By Tom Shacklock
This piece was first published as a three-part blog series on The Call, a Genocide Watch blog site.
Part 1: Why Recognition Matters for Peace and Security
Part 2: False Dichotomies Between Conflict and Genocidal Violence
Part 3: False Equivalences and Asymmetric Victimization
First published by The Call on June 28, 2022.
Banyamulenge men at a herder's funeral. (ALEXIS HUGUET/AFP via Getty Images)
Part 1: Why Recognition Matters for Peace and Security
Since 2017, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has witnessed some of the region’s worst violence since the Congo Wars (1996-2003). In the Plateaux region of South Kivu province, a coalition of militias has been fighting armed groups representing the Banyamulenge, a Tutsi community. This violence has been conventionally framed as “intercommunal conflict,” though certain academics and organizations have recognized the anti-Banyamulenge violence as genocidal. More neutral stances on this crisis emphasize its complexities while also reflecting differing views about the term “genocide.” In the field of genocide studies and prevention, there exists a tension between positions that reserve the term for clearer cases of extermination, to prevent its devaluation, and more critical stances that broaden its applicability, usually to situations that raise existential concerns for vulnerable populations. Given these divergent perspectives, this blog series does not focus on explaining the interpretation of a Banyamulenge genocide. Instead, it problematizes narratives that oppose or avoid this interpretation or downplay dynamics that inform it, highlighting arguments on the crisis that represent potential false dichotomies between genocide and complex violence and situating its asymmetries within its complexities. This analysis could have implications for certain shifts needed in interventions tackling this crisis.
There are numerous reasons why international actors may choose to maintain neutrality in this context. Appearing biased towards groups risks compromising their peacebuilding or humanitarian work. Similarly, humanitarian organizations have discussed the politicization of aid in Ethiopia. Yet, given these limitations, the narratives they present publicly and the locations they focus on are not necessarily a comprehensive reflection of this crisis. Furthermore, complete neutrality has in many contexts been problematic. Samantha Powell argued that United States (U.S.) diplomacy in pre-genocide Rwanda displayed a “bias toward states and negotiations” and a reluctance to disrupt peace negotiations. United Nations (U.N.) actors have also demonstrated this bias in adopting denialist narratives on genocides in both unstable contexts, including Sudan, and more stable contexts like China. Additionally, denial mechanisms are often based on conventional views regarding the scale of genocides and certain strict criteria for proving intent to destroy. So far, disagreements regarding a Banyamulenge genocide have not compared with denial of clearer, more well-known genocides, and there are debates on whether the Banyamulenge’s current persecution represents a warning for genocide or a “slow genocide” already underway. Notwithstanding these disagreements and concerns, the Banyamulenge are vulnerable to what would be more widely considered genocide.
The term “conflict” does not always contradict interpretations of genocide, though variations of it can. During the Rwandan civil war (1990-94), the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebellion that committed severe abuses but predominantly represented the persecuted Tutsi minority, was in conflict with the ideologically extremist Hutu Power regime. The latter resisted and eventually caused large-scale genocide. Today, the idea that Banyamulenge experience “cyclical” conflict or violence does not necessarily contradict the claim they face genocide. Galtung’s “Conflict Triangle” further captures the dynamics of “cyclical” conflict. However, “intercommunal conflict” is too specific and reductive a categorization. While marking an improvement from when media sources used terms like “tribal violence” during the Rwandan genocide, it still portrays violence as symmetric and coalesces armed groups with civilians. It also reduces explanations for violence to being centred around material issues including land, resources, and local power. While these factors are relevant, “intercommunal conflict” insufficiently captures the deeper socio-political dynamics these factors feed into while negating the destructiveness of the crisis. Additionally, this framing represents certain neo-colonial power dynamics in peacebuilding. It disregards interpretations from within communities, who are expected to accept narratives imposed on them by international actors in order not to complicate peace.
Notwithstanding the importance of peacebuilding processes, they can still be problematized. Though there is a tension between facilitating reconciliation and recognizing a community’s specific victimization, the latter may humanize and complement the former. Commitments to impartiality raise questions about what “peace” means and on whose terms it should be negotiated. Peace can become an abstract goal that overlooks specific experiences of different communities. During the Rwandan civil war, Samantha Powell argued that U.S. diplomats feared setbacks to “the peace process” rather than for “Rwandans.” Additionally, non-recognition of community vulnerabilities can be counterproductive in hindering interventions necessary to avert violence and has implications for justice. In complex conflict settings, genocide accusations can be perceived as biased or stigmatizing for entire “perpetrator groups,” creating simplistic victim-perpetrator binaries. Yet, non-recognition can be hurtful or disconcerting for targeted communities, depriving them of a sense of justice and peace of mind. In the short term, if peacebuilding downplays the insecurities of targeted communities, it risks perpetuating the armed mobilization of some community members. In the long term, recognizing genocide, or at least appreciating such interpretations, can bring targeted communities some closure. It is recognition that they have been targeted as “unwanted peoples” by certain actors.
This piece focuses on socio-political dynamics and emphasizes that quantifying suffering alone is problematic. Yet, broader factors create limitations in data that can be indicative of these dynamics. Across the DRC, various forms of suffering and violence facing many communities have become neglected, normalized, and chronically underreported. One source that does document violence in the Plateaux is Kivu Security Tracker (KST), though its data is perpetrator-focused and rarely identifies the ethnicity of victims. Various U.N. documents have also been generalist when reporting on data concerning all civilians. While this approach appears comprehensive and unbiased, it presents civilians as abstract numbers rather than members of different communities whose specific experiences need to be humanized and understood. One U.N. report from 2020 does provide more specific data. There are also disparities between verified data on the crisis and higher numbers of victims and displaced persons estimated by Banyamulenge researchers. These figures warrant further investigation to enhance understanding of the crisis and account for every individual’s story from each community. Verifying data is challenging in South Kivu, and accuracy remains an important principle. However, the overall lack of comprehensive data reflects a lack of genuine responses to this crisis among various actors globally.
With the revival of the M23 rebellion in North Kivu, the Banyamulenge’s situation could change and coalesce with the persecution of other Tutsi. Nationally, all Tutsi groups are associated with the rebellion and related anti-Tutsi conspiracy theories. While anti-Banyamulenge violence may escalate to more clearly resemble genocide according to conventional views, there is still value in seeking recognition for the Banyamulenge’s experience from the past five years. From a justice perspective, this blog maintains that the violence should not have needed to escalate further to receive attention or even be understood, through some conceptual approaches, as genocidal. It also unpacks the dynamics of the crisis that have been warning signs for large-scale genocide. Similarly, members of Myanmar’s Rohingya community still refer to the history of their hidden genocide prior to 2016-17, despite their situation having worsened since then. From a research perspective, recognizing the interplay of such dynamics can be applicable to genocides of various scales in other contexts with multifaceted violence, such as Tigray, Ethiopia. However the Plateaux crisis develops, the past five years have been a key chapter in the region’s history where all communities suffered collectively while the Banyamulenge’s existence came once again under threat.