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Tracing the Path Toward and Away From Genocide

How and why does genocide occur, and how can we identify these warning signs to prevent it in the future? In On the Path to Genocide: Armenia and Rwanda Reexamined, Deborah Mayersen looks to conflicts in 1915 Turkey and 1994 Rwanda to answer these difficult questions. Following, the author explains the path to her study of genocide, traces her steps to the book, and points to where her research will take her in the future.




Berghahn Books: What attracted you to study the genocide of Armenian and Rwandan peoples?


Deborah Mayersen: As a school student, I learned about the Holocaust and the international promise of ‘Never Again’ in its wake. Yet at University, I learned about the betrayal of this promise, with the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda for example. I wanted to understand more about the history of genocide, and why it has become so prevalent in the modern world. This led me to examine in greater detail these two genocides, at the opening and closing of the twentieth century.


BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?


DM: In some respects I have become more cynical about the role of the international community in taking meaningful action to avert or arrest genocide. In other respects though, I have been deeply moved by the courage of so many individuals in taking a principled stand against perpetrators, through acts of rescue and resistance.


BB: What inspired you to write this book? What aspect of writing this work did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?


DM: I was inspired to write this book because I wanted to understand how the risk of genocide develops over time. Many scholars have established that both the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey and the Tutsi in Rwanda could be identified as vulnerable minorities long before they experienced genocide. Yet the trajectory from ‘vulnerable group’ to ‘victims of genocide’ was unclear. I wanted to understand this risk escalation process, how it develops, and whether there were times when it was possible that a different path could have been taken.


I found reading about some of the horrific instances of torture, to which both the Armenians and the Tutsi were subjected, one of the most challenging aspects of this project.


Most rewarding was simply that I learned so much about these two peoples, and have had the opportunity to share my knowledge in On the Path to Genocide.


BB: Who is one iconic figure featured in one way or another in your field of research, living or dead, for whom you have particular admiration and why?


DM: I think many scholars in genocide studies, including myself, have tremendous respect for Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide in 1944. Lemkin was a Polish Jew who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. He dedicated his life to establishing international laws on genocide and crimes against humanity, and he played an instrumental role in establishing the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.


BB: What is one particular area of interest or question, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


DM: I think the issue of how to build resilience to genocide in at-risk nations is a vital one, which is only very recently starting to attract attention. There are numerous ‘risk lists’ published of nations currently at risk of genocide or other mass atrocities, such as the one published by Genocide Watch. A lot of research has gone into building knowledge about the risk factors for genocide, on which such lists are based. But we know much less about factors that can stabilize or reduce that risk, and contribute to preventing genocide. I think this is a vital issue, and one which I am exploring in my current research.




Deborah Mayersen is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Transformation Research, University of Wollongong, Australia.  She was previously the Program Leader for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities at the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Her previous publications include the co-edited volume Genocide and Mass Atrocities in Asia: Legacies and Prevention (with Annie Pohlman, Routledge 2013).