Conference explores the complexities of genocide

SuzanneK-listening-400The word “genocide” has become commonplace, and readily conjures news images of atrocities. The term itself was coined in the 1940s, when Raphael Lemkin defined it as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group,” a term created to “denote an old practice in its modern development.” But even today the use of the term is not straight-forward. Indeed, one of the events Lemkin wrote about, the mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman government, is widely considered by historians to be the first modern genocide. But officials in modern Turkey still refuse to identify the deaths in this way.

These troubling gray areas have been the subject of an interdisciplinary research team of Duke undergraduates, graduate students, exploring “The Language of Genocide and Human Rights.” It in many ways brings the idea full circle, as Lemkin spent time at Duke University before penning those famous words. The project is funded by Humanities and Writ Large and the Silver Family Kenan Institute for Ethics Fund in Support of Bass Connections.

Laura Roberts-400It culminated in a recent conference held at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. The team, together with invited experts, looked across different historical periods, geographic areas, and cultures to examine what constitutes genocide, the ways in which the use of the term is contested, the power of international response or silence, and the way in which internal propaganda can fuel ethnic violence.

The final panel of the day featured presentations by four undergraduate researchers Sophia Durand, Matthew King, Laura Roberts, and Savannah Wooten. Their presentations explored topics such as the role of radio broadcasts in the Rwandan genocide and the way in which the Cold War effected the implementation of the Genocide Convention, to issues revolving around the UN Security Council, such as when veto power conflicts with the Responsibility to Protect and language patterns used within the council in which opposing viewpoints describe the same conflict as genocide or civil war.