic warning of a new, inherently anti-Semitic, threat. The "ethnic cleansing" argument - given that this concept is so often used as a euphemism for genocide - keeps the genocide threat to the fore without conjuring the fear of a mass slaughter of Jews, which is obviously implausible in the context of any likely peace settlement.

The political context and motive of the "cleansing" argument may make it appear little more than a shallow propaganda move. Certainly the way the Israel Project presents it - denying any threat to "cleanse out Arabs from Israel" and asserting Israeli Arabs' citizenship and "equal rights" - is doubly disingenuous. The desirability of "transferring" Israeli Arabs out of the state is a recurring theme on the not-so-far shores of Israeli politics, and on no serious assessment can Arabs be said to have equal rights in what is, after all, the "state of the Jewish nation". The current proposals to demand that Arabs take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state only emphasise the deepening crisis of the Arab community's position within Israel (see Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move", 20 April 2007).

The historical code

But if the Israeli Project's focus on "ethnic cleansing" hits a deeper nerve, this is precisely because of the way that all political issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict, including the settlements, are defined in terms of communal interests. Sixty years ago hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were expelled and terrorised into flight by the emergent Israeli state - a certain episode of "ethnic cleansing" and indeed of genocide (to the extent that there was a concerted policy to destroy a large part of Arab society). For the last forty years, Israel has used its occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem to continue the process of dispossessing Palestinian homes and land, in slow-motion and by means which are ostensibly legal in domestic law (if not in international law, since the occupation itself remains illegal).

In this light, is it not then plausible to consider the proposal to dismantle Israeli settlements a kind of "ethnic cleansing" in reverse? It is clear that there have been many such genocidal "cleansings" in history, including the wholesale "revenge" expulsions of Germans in the closing stages and aftermath of the second world war in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. True, there can be no suggestion that the mere "freeze" on new and extended settlements currently proposed by President Obama could fall into this category, since no one will be dispossessed or expelled from anywhere as a result (although a freeze may save a few Palestinians from this fate). But since any even half-reasonable peace settlement must hand over some Israeli settlements to Palestinian control (without this there is no possibility of a coherent and viable Palestinian state), the situation of the Jewish population in these settlements is a real, complex and potentially difficult issue.

It is clearly relevant that many settlers, as well as settlement leaders, have been in the vanguard of Israel's illegal expansion in the occupied territories, and their parties are the most aggressively anti-Palestinian in the current Israeli political scene. No able-minded adult settlers can truly have been wholly ignorant of this context, and in this sense all can be regarded as complicit to some degree. However these facts cannot justify the compulsory removal of an entire population, including children and the mentally incapable - as well as those settlers whose motives have been primarily socio-economic rather than expansionist. Such an expulsion might indeed be considered, like the Israeli expulsions of Palestinians since 1948, "racial" in character (whatever the specific ideological motives). Even if neither Israel nor Jews have collective rights to occupied Palestinian lands, it can be argued that individuals and families may have acquired personal rights to stay in homes in which they have lived for years or even, in some cases, decades. The key to the question, then, is the reconciliation of these rights with justified Palestinian demands for political control over the occupied lands in which settlements have been built - and the rights of former Palestinian landowners to compensation.

The political twist

So if "peace" does not "require that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews", three things would be necessary to achieve peace without "cleansing".

First, Israeli advocates must stop talking euphemistically about a "Palestinian area", and face up to the unanswerable case (in the absence of any realistic prospect of a single bi-communal state) for a viable Palestinian state. Second, Israel must acknowledge the terrible consequences of its own "ethnic cleansings" of Palestinians, starting with 1948 and including those that have taken place recently to allow the building of the settlements, and make proposals to address the continuing injustices arising from them. Third, Israel must address the poor and deteriorating situation of the Arab minority within its own borders, dropping all constitutional provisions which make Arabs second-class citizens and ensuring that "equal rights" become a reality.

For if the continued existence of a Jewish population in the settlements requires a Palestinian state in which minorities can be confident that their individual and communal interests will be respected, the latter needs to be matched by an Israeli state which demonstrates the same standards. A Palestinian state should not be a racially Arab state; but neither should the Israeli state be defined as the state of the Jewish people. Unless both states can be defined both by secular, non-racial constitutions and by clear, well-founded and widely-supported policies of minority inclusion, the prospects for Jewish residents in any settlements handed back to Palestine - and for Israeli Arabs - will continue to be poor.

The Israel Project offers nothing in this direction. It supports policies that would continue to confine Palestinians to Bantustan-style "areas", deny the abuses they have suffered over sixty years and their unequal status within today's Israel, and do everything to sustain the present illegal status of territory- and land-grabbing settlements.

The group's advocacy touches on a real issue, but by seeking to block any serious compromise with legitimate Palestinian claims its campaign only makes more likely the kind of "cleansing" which it says it wants to avoid - and that when compromise comes, as it must, a number of Israeli settlers will be forcibly removed. Most probably this will be done, as in Gaza in August 2005, by the Israeli state itself.

This makes it ever more important now to distinguish between the rights of settler families and the ideological interests and purposes of the Israel Project and its allies. For in the context of the just and secure two-state agreement that Israelis and Palestinians alike desperately need, such ostensible support for Israel turns on closer inspection into its opposite.

Also in openDemocracy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009:

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)

Ghassan Khatib, "Gaza: outlines of an endgame" (6 January 2009)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the wider war" (13 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "After Gaza: Israel's last chance" (17 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Menachem Kellner, "Israel's Gaza war: five asymmetries" (14 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war" (15 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Conor Gearty, "Israel, Gaza and international law" (21 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the war after the war" (22 January 2009)

Mustafa Kibaroglu, "Turkey-Israel relations after Gaza" (26 January 2009)

Sadegh Zibakalam, "Iran and the Gaza war" (26 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Hugo Slim, "NGOs in Gaza: humanitarianism vs politics" (30 January 2009)

Lucy Nusseibeh, "The four lessons of Gaza" (4 February 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

Colin Shindler, "Israel's rightward shift: a history of the present" (23 February 2009)

Faisal al Yafai, "What makes the Arabs a people?" (25 February 2009)

Eyal Weizman, "Lawfare in Gaza: legislative attack" (1 March 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "The United States and Israel: moment of truth" (18 May 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "The state of Israel: key to peace" (19 May 2009)

Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Karim Kasim & Zaid Al-Ali, "The Cairo speech: Arab Muslim voices" (8 June 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Binyamin Netanyahu's mirage" (15 June 2009)

Gershon Baskin, "Israel's path: from occupation to peace" (7 July 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Iran, the Arabs and Israel: the domino-effect" (27 July 2009)

Hazem Sagheh, "Israeli settlement, Arab movement" (28 July 2009)

David Gardner, "Israel-Palestine: solving the refugee question" (18 August 2009)

Afghanistan and Iraq: western wars, genocidal risks

The war in Afghanistan is intensifying, especially in the southern province of Helmand where western coalition forces are attempting to take the fight to the Taliban. The inevitable result is an increase in deaths and injuries (often disabling ones) among British, American and other national contingents.

Sri Lanka - camps, media…genocide?

The civil war in Sri Lanka is receding from the international headlines, as crises in Iran and celebrity deaths occupy the media's limited space and attention-span. A very large number of its Tamil victims are still, more than six weeks after the fighting ended, confined in government forces in a complex of forty camps in the north east of the country. An estimated 280,000 civilians - originally displaced from their homes by the fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (Tamil Tigers / LTTE), and in some cases fleeing from the brutal regime in the LTTE's former "liberated" zone - are being held, generally against their will.

Martin Shaw is a historical sociologist of war and global politics, and professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. His books include War and Genocide (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War (Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide?(Polity, 2007). His website is here

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The myth of progressive war" (11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept" (1 February 2007)

"The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

"The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin" (6 March 2007)

"My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (16 March 2008)

"Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

"Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

"Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision" (11 March 2009)

"The Kosovo war: between two eras" (31 March 2009)

"A century of genocide, 1915-2009" (23 April 2009)

"The trouble with guns: Sri Lanka, South Africa, Ireland" (10 June 2009)
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his "victory speech", told Sri Lanka's parliament that "our heroic forces have sacrificed their lives to protect Tamil civilians", and he took "personal responsibility" for protecting Tamils. Yet his government is now scandalously confining this huge population - who have already suffered not only from the LTTE but from Sri Lankan bombardments which caused probably tens of thousands of deaths and injuries - in squalid conditions. The government has officially backtracked, under international pressure, on plans to hold the displaced, while screening them for potential "terrorists", for up to three years; it now says that 80% will be resettled by the end of 2009.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) comments: "The government's history of restricting the rights of displaced persons through rigid pass systems and strict restrictions on leaving the camps heightens concerns that they will be confined in camps much longer, possibly for years."

In the shadows

The eruption in Iran has in a twisted way done the Sri Lankan government a service. In any case, Colombo has been ruthless in restricting international journalists and rights organisations: in May 2009 even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was barred from Menik Farm, the largest camp, and Channel 4's Nick Paton Walsh was deported. Sinhala nationalism remains oppressively dominant within the majority population, and critics of the government face an atmosphere of intimidation and even terror: Sri Lankan journalists have frequently been murdered, assaulted and detained.

Although human-rights organisations and western governments have continued to protest at the situation, the Sri Lankan government has found friends in the United Nations's new Human Rights Council; it was able to pass a resolution there on 27 May 2009 praising its own commitment to human rights (endorsed by such notable bastions of freedom as China, Cuba, Russia, Pakistan and Egypt). The vigorous campaigns by members of the Tamil diasporas have ensured that the situation has not been entirely forgotten, but the interned Tamils don't have the mobile-phone access that (in the early post-election stages at least) so embarrassed the Iranian regime. There are some pictures of the camps on the internet, but no iconic images of Tamil suffering have entered the commercial, established media in the manner of Iran's Neda Soltan - or indeed of Fikret Alic, the emaciated prisoner pictured behind barbed-wire in the Trnopolje camp in Bosnia in summer 1992.

Adire predicament

It is often said that pictures tell their own story. However what is important is the media narrative and the momentum behind the issue: in both the Iranian and Bosnian cases the crises were much more strongly established in the dominant media (and the exposure of the experiences of Neda Soltan and Fikret Alic) fed this. In the case of Sri Lanka, sadly, the level and intensity of coverage - despite the impressive Tamil campaigns - has not matched these.

Moreover, what was important in Bosnia was that Trnopolje was described as a "concentration"camp - so the image facilitated the connection between the atrocious treatment of Bosnian Muslim prisoners and the murderous history of concentration camps in Europe under Nazism. The Bosnian-Serbian government that was responsible for Trnopolje naturally disputed this appellation, describing it merely as a holding centre for "refugees"; today the lowest-common-denominator descriptor seems to be a "detention" camp.

The Sri Lankan government also prefers its camps to be seen as "refugee" camps. However once people are detained, camps are clearly more than that; and where there is a sustained policy of concentrating detainees then the term "concentration camp" applies. In war, these camps - invented at the beginning of the 20th century to describe the enclosures in which the Spanish detained Cubans and the British detained Boer farmers and their families during the South African wars - are usually designed to corral a civilian population seen as potentially sympathetic to a guerrilla enemy (as Tamils evidently are still seen despite the LTTE's defeat).

Totalitarian regimes, including Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, have also used camps to concentrate other civilian groups - actual and potential political opponents, trade unionists, and ethnic "enemies" such as Jews. The complication in using the "concentration camp" category is that such regimes went on to develop their camps into something more - in the Soviet case, labour camps, in the Nazi case, extermination camps. Clearly, not all concentration camps are "death" camps in the Nazi sense; but all concentration camps tend to produce death, as well as widespread physical and mental harm. Since their premise is enmity towards the interned civilians, the history of concentration-camps has been marked, from the Boerwar onwards, by callous disregard for their welfare, and often worse.

As Human Rights Watch remarked of the Sri Lankan situation on 11 June 2009:

"Virtually all camps are overcrowded, some holding twice the number recommended by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Food distribution is chaotic, there are shortages of water, and sanitation facilities are inadequate. Camp residents do not have access to proper medical services and communicable diseases have broken out in the camps."

What is more, "the military camp administration has imposed numerous restrictions on humanitarian organizations working in the camps, such as limiting the number of vehicles and staff members that can enter the camps, which has delayed the provision of much-needed aid. The military does not allow organizations into the camps to conduct protection activities, and a ban on talking to the camp residents leaves them further isolated.'"

If reports of violence and disappearances are added to this, the situation of the interned Tamils appears dire.

A "rolling" genocide?

The western fixation with the Nazi holocaust means that there is an obvious political temptation to link all anti-civilian violence with the Nazi model.The pro-Tamil United States-based academic Francis Boyle, in his posts, sees a sixty-year "rolling" genocide in which Sinhalese governments of Ceylon (the country's name at independence in 1948) and Sri Lanka have sought "to annihilate the Tamils and to steal their lands and natural resources. This is what Hitler and the Nazis called lebensraum - "living space" for the Sinhala at the expense of the Tamils." In this perspective, the camp system is all too clearly the latest stage of genocide - although other Tamil advocates date genocide back to the anti-Tamil pogroms in 1983 in response to which the LTTE campaign began.

The idea of "rolling" genocide, applied by Madeleine Albright to distinguish the Sudanese campaign in Darfur from the "volcanic" genocide in Rwanda, suggests discontinuity in a history of genocide - albeit, in the Darfur case, within two or three years rather than six decades. However in many cases, there may be genocidal "moments" (as the genocide historian, Dirk Moses, has suggested of colonialism) in stories of oppression - decades or even centuries long - which do not, taken as a whole, constitute processes of genocide (see A Dirk Moses ed., Empire,Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History [Berghahn, 2008]).

There may be sporadic genocidal massacres, rapes and expulsions, or even sustained campaigns, at particular points in these histories. Something like this seems to be true in the Sri Lankan case: no one doubts the long history of Sinhalese nationalist oppression against the Tamil community since independence, which includes moments like 1983 which can be plausibly seen as genocidal outbursts. But the history as a whole is not simply one of genocide.

Indeed the dedication of the LTTE to armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state helped turn a history of oppression and resistance into one of brutal insurgency and counterinsurgency (see The trouble with guns: Sri Lanka, South Africa, Ireland", 10 June 2009). We know however that counterinsurgency is one of the most common contexts of genocidal violence. It remains to be seen - since most of the survivors are locked away from the world's media and the Sri Lankan government is blocking all attempts at independent investigation of the recent violence - how far the Sri Lankan army went in the direction of deliberate atrocity as opposed to brutal disregard for civilians. Here, indiscriminate allegations of a long-running Sri Lankan genocide paradoxically blunt the real questions: what kind of violence did the Sri Lankan state commit against its Tamil civilian population in the concluding prosecution of the war, on what scale and with what intentions?

The continuing concentration of over 250,000 people in the camps both blocks the search for answers to these questions, and itself constitutes a most serious crime. If the doors are not opened quickly, this will raise questions of whether the government seriously intends a restoration of Tamil society in the conquered zone. This would indeed pose a question of genocide, in the sense of the deliberate destruction of a population group in its home territory.


Also in openDemocracy on Sri Lanka‘s war:

Sumantra Bose, "Sri Lanka's stalemated conflict" (12 June 2007)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka under siege"(30 January 2009)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Sri Lanka's displaced: the political vice" (8 April 2009)

Nirmala Rajasingam, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009)

Luther Uthayakumaran, "Sri Lanka: after war, justice"(21 May 2009)

Rohan Gunaratna, "Sri Lanka's challenge: winning the peace" (27 May 2009)

Also in openDemocracy on modern genocide:

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on" (6 July 2005)

Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (13 December 2005)

Gérard Prunier, "Darfur's Sudan problem" (15 September 2006)

Peter Balakian, "Hrant Dink's assassination and genocide's legacy" (29 January 2007)

Anthony Dworkin, "The law and genocide: Bosnia, Serbia, and justice" (2 March 2007)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (12 October 2007)

The trouble with guns: Sri Lanka, South Africa, Ireland

Jacob Zuma's inauguration as South Africa's new president on 9 May 2009 opened a new phase in the country's politics, following the victory of the African National Congress (ANC) in the national elections on 22 April. But there is also continuity in the use of some of the classic symbols and icons of the ANC during its rise to power - prominent among them, the gun.Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. A historical sociologist of war and global politics, his books include War and Genocide (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War (Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). He is editor of the global site

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The myth of progressive war" (11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept" (1 February 2007)

"The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

"The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin"  (6 March 2007)

"My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (16 March 2008)

"Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

"Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

"Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision" (11 March 2009)

"The Kosovo war: between two eras" (31 March 2009)

"A century of genocide, 1915-2009" (23 April 2009)

The combination of a political leadership that draws at least part of its historic legitimacy from a past commitment to "armed struggle" raises a number of questions, among them the effect of violence (in South Africa or elsewhere) on campaigns for emancipation. The topicality of the question is further highlighted by the end of the decades-long military campaign by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers / LTTE) in Sri Lanka; and the spasm of violent attacks by "dissident" paramilitary groups and sectarian thugs in Northern Ireland.

Beyond the gates

Jacob Zuma's political campaigning strongly features his "signature" song, Umshini wami - rendered from Zulu as "bring me my machine-gun". In the days of the "armed struggle" under South Africa's apartheid regime, Zuma was indeed once a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation / MK) - the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC).

If there is a problem here, it is less that Zuma has no reputation as an actual fighter than that the MK's exiled leadership and the military operations it organised inside South Africa did not play a decisive role in ending apartheid and bringing the ANC to power. Rather the opposite: it was because the ANC prioritised democratic movements inside the country over the approach represented by the MK that they could achieve a commanding political hegemony. 

For its part, members of Umkhonto we Sizwe acquired notoriety for human-rights abuses committed in training-camps run by the ANC where exiled South Africans were based. Some of these were admitted to South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation Commission. Moreover, the period in which ANC members most often reached for their weapons was the early 1990s, during the conflict with Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (in, as it happens, Jacob Zuma's home province of KwaZulu Natal). The effects were disastrous, and it is hard to argue that the internecine war advanced the "freedom struggle".

This historical record seems to make little dent in the tendency of many ANC supporters to romanticise the "armed struggle". In this, they are hardly alone. A cult of arms (symbolised most prominently by Che Guevara) survives among sections of the left, middle-aged and comfortable as well as young and less secure, in London, New York and Paris; as well as in South Africa's townships and other marginalised communities n the global south. The University of Sussex, where I work, even has a "Che-Leila Society" - an "anti-imperialist" society named after Guevara and Leila Khaled, the Palestinian militant involved in a spectacular hijacking incident in 1969) - which plasters the campus with stickers showing a silhouetted figure with a gun.

A similar romanticism surrounds Islamist fighters involved in jihadi campaigns around the world. It is fuelled by an underworld of publications, websites, images and the hothouse emotionalism of sections of the alienated young. Most of those who subscribe to the cult of arms might be horrified by a close encounter with a bomb or machine-gun, yet they indulge the idea that such men (and Leila Khaled notwithstanding, they are almost all men) play crucial roles in the fight for freedom.

Inside the struggle

The ignominious defeat of the Tamil Tigers - one of the world's longest-running guerrilla campaigns - is a further confirmation of the problems that arise when "armed struggle" takes priority over democratic forms of resisting power.

The result of twenty-six years of organised violence against the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state and army and in favour of an independent "Tamil Eelam" homeland has been misery for hundreds of thousands of the Tamil minority on whose behalf the struggle was waged. In the aftermath of the war, many of those who had been corralled into the last sliver of Tiger-controlled territory and bombarded by the Sri Lankan military are now interned in government-controlled detention camps; some are at the mercy of anti-Tamil paramilitaries.

In its last phase alone the Sri Lankan war caused many more deaths than (for example) the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009. There is a need now to protest the horrors that the state continues to inflict on the Tamil population and to bring to justice the perpetrators of anti-civilian violence on both sides (see Luther Uthayakumaran, "Sri Lanka: after war, justice", 21 May 2009).

But the LTTE must take a major responsibility both for the war's denoument and for all the consequences of its long-term substitution of violence for politics in the campaign it waged ostensibly on behalf of justice for the Tamil people. Tamils in the diaspora as well as in Sri Lanka must overcome the false communal solidarity which glosses over the LTTE's crimes, and face up to the Tigers' responsibility in this situation (see Nirmala Rajasingham, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009).

Also in openDemocracy on violent legacies in divided societies:

Fred Hallday, "Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

Roger Southall, "South Africa's election: a tainted victory" (7 April 2009)

Nirmala Rajasingam, "The Tamil diaspora: solidarities and realities" (17 April 2009)

Luther Uthayakumaran, "Sri Lanka: after war, justice" (21 May 2009)

Rohan Gunaratna, "Sri Lanka's challenge: winning the peace" (27 May 2009)

Tom Lodge, "Northern Ireland: between peace and reconciliation" (3 June 2009)
As Nirmala Rajasingham points out: "It is striking ... that in all the demonstrations [in solidarity with the threatened Tamils] not a single cry, slogan or placard [demanded] that the Tigers should let the civilians go or cease their own assaults on them. The silence of the diaspora community on this issue is deafening." Now that the war is over and the suffering of the civilians in the camps is beginning to be exposed, it is important that the Sri Lankan government should not be able to dismiss the world's protests as pro-Tiger propaganda.

The double damage

The forms of blind or at best one-eyed "solidarity" evident in relation to Sri Lanka echo the evasions of some anti-apartheid campaigners to crimes committed under the banner of the ANC or of Irish Republicans to crimes of the Provisional IRA during the Northern Ireland "troubles". They may serve the "manifest" function of proclaiming the need to compete with the armed enemy in an "asymmetrical" fight, but what they miss is the latent function of arms - which is to enable the armed (whoever they are, and whatever the imagined justice of their cause) to exert power over the unarmed.

What happens in armed conflict - as Peter Beaumont, war correspondent of the Observer argues - is that "societies are reordered into sharply defined new hierarchies: into those who have weapons and those who have not. A man with a gun can walk to the front of the bread or petrol queue. With his militia friends he can take over a petrol station if he likes and reorganise the distribution while skimming money off the top. With a rifle you can order a woman to have sex. Weapons redistribute wealth through ‘taxes', protection rackets and straight theft. Scores can be settled, under the cover of generalised violence" (see Peter Beaumont, The Secret Life of War [Random House, 2009]). 

The various justifications for "armed struggle" remain largely untouched by such considerations - even though each is flawed:

* the moral - that the violence of those in power requires an equivalent response (but violence only trades with power in its most debased currency)

* the political - that violent acts create a powerful symbolic divide between power and its opponents (the effects of violence on civilians undermine the symbolic difference between radicals and the power they contest) 

* the strategic - that oppressive regimes can only be defeated with armed force (but authoritarian regimes have crumbled as often in the face of non-violent protest as from armed resistance).

There is too often a double damage in the way that "armed struggle" both  inflicts harm on innocent civilians - even, as in the case of the LTTE, the people it claims to be fighting for - and pushes its enemies towards more extreme repression. A regime which crushes peaceful protest will use even greater and less discriminate force against armed opposition. It is symptomatic here that the adjective most commonly applied to counterinsurgency is "brutal"; and that counterinsurgency probably turns genocidal - as in Rwanda and Darfur - more often than any other type of war.

The historic shift

Many armed movements do see a political point in "exposing" the violent and repressive character of the states they are fighting against. The problem with this argument is that it is the "armed struggle" itself which makes this character evident or reinforces it - meaning that it becomes a property of the armed conflict as much as or more than the state. The armed movement which initiated the conflict must then take a great share of responsibility for all the violence that ensues.

A cycle of this kind was apparent in the political dynamic that led small groups on the fringes of the student and anti-Vietnam War movements in western societies in the 1960s-70s towards violence that escalated to assassination and bombing - designed to "expose" the violence of the state. But the actions of the Red Army Faction in West Germany both produced a more authoritarian state than had previously existed (and might otherwise have existed); and weakened the peaceful protest movements from which they had emerged, since any sympathy for radical goals enabled media and state to smear these entire movements as supportive of violence.

It is clear that there are big differences between (say) violent provocations in street protests, terrorist bombing campaigns of the kind seen in Pakistan's cities, and the sustained armed struggles of groups like the LTTE. It is also important to note that the violence that state forces have employed in such situations - baton-wielding by police, assassination squads (as in Spain or Turkey), prolonged counterinsurgency - routinely outweighs the scale of the original threat.

But violence waged against oppression must be judged in its own terms and against its own proclaimed standards and objectives; and all the above forms of opposition share the substitution of the violence of the few for the protest of the many. In all cases radical violence both provokes greater state violence and coerces the wider movement or population on whose behalf the violent elite claims to act.

The larger story here is the fate of "revolution" - and in particular the decisive shift in the character of radical movements that resulted from the identification of revolution with armed struggle. This shift - which began with Mao Zedong's Chinese communists in the 1920s - made it possible for radicalism to be conscripted in the service of authoritarian and indeed totalitarian interests, the very opposite of democratic struggle by the oppressed.

Sri Lanka's Tamils are only one group that continues to suffer as a result of this embrace of violence as a tool of radical change. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma's celebration of the "machine-gun" may be symbolic, but points to a residual problem in the political and social culture. Northern Ireland's season of armed killings and sectarian murder expose another unresolved legacy.

There is a lesson here too for elements of the global left that still romanticise or indulge the "armed struggle" of (usually) far-away others. The politics of violence are a path to failure and regression. The trouble with guns is that they make the road to real progress so much longer and more painful.

A century of genocide, 1915-2009

When Armenian leaders in Constantinople (now Istanbul) were massacred on 24 April 1915, it was the signal for killings and deportations of Armenians across eastern Anatolia, then the heartland of the Ottoman empire and the core territory of what was in 1923 to become the Republic of Turkey.

The historian Donald Bloxham summarises what happened to the Armenians. They were, he said:

Martin Shaw is a historical sociologist of war and global politics, and professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. His books include The New Western Way of War: Risk-Transfer War and Its Crisis in Iraq (Polity, 2005) and What is Genocide? (Polity, 2007). His website is here 

Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy:

"The myth of progressive war" (11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept" (1 February 2007)

"The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

"The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin"  (6 March 2007)

"My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice" (16 March 2008)

"After the Georgia war: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

"Israel's politics of war" (19 January 2009)

"Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka" (9 February 2009)

"Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision" (11 March 2009)

"The Kosovo wars: between two eras" (31 March 2009)

"either killed in situ, which was the fate of many of the men and male youths, or deported to the deserts of modern-day Iraq or Syria in the south. Along these deportation routes they were subjected to massive and repeated depredations - rape, kidnap, mutilation, outright killing, and death from exposure, starvation, and thirst - at the hands of Ottoman gendarmes, Turkish and Kurdish irregulars, and local tribespeople. The Ottoman army was also involved in massacres. The kidnapped and other surviving women, and many orphans, were then subject to enforced conversions to Islam ... ." 

Together with deportations of Armenians from Cicilia and western Anatolia, "these events comprise the Armenian genocide. Approximately one million Ottoman Armenians died, half of the pre-war population and two-thirds of those deported" (see The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians [Oxford University Press, 2005]).

The campaign of destruction was instigated by the leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) government, which had been formed out of the Young Turk movement. It led to what Armenians call the "great catastrophe" - the end of the Armenian society that had existed in Anatolia for thousands of years, and the dispersal of most of the survivors. 

These depredations took place amid the great war of 1914-18, in which the Ottomans were allied to Germany against Britain, France and Russia, and Turkish leaders saw Armenians as a fifth column for Russia. But unlike other events of this period, only the Armenian genocide is a live political issue today. The Ottoman empire did not survive its defeat in the war, but the genocide was a step towards the consolidation of the modern Turkish state. Although the new Turkey tried some of the CUP leaders after the war, campaigns against non-Turkish minorities continued under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), the revered father of the secular Turkish republic.

Even now the Turkish state and most Turkish institutions continue to deny that the Armenians suffered genocide: as recently as 2004, novelist Orhan Pamuk was tried and in 2007, journalist Hrant Dink was murdered for acknowledging this crime.

In recent decades, organisations of the Armenian diaspora have mounted a powerful campaign for genocide recognition, linking the destruction of the Armenians in the first world war to the holocaust of Jews in the second. The European parliament and many national legislatures (including the United States congress) have now recognised the genocide; although US presidents, mindful of the strategic importance of Turkey, have so far refused. Barack Obama, who voiced support for recognition as a senator, could well become the first to do so, as Taner Akçam - a rare Turkish historian of the genocide - has argued he should. More important, an increasingly number of Turkish intellectuals have urged Turkey to apologise for 1915, and the government has also developed a more conciliatory attitude, moving to normalise relations with (post-Soviet) Armenia. 

Contextualising genocide 

That the genocide remains politically potent after almost a century should not be surprising. Historical wrongs powerfully influence national memories, and as Turkish leaders are finally beginning to recognise, sustained denial only compounds the harm. Yet it would be wrong to take this political morality tale as the end of the matter. This is also because the campaign to recognise the Armenian genocide as one of the most terrible such episodes risks skewing our understanding of genocide, both then and now.

The destruction of the Armenians was undoubtedly one of the largest, most murderous genocides in history, and it is fully justified to compare it to the Nazi holocaust and Rwanda. Yet none of these "mega-genocides" (as Mark Levene has called them) were stand-alone events. Rather they were the most concentrated and totally murderous among many episodes of mass death in their times. There were other victims of Ottoman and Turkish genocide - mainly Greeks and other Christians but also, especially later, Kurds; and there were other perpetrators in the same historical period, and other victims.

Indeed, as Donald Bloxham argues in his seminal study, the Armenian genocide was the climax of a whole period in which, as the Ottoman empire declined and eventually collapsed, new nation-states sought to establish themselves by establishing ethnic homogeneity - and therefore expelling, and sometimes killing, members of ethnic groups that they didn't want in their new states. The southeastern European version of the "great game" was not just a system of rivalry among states and empires, but a system of conflicting ethnic expulsions and genocide. 

To recognise this wider picture should not detract from the particular depths of the violence against the Armenians. Contextualising does not mean condoning; nor does it mean buying the false balancing of the deniers, who say in effect that since Turks and Muslims were also killed and expelled (and they were, by Armenians, Greeks, Russians and other Christian Slavs, as well as by the Ottoman state), then why so much fuss about the Armenian victims? It is important to recognise the differences between the largest-scale, most murderous campaigns, such as the Ottomans' against the Armenians, and the smaller-scale or less murderous campaigns and more isolated massacres, carried out by other parties. Yet all belong with the scope of genocide - classically defined as the deliberate destruction of a social group. The destruction of the Armenians was the largest, most ruthless, concentrated genocide during a series of wars in the region where many parties developed, at times, genocidal aims.

At the same time, this should not be seen as a purely "near-eastern" and Balkan problem.

Among openDemocracy's articles on genocide around the world:

David Hayes, "Thinking of Cambodia" (17 April 2003)

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on" (6 July 2005)

Gérard Prunier, "Darfur's Sudan problem"  (15 September 2006)

Carne Ross, "The United Nations and genocide" (1 November 2006)

Peter Balakian, "Hrant Dink's assassination and genocide's legacy" (29 January 2007)

Anthony Dworkin, "The law and genocide: Bosnia, Serbia, and justice" (2 March 2007)

Taner Akçam, "Turkey and history: shoot the messenger" (16 August 2007)

Keith Kahn-Harris, "The seductions of denial" (13 September 2007)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Anna Husarska, "Kenya's displaced people: a photo-essay" (5 February 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Halabja: the politics of memory" (14 March 2008)
The great game involved the rivalry of the European empires (including Britain, France and Germany), and was part of the European system that led to two world wars. In the second world war, the extent of genocide was even greater than in the first; but to view this in terms of the holocaust alone - its vast scale notwithstanding - would again be to skew the historical picture, just as if the genocide of the first world war only in terms of the Armenians.

The Nazis attacked, expelled and killed many groups, not just the Jews, although the latter were singled out with special murderousness in the later stages. Hitler's empire involved a generally genocidal plan to expel undesirable Jews, Gypsies and Slavs and install German settlers in conquered eastern territories, and Germany's allies all had their own genocidal plans to expel out-groups (see Mark Mazower, Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe [Penguin, 2008]).

At the same time the Soviets also pursued similar policies against groups like the Volga Germans and Chechens who were seen as unreliable, and developed their own master-plan to murderously expel whole populations, mainly but not only Germans, while redividing Europe at the end of the war. Stalin had no gas-chambers, but he competed with Hitler in genocide, and even the post-war Czechoslovak and Polish governments had their policies of revenge expulsions against Germans. Overall half a million German civilians may have died as about 12 million were forced to moved in 1945-49. Nor were the western allies innocent - Roosevelt and Churchill condoned the Soviet, Czechoslovak and Polish moves.

To recognise this larger picture does not minimise the holocaust of the Jews. Rather it shows that Nazi violence was not a terrible historical accident, but the culmination of the European system of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the catalyst for a wider pattern of genocide (see Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State [IB Tauris, two volumes, 2005]).

Genocide today 

This larger perspective is particularly necessary to establish the full present-day significance of the Armenian anniversary. Genocide was squeezed out of the Euro-Atlantic core of the international system after 1945, so that it now happens mainly on the "periphery", practiced by smaller states, armies and paramilitaries, mainly through policies of ethnic expulsion ("cleansing") of varying durations and degrees of murderousness. In the early 1990s, it reappeared on the edges of Europe - in Yugoslavia, and in the Caucasus, where Armenian and Azeri nationalists destroyed each other's communities in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (see Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: a region in pieces", 8 January 2009). 

The historian Dirk Moses has suggested that the history of colonialism gave rise to repeated "genocidal moments" (see A Dirk Moses ed., Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History [Berghahn, 2008]). Something similar is true of parts of the "post-colonial" world today. There are still some large-scale genocidal campaigns, like that of the Sudanese regime against the non-Arab people of Darfur. But more commonly, genocide rears its head quite locally, and sometimes briefly: as for example in January 2008 in Kenya, when opposition-linked militia attacked the Kikuyu, presumed supporters of the election-stealing government, killing over 1,000 and terrorising half a million from their homes in the Rift valley; and in August 2008 in South Ossetia, where Ossetian militias sought revenge for Georgia's attack by murdering and driving thousands of Georgian villagers from their homes.

In both these cases, genocidal violence was carried out by local paramilitaries, not central states. It was eventually brought under control by their political sponsors, as the Kenyan opposition sought to share power through international mediation and the Russian regime concluded that it had taught Georgia enough of a lesson.

Being concerned about genocide is not just about preventing mega-genocides: such episodes are by definition rare. It is also about stopping smaller-scale genocidal campaigns and genocidal massacres, which if unstopped may to lead to mega-genocides. 1915 was after all preceded by smaller-scale, less coordinated massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and 1900s, and by other massacres and expulsions in the Balkans in the same period. The 1994 Rwanda genocide was preceded by other massacres of Tutsis from 1959 onwards and the Burundian genocide (against Hutus) in 1972. Not all localised episodes threaten to lead to mega-genocides. But to prevent "another Armenia" requires being concerned about every ethnic massacre and expulsion, and about stopping the wars and political violence that produce them.

The Kosovo war: between two eras

Ten years ago, on 24 March 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) launched a bombing campaign against Serbia over the repression by the Slobodan Milosevic regime of the majority Albanian population in the southern province of Kosovo. The assault is widely remembered as the beginning of a war that was to last seventy-eight days, until a United Nations resolution and agreement on the ground that would see Serbian forces withdraw from Kosovo while leaving its final constitutional status as contested as before.

Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision

It is by any standards a landmark decision. On 4 March 2009, three judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) chose to uphold the indictment of the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Sudanese government forces in the country's Darfur region.

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