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Genocide jokers

Hands up anybody who is ready to allow a repeat of the Holocaust.  Six million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis, and the world said never again.  The United Nations was established and its member states signed onto a treaty committing them to prevent and punish such crimes for the sake of humanity.  Nobody disagrees with the idea.

Despite this undertaking, so many others have died in alarmingly similar circumstances.  Just in the last decade or so, mass killings have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands in Rwanda, tens of thousands in the former Yugoslavia and hundreds of thousands in Sudan, amongst other bloodbaths.  While there are rather more disputes about who has done what to how many and why in these cases than with the events that took place all those years ago in Europe, there is no doubt that an unbelievable number of ordinary people have been massacred to date.

It is appalling.  What’s more, it is frustrating how little the world seems to be able to do about it.

A high profile American lobby group turned its attention to the problem recently, publishing its recommendations for action last week.  It identified eight countries in which mass atrocities were underway or likely to happen, and urged policymakers to intensify their efforts to pressurise the regimes in question to fall into line.  They were put on what the Genocide Project described as red alert.

Sri Lanka was one of the countries included.  Understanding why is an exercise sure to depress all those genuinely concerned about the future of the world and its people.

The Genocide Project didn’t bother to look into the situation here in order to reach the conclusion that a lot of ordinary people were being or would probably soon be killed.  Indeed, it made no comment on happenings in any of the states it denounced.  Perhaps it was aware that to do so would expose its lack of knowledge.  Instead, it opted to decide on its targets on the basis of a number of watch lists prepared by other groups it claimed were highly respected.  The Countries at Risk of Genocide and Politicide List, the Peoples Under Threat Index, the Genocide Intervention Network List, the Genocide Watch List and the Failed States Index were used.  They certainly sounded promising from their names.

Father Christmas looks a rather more convincing theory when you get to the details.  The Genocide Project didn’t mention any of them, of course.

The least ridiculous is the Countries at Risk of Genocide and Politicide List.  Prepared by an American scholar attached to the United States Naval Academy, it describes six indicators that would apparently have been useful in predicting which internal conflicts in the period between 1955 and 1997 were going to turn into mass slaughter of ordinary people.  But even retrospectively it can only claim accuracy of 74%, which isn’t exactly great.  The question of cause and effect isn’t really given much thought either, as one of the risk factors is said to be a lack of trade openness, while cutting tariffs obviously isn’t going to protect against genocidal tendencies. Whatever, any tool of this sort is no better than the information you put into it.  Sri Lanka is said to discriminate against Tamils and have an elite dominated by Sinhalese, while it is also blamed for having committed genocide or politicide against Sinhalese in 1989 and 1990, and that’s it.  The country ends up being described as only medium risk though.

The Peoples Under Threat Index tries to make this work sound far more accurate in its fortunetelling capacities by transforming the six indicators into a number calculated to two decimal places.  In the process, the Sri Lankan government mysteriously shoots up to eleventh most likely to commit genocide, with a very scientific sounding score of 16.63.  Caveats are totally forgotten.  The Minority Rights Group authors just make use of a handy theory to further their political ends, and they happily conclude that both Muslims and Tamils are in danger of being wiped out from the country.  Active imaginations are clearly required here.  By way of supporting evidence on the ground, it is noted that the Supreme Court put a stop to the expulsion of Tamils from Colombo earlier this year.  Sri Lanka ought to be getting credit for its strong judiciary, while the attempt to send a few hundred outstation Tamils back home was obviously never anything other than a misguided security decision.  It is hardly a smoking gun.

The Genocide Intervention Network for some reason doesn’t get around to doing any complicated maths.  Perhaps it has misplaced its calculator.  It just has a list of eight countries it is worried about on the basis of having read on the internet that systematic or targeted attacks on civilians are happening on a mass scale.  The LTTE must be pleased it spent all that time working on its propaganda section.

The justification for including Sri Lanka reads a bit like a teenager’s O Level essay, which is not entirely surprising because it turns out that the outfit was set up a few years ago by a couple of peace studies undergraduates from an American college.  They admit to dedicating most of their time to Darfur, and it shows.  My particular favourites of the many ridiculous things they say about this country go as follows: ‘Government victories forced the LTTE to resume guerrilla tactics, with deadly implications for civilians,’, ‘LTTE concessions at talks led Karuna to break away,’ and, ‘When Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power, hardline militants assumed high level Defence Ministry positions.  With policies such as the incorporation of the national police into the defence establishment, LTTE wariness of the new government increased.  This provoked a belligerent government response, causing fighting to resume.’ Right.

The LTTE are described by the Genocide Intervention Network as ‘the predominant Tamil rebel group fighting against the Sinhalese government for Tamil rights and an autonomous Tamil state’, while the Karuna group are ‘a breakaway faction that garnered support from the Security Forces to attack the LTTE.  They forcibly recruit child soldiers and regularly abduct and murder suspected LTTE members and supporters.’  The Genocide Intervention Network actually seems to be some kind of a synonym for the LTTE.

The Genocide Watch List isn’t much better.  It says that mass killings of ordinary people are already going on in Sri Lanka, although curiously it blames anti-Tamil mobs and the LTTE.  The Government may take heart from the fact that it for once isn’t being accused of something, but it is far from credible to suggest that anti-Tamil mobs are on the loose.  The LTTE is certainly guilty of targeting civilians, but one gets the feeling this has been included only in search of the ever absent concept of balance. There is a debate to be had over the involvement of other Tamil groups in killing those suspected of being members of the LTTE too, but that’s quite different.  Sri Lanka doesn’t fare too badly in the end.  It comes in at number five out of six areas of concern in Asia, while there are seven countries highlighted in Africa, five in the Middle East and one in Latin America.

The Failed States Index is just odd.  It claims to predict instability, where disasters such as a food crisis or a bad hurricane could result in the state collapsing altogether.  Yet there is no indication as to why that hasn’t happened already in Sri Lanka, especially after being hit by the tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands more and destroyed an awful lot of infrastructure.  Chaos didn’t engulf the country, the public sector continued to provide the services for which it is internationally known, and life generally went on. Sri Lanka turns out to be quite resilient after all, despite its position as the twentieth least stable country with another very precise mark of 95.6.  It isn’t exactly surprising when you discover that the rankings are generated by a software package that trawls the internet to measure the incidence of certain words in news stories.  It is a joke.

It is actually rather curious to find so many groups involved in doing basically the same thing, but of course they do need to justify their existence.  Drawing up lists has the potential to keep a lot of people busy in seemingly very important work for months.  Days are spent working out indicators and deciding on the weighting to be given to each, and still longer is dedicated to collecting data or even designing systems to do it for you.  Years of fruitless work can result, providing employment to numerous pop statisticians and experts in the science of drawing wrong conclusions.

The Genocide Project demonstrates its utter pointlessness by simply replicating the work of other useless people.  Of course, it also manages to work a bit of magic and make things look even worse than before.  Despite all the problems cited here, this country is only in the top eight of one of the five watch lists, and the most obviously stupid at that.  It is therefore rather intriguing to see it emerge from the process of amalgamation of these results as one of the states to be put on red alert.  Sleight of hand is obviously a key attribute for a high profile American lobby group.

It is disturbing.  There is serious work to be done on this topic, yet the above has demonstrated that none of these organisations producing reports and generating headlines around the world are doing it.

Sri Lanka has a lot of problems, but genocide simply isn’t one of them, and there is no good reason to believe that this situation is going to change.  Even saying as much sounds foolish. There is plenty to feel sad about in the numbers dying in combat, especially considering that the LTTE forces Tamils to join its ranks, but the only deliberate killings of ordinary people on any scale are committed by the LTTE suicide bombers who explode their devices on buses and at public gatherings. Apart from in rhetorical flourishes, the LTTE doesn’t even accuse the Government forces of inflicting significant collateral damage on Tamils, never mind actually targeting ordinary people.  A glance at TamilNet, which is perfectly adept at reporting anything damaging to the Government, shows reports of about 75 casualties from both Air Force and Army operations in the last six months.

This is not to underestimate the difficulties people in the conflict areas must be facing these days, or the fear by which they are undoubtedly consumed. But the world ought to know they aren’t facing a Holocaust. Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Sudan were totally different situations too, and it is counterproductive to suggest otherwise.

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