School of Politics and International Studies

Responsibility to Protect Student Journal

The Causes of Genocide

Katelyn Swinsburg, The University of Queensland, Australia

Katelyn is a second year student at the University of Queensland studying towards a BA with an extended major in Peace and Conflict Studies and a minor in Human Rights and International Relations. She has previously volunteered as an English teacher in rural China and Cambodia is a strong advocate for human rights and the dignity of all peoples.

My research into the causes of genocide has led me to understand that there is no single explanation for what causes genocide. Rather, there are multitudes of reasons that are instrumental to the destruction of ethnic and minority groups. However, I have identified three major contributing factors to post-twentieth century genocide: modernisation and the ideology of social purification; psychological dehumanisation of unwanted populations; and extreme nationalism towards ‘outsiders’ (Gellately, 2003; Vaes et al., 2012). Various compositions of these three factors are strongly present within 20th century genocide case studies in Cambodia, the Nazi Holocaust, Rwanda, the Ottoman Empire and colonial Australia. Throughout this post, I will first show how modernity and the ideology of purification are dominant precursors to genocidal tendencies. First applied during the Age of Enlightenment between 1650 to the late 1700’s, the categorisation of populations and identification of ‘outside groups’ is a common theme found throughout many historical cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing. This then leads into discussion of how dehumanisation is justified and inflicted by superior populations, because of a psychological ‘out-group’ alienation of specific populations. And finally I will show how this psychological out-casting develops a strong nationalism, which contributes to genocidal tendencies. Common arguments explore how nationalism is not intrinsically violent, however, I believe nationalism to be an instrumental tactic used by power-seeking bureaucrats to isolate unwanted minority groups (Visvanathan, 2006, p.536).

A question of this complexity cannot be without multiple arguments. However, other reasons for genocide, such as the idleness of international institutions and racial superiority, proved secondary to these main arguments of modernity, dehuminisation and nationalism. According to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, genocide occurs when there is an intent to destroy – in whole or part – a national, ethnic, racial or religious group through various physical and psychological methods (1948, Article 2). The five specific methods are: ‘killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life which will bring about total or part bodily destruction, imposing measures to prevent birth of group and forcibly transferring children of the group to another with the intent to discontinue group’.  Although this definition is inclusive, it is not exhaustive, as it has been widely argued that Cambodia and settler genocides such as that of the Aboriginal Australians do not fit the definition covered within the convention. Despite the fact that in Cambodia, it was not one of the four protected groups under the Genocide Convention that came under attack, I argue that the Cambodian Khmer Rouge regime’s attempt to deliberately destroy a class of people for the purpose of this blog post. In Australia, children of Indigenous Australians and white settlers were forcibly transferred from their own group (Indigenous Australians) to another (into the care of settlers) with the intent to discontinue the group.

Genocide Is Attributed to Ideologies of Modernity

George Cuvier‘s Theory of Extinction in 1796 inspired Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and Natural Selection in 1871. Darwin (1871, p. 200) argued civilised races would certainly seek to exterminate the ‘savage races’ due to their natural higher order thinking and consciousness. Here Darwin proposes two phenomena: race as a hierarchy, and the duty of ‘civilised races’ to replace the ‘savage’ or ‘underdeveloped’ races. This theory can be seen as the beginning of mass extermination and genocide as a natural by-product in the process towards a more civilised modernity. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1989, pp.90-91) described genocide to be a case of social engineering, which stems from the ideology of modernity, and comes about due to desires to create a more ‘cleansed’ and perfect society.

Throughout history we can see examples of regimes imposing revolutionary ideas upon populations. Regimes which often sought to eliminate ‘unclean’ populations and re-define preexisting social structures to achieve the ‘perfect society’ by ridding their society of minority groups which they saw as not belonging. Gellately (2003, pp.244-246) argues that the Nazi regime sought to reverse Jewish emancipation and bring about the final solution to the existence of this ‘problem population’ by wiping out the Jewish presence from society. Similarly in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge instilled fundamentalist communist ideologies upon the Cambodian population, by methods of population control and mass extermination of intellectuals who sought to rise against their regime. Therefore, hoping to eliminate the present society and impose a new social and cultural era, entirely ‘clean’ of the old Khmer culture (Weitz 2009, pp.154).

Weitz (2003, p.158) argues that an ideology of superiority alone is not a sufficient precondition to genocide. Nor are ideological theories sufficient for explaining the occurrence of genocide. Therefore, to further understand the depths of these various issues that contribute to genocide, I will now explore the factors of dehumanisation and nationalistic thought.

Psychology of Dehumanisation of Populations

Different human groups have always distinguished themselves from another through the categorisation of in- and out-groups (Weitz 2003, p.17). In extreme cases, this can lead to dehumanisation of the out-group. Dehumanisation is the denial of an out-group’s humanity (Kuper 1981, p. 87). Research into dehumanisation of inter-group contact revealed how outside group members are psychologically perceived as less ‘human like’ than those within the same group (Vaes 2012, p.66). Social-neuroscientific investigations by Harris and Fiske (2006, 2007) confirmed that members of certain groups fail to process other group members as being fully human and sociable individuals (cited in Buckels and Trapnell 2013, p.772). This psychological detachment and dehumanisation is a necessary precondition of genocide, as it psychologically facilitates their destruction. Dehuminisation is achieved over time through sustained propaganda, segregation and discrimination.


Some historical examples of dehuminisation preceding genocide are the genocides in Rwanda and settler Australian. In Rwanda, the Hutu majority sought to first dehumanise and then destroy their fellow Tutsi, whom they had lived with for hundreds of years. This was done by distributing propaganda via radios and talk shows, characterising the Tutsi as ‘cockroaches’ and  constructing them as a threat to all Hutu. Another example is the segregation of Indigenous Australians from settlers during the time of colonisation of white Australia. Aboriginal people were identified as savages and as no more valuable than animals (Moses, 2002). Anthropologists at the time identified Aboriginal people as a dying race, who were best aided by hastening their extinction through segregation and forced removal of children (Moses 2002, p.2).

Nationalism Is Instrumental to Acts of Violence

Nationalism is considered an instrumental method for power-seeking individuals to justify violence against those outside of their status quo (Pamir, 1997). ‘Nations’ within themselves are a subjective idea of community and culture within a specific geographical location, and over time have developed to become exclusive populations of sovereign people (Visvanathan, 2006, p.533). Seeds of ambivalence and violence have become rooted within this exclusionary process and threaten fixed ideas of identity, therefore leading to exclusion and methods of purification to exclude outsiders (Visvanathan, 2006, p.533).

It is difficult to pin-point where nationalism and genocidal ideologies intertwine, as they both appear to develop simultaneously. Breaches to nationalistic ideals and identity are often accompanied by assimilation, elimination and suppression of unwanted cultural minorities. The imposing measures to sustain or reclaim congruency of national image is often conducted through military mobilizations. The Armenian genocide is an example of how a nationalistic force (the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire) worked to remove a specific unwanted cultural minority. The forced removal of the Armenian population by military mobilization stemmed in part from the Young Turks’ intention to reclaim dominance for the Ottoman Empire and recreate a ‘pure’ national image.

The relationship between citizen and ‘outsider’ is not just developed through identification of ethnicity, but emerges also from structures of majority and minority political powers (Visvanathan, 2006, p.535).  The Rwandan genocide was caused by an underlying struggle during the lead up to the country’s first democratic elections between the Tutsi and Hutu, which eventuated in the annihilation of one group against the other. Mahmood Mamdani (2001, p.34) argues that the Rwandan genocide was inevitable due to unstable political majority-minority relations, where both parties believed it to be impossible to implement a stable political regime with the other present.

A strength of this argument lies in the comparison of modern democracies to their genocidal pasts. Modern powerful democracies like Germany, the United States and Australia were created through many years of violence, assimilation, forced migration and genocide (Mann, 2005, p.22). Sinisa Malesevic (2013, p.12) furthers this claim arguing that nationalist ideologies are rarely a cause of violence. His main argument captures how even though sustained and organised violent acts of nationalism are difficult to oversee, these contemporary acts of violence support nationalism as a preposition to violence and violent behaviour towards out groups. What is important to consider is that even though violence is an important aspect of genocide, nationalism is an instrumental method for instigating violence.

This blog post has argued that the underlying causes for genocide are modernity, dehumanisation and nationalism. This argument was advanced through the examination of several historical case studies. Modernisation and the belief in a ‘perfect society’ may lead to the desire to cleanse societies of certain populations through extermination. The process of dehuminising the ‘undesirable out-group’ aids the perpetrators carry out the violence necessary to destroy the group. Finally, nationalist ideals imposed to create segregation among and violence against certain groups provide an instrumental tool for power-seeking politicians to manipulate and segregate unwanted populations. In making this argument, I have contributed to the complex question of what causes genocide.


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