Saturday, 14 November 2009

The Online Encyclopaedia of Mass Violence: calming the dead who still haunt the present

by Kathryn Hadley

What is genocide? What is mass violence? How do historians document genocide and mass violence?
Professor Jacques Sémelin, research director at the Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI), is an expert on genocide based at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris (Sciences Po). He spoke on Thursday, November 12th, at the University of Manchester about his latest project to produce an online record of 20th century acts of mass violence. Dr Jean Marc Dreyfus from the University of Manchester is a member of the project’s steering committee responsible for its implementation and development. Sémelin initiated the project in 2004 and the website was launched four years later. I interviewed Professor Sémelin yesterday.

The origins of the project
Sémelin is the author of Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide and his project to create an electronic database documenting the massacres and genocides of the 20th century came with his book. The book uses a multidisciplinary approach (Sémelin himself began his career as a psychologist and then moved on to study history and sociology) to analyse and compare the mass massacres during the Holocaust, in Rwanda and in Bosnia. With the Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence he sought to expand his study to other examples of mass massacre using the same of comparative analysis.

The main aims of the website
The website features articles about acts of violence in the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Rwanda, for example, as well as lesser known cases in Kampuchea, Poland and Tasmania. The purpose of the website is to create a reliable and universal public service accessible to everyone, in countries across the world. It is designed to provide a balanced study of 20th-century massacres in the hope that it will enhance our understanding of such conflicts and the ‘destructive passions’ of men. All contributions are subject to a rigorous selection process. Contributors are given strict guidelines and each contribution is then peer-reviewed. Sémelin also stressed the importance of a multidisciplinary approach due to the complexity of phenomena of mass violence and the site includes articles by historians, as well as demographers, sociologists, anthropologists and NGO staff.

But what qualifies as an act of genocide? How do we define mass murder? How do Sémelin and his team select the cases that are documented on the website?
The section entitled ‘our scientific approach’ on the homepage of the website addresses some of the issues surrounding the definitions of genocide and mass murder.
Defining phenomena of mass violence or genocide is inherently complex in part because notions and perceptions of violence are subject to cultural sensitivities. Definitions of violence change over time and in accordance with the culture of a particular country or region.

‘Genocide’ is also a complex and controversial term. Coined in 1944 by the lawyer Raphael Lemkin, it was then applied to international law in the Convention for the Prevention and Repression of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations on December 9th, 1948. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was primarily used to refer to the crimes of the Holocaust. Its use then spread over the course of the 20th century to refer to the most horrific of crimes committed against civilian populations. It was even used retroactively to refer to crimes, such as the Armenian genocide in 1915, committed before the term was invented.

The term ‘mass violence’, rather than ‘genocide’, was deliberately chosen because it is more neutral and general, an ‘umbrella notion’. It refers to ‘human phenomena of collective destructiveness that are primarily due to political, social, religious or cultural causes’, committed against non-combatant populations. It excludes cases of technological accidents and natural disasters. References to ‘mass’, ‘mass killing, ‘mass murder’ or ‘mass rape’, is furthermore a 20th-century invention, which reflects the aim of the encyclopedia to document 20th-century cases of violence.

But how then does one define a ‘mass’ phenomenon’? Where does one draw the line?
Another inherent problem to the definition of ‘mass violence’ is that it is, in many cases, very difficult to evaluate precisely numbers of victims. Sémelin stated 50 as the minimum number of victims for a case to qualify as ‘mass violence’.

Documenting mass violence is inevitably bound-up in a web of subjective and conflicting memories. What effects have issues of memory had on the project to construct a neutral and balanced website documenting all sides of the conflict?
Issues of memory are at the core of the project not least because, in Sémelin’s words, ‘memory is always in the present’. Memory is particularly an issue when dealing with relatively recent conflicts, such as the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s or the violence in Darfur. In Algeria the conflict of 20 years ago is still taboo; in Darfur it remains impossible to access the area or any documents on the conflict. Sémelin quoted William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun to summarise the everlastingness of memory: 'The past is never dead. It’s not even past’.

One of his key aims is to examine ‘how we speak of the dead in the present’. In his view, historians speak of the dead in different ways: some view themselves as judges of the past and seek to redress the injustices of the past by writing a version of history which avenges the dead; others, Sémelin included, view themselves as ‘pacifying’ historians with no particular allegiance and whose role it is to facilitate the work of memory by considering each party’s memory of events. The role of history and of the project is to ‘calm the dead who still haunt the present, and to offer them scriptural tombs’ (Michel de Certau, The Writing of History).

Sémelin's project is a massive one, which is hugely complex and never-ending. But it is also fascinating, of undeniable necessity and of great interest to follow.

For further information visit the website

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