Identity-Based Conflict
Lecture 5

Leaders, Genocide and Censorship

Rohee Dasgupta describes how charismatic leaders contribute to identity conflicts, sometimes to the point of censorship or genocide.
Charismatic leaders have been identified as a major factor influencing identity-based conflict.

What power do leaders have, how do they use them and how can people respond?
"When we think about leadership with regard to identity conflicts," says Rohee Dasgupta, our instructor at St. Paul University, "we often think about executive leadership." This is true, she goes on, but there are other forms of leaders – especially when we look at things from a conflict resolution perspective.

There can be practitioner leaders, mid-ranking leaders, leaders of civil society groups or intervention teams. There are media leaders and religious figureheads and representatives of ethnic groups or families. They all have their place within the social contexts they come from, and they all can shape the way that information moves within their communities. In previous classes we've talked about how narratives or concepts of nationalism impact how conflicts emerge and consolidate themselves, and today we'll be focusing on leaders, information and censorship.

All these factors look different in different places – some countries are liberal democracies with a relatively free press, others range from soft-authoritarian to authoritarian to dictatorial. What is or is not encouraged in public discourse is often linked to policy goals of the government in power, although social, religious or other special interest groups can have a great influence on what society deems appropriate to say or not. In cases where large numbers of people don't agree with these values or regulations, grievances develop that can grow into protests or more organized forms of resistance.

In cases, however, where these groups do not organize, or are too weak to do so, they may not be able to respond in cases when either the government or a particular group starts dehumanizing them. As we've seen in the Balkans or in Rwanda, these group-wide targeting campaigns can boil over into genocide or other crimes against humanity. Determining who is and is not responsible is a task for local and international courts, and it is far from a simple task.

"We were following orders."

When acts of mass violence come to an end, many soldiers justify their actions by saying that they were following orders. Finding out whose orders these were, how far up they went and to what extent specific platoons were acting on their own is difficult. In the context of the Balkan wars in the 1990s, not only were there Serbian or Croatian generals giving problematic orders on behalf of their governments, but local, ethnically-loyal forces within divided Bosnia who were acting inside and outside official power structures.

While the Croat (and, to a certain extent, the Bosniak) forces involved also committed huge crimes, the Bosnian Serb forces are usually the group discussed when it comes to local leadership and mass violence. This is due to the infamous Srebrenica massacre where over 8000 unarmed Bosniak men were killed in a matter of days.

In a case like Srebrenica, who gets tried? The men who did the killing? Their supervisors? The local leadership of the Serb forces? The Yugoslav army from nearby Serbia? Yugoslav-Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic (pictured above)?

And then there's the question of peacekeepers and bystanders – much has been made of the Dutch forces that were in Srebrenica who are accused of failing to stop the violence. Are the men to be held responsible, their leaders, the UN?

Testimonies were later heard in court that described how soldiers "had their orders," but that still hasn't stopped witnesses, researchers and practitioners from theorizing on the ways that shared identity contributed to large-group behaviour. These "orders" may have been easier to carry out when the people giving them were justifying their decrees in language stemming from deep-seated divisions affecting soldiers on the front lines.

Other phrases heard during the trials spoke to how not only were soldiers compelled to follow the policies of the militaries they were serving in, but that many "wanted to work for my people."

This is less simple than it appears, however – how one's "people" is defined changes over time. During Tito's leadership, citizens of the former Yugoslavia defined their people as Yugoslavs, which included Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Slovenes and more groups. As the country collapsed into several new states, so too did the collective sense of one's "people" change irrevocably. And these changes happen in part due to the narratives and information promoted by key leaders.

Depending on the context, changes like this can, in moments of extreme instability, lead to genocidal acts like in Srebrenica.
Srebrenica exhumation programme, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1996.
UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia | flickr
"That's not to say that charismatic leadership can't be a positive factor," Rohee says. Examples often brought out include Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi or Desmond Tutu.

Though even these leaders are heavily politicized in certain communities, and so balanced information about them might be hard to find. The positive things they have done might easily wash away the problematic elements, and so they might start becoming symbols for realities that they may never have embodied.

There's that, then there's the issue of how charismatic leadership is seen by some as a different thing than the rational-legal model. Change might be pushed through by someone's willpower, or by their ability to generate crowds though emotional rhetoric. Which might seem powerful when the rhetoric's aligned with one's beliefs – but when it's not, then it might be considered dangerous.

And one thing that's common in identity-based conflicts are polarized groups who honour one set of charismatic leaders while accusing an opposing set of major crimes, sometimes atrocities.

Language, Genocide and Legal Structures

Whether or not an act of mass violence counts as genocide will depend on your definitions. Moral framings of genocide differ with the people speaking, and they may differ from various legal definitions in different countries.

Genocide is intrinsically linked to identity, as the act is often defined by who is being targeted, and why that particular group. Signs a violent act may be taking part in a genocide are whether there's a grinding humiliation involved for the other party, or if an act is committed on a particularly symbolic date.

Women can be targeted if they are seen as maintaining a group's "honour," and systematic rape may be used as an attempt to "pollute" their bloodline. Men can also be targeted as an act of emasculation or to prevent that group's men from getting revenge. Curbing a targeted group's productivity or fertility are often attempts to cripple it.

Some of these actions have become codified in the UN convention on genocide, becoming grounds for additional legal action or sanctions on perpetrators. The convention was signed in 1946 in response to the Holocaust, but also as a way to help prevent similar acts from happening in the future. In the words of the convention:

"In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
Killing members of a group;
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members
of a group;
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about
its physical destruction
in whole or in part;
Imposing measures
intended to prevent
births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
After the wars of the 1990s, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established with the Rome Statute of 1998. The statute recognized four international crimes that could be prosecuted on an international level: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

The ICC differs from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which primarily deals with territorial disputes between countries. The ICC can oversee the governance of UN tribunals set up in places where the situation demands it. A tribunal can be established when the executive leadership in a conflict surrenders, or when it is a perpetrator and yet can't control the amount of violence in the state.

But this surrender has to happen, as the ICC operates on a basis of state sovereignty and can't intervene unilaterally to extract perpetrators to the ICC. This has led to criticisms of the ICC system, because it can't help populations within countries that have strong legal systems and leadership regimes that oppress particular groups. The Uyghurs in China, the Kurds in Iraq or Syria, both Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir are examples.

The international community cannot get involved without being invited, not without establishing a dangerous precedent. Leaders in these countries can sometimes be influenced, though, through means like aid and trade. Or they can be propped up by other leaders for various political purposes.

If warlords are captured by a state, that state can escalate the case to the ICC – then a tribunal is set up, with connected (though separate) courts established in the region. Many Latin American states extradited Nazi war criminals to the ICC in this way.

But the ICC and the UN were developed on a basis of states, and today there are many groups that operate as non-state actors. These can operate within a country as an armed group, like Colombia's former FARC rebels or the Taliban, or they can be transnational groups like ISIS which don't recognize international borders. In cases like these, certain states can try to get involved in interventions, or with bargaining with non-state groups to get cooperation.

But this is a controversial topic. Some say that non-state actors should never be engaged with on an official level, as this legitimizes their position and may encourage others to set up extra-state contexts. Others believe that some borders/states were established by war/conquest, and therefore can be legitimately resisted. Still others say that, even if we don't recognize a non-state group, they are still a relevant actor and need to be engaged.

If extraditions are made, and ICC tribunals set up, then the proceedings go about documenting histories of harm and whether identity-based conflict does indeed amount to genocide. But there are many who don't want to use terms like genocide before they are legally established, as this can carry a moral imperative to intervene in order to stop the violence. Allegations of genocide may also be denied by perpetrating states who stand behind their claims to sovereignty.

There is also a historical dimension – groups or states may ask for recognition for previous genocides. The Armenian case is a famous example, and the country has lobbied internationally for the global community to recognize its claim that Turkey committed genocide against them in the early 20th century. Many Ukrainians have also called for the Holodomor, state-made famine during the early Stalinist period, to be recognized as such.

Countries like Turkey and Russia (as the successor state to the USSR), however, may hold to a different narrative than Armenia and Ukraine. This might be due to a genuinely different interpretation of events, or it could be motivated by a desire not to lose historical face. Such moments of recognition or non-recognition are often used by leaders to drum up support for their group, or antagonism against opposing groups.

When information starts appearing controlled or manipulated, whether formally or informally, that's when accusations of censorship emerge.

Censorship, Group Dynamics and
Political Correctness

"When we speak about censorship," Rohee says, "we're often not talking about a single phenomenon."

The context is important, as are the actors involved. It might be a government that's trying to censor certain facts (or "facts" thought to be fake), either for political reasons or those of health, safety or the public good. It might be region-specific, with certain areas receiving more attention than others.

Members of the press themselves could be censoring information, either at the request of other groups or for their own reasons. Specific communities may also try to regulate information, either by promoting their own narratives through subcultural publications or through social pressure.

In all these cases, decisions over what is or is not censored often come from executive or community leadership. And often what censorship is doing is holding, twisting or filtering information in order to shape a particular kind of social or political environment. In some cases, it arguably amounts to an attempt to shape reality.

When you have what's called an intractable conflict, which is a deep-seated conflict that ebbs and flows in waves, sometimes over decades, then supporting one's own "side" can be seen as a matter of life or death. A specific narrative may be necessary, along with supporting stories and a way of presenting "facts" in order to keep the story alive. In this kind of context, whistleblowers are discouraged and even put in danger. Even if there are problematic things happening on one's own side, they're ignored in order to deal with the "bigger threat" posed by the opposing side.

Stakes, in other words, are high. And information can be used like any other resource.

This kind of censorship can involve excluding keywords from stories in the press, because those words can evoke severe responses from other groups, like the international community. Words like "genocide" may be avoided because of the moral duties that are seen as having arisen since the discovery of the Holocaust.

Censorship can also be bound up in one's sense of their own side's moral standing. If the other side is framed as being immoral, problematic or unredeemable, then facts or factors challenging that narrative might not be let into the public discourse, or even noticed.

Sometimes censorship is used to keep a conflict alive. It can be seen as a way of maintaining a government's efficacy, as too much information can make certain processes complicated. Having control of information can be a way of maintaining a balance of power, especially if the state regulates the majority of a country's media outlets.

In "Self-Censorship in Public Discourse," Glenn Loury describes how a community may start censoring themselves for a variety of reasons. This can be done in response to pressure from government forces, or it can be done willingly out of a sense of group loyalty. He defines political correctness as "an implicit social convention of restraining on public expression operating within a given community," speaking to a lack of official censorship that nevertheless is undergirded with a strict sense of community regulation of speech. Rather than an "iron fist," this is a "velvet glove."

Political correctness is not limited to a political group in power, nor is it a monolith – there can be a variety of competing political correctnesses supporting competing narratives in a society. In other words, a polarized group can accuse another of overbearing political correctness while themselves also being guilty of the same, if perhaps in a different way.

Regulated speech, when it becomes moralized, Loury says, can lead to an unintended disincentivization of critical thought. Because dissent from a "received truth" becomes frowned upon as a faux-pas or words, and groups are less likely to notice or report dissonant sets of facts. These may be branded as non-conformist deviations of thought, or as "dangerous" forms of diversity.
"If exploring an ethical problem requires expressing oneself in ways that raise doubts about one's basic moral commitments, then people may opt for the mouthing of right-sounding but empty words over the risks of substantive moral analysis."
-Glenn Loury: "Self-Censorship in Public Discourse"
Making things even more complicated, if one group in an identity-charged conflict sees their opponents as practicing political correctness, they may frame it as part of a persecution complex or use it to shore up a victim narrative that furthers their own insensitivity to how these dynamics play out in their own group.

What's more, regulating speech can lead to speech codes that serve as a way of identifying what group you belong to, especially when identity markers are not visible. Northern Ireland is one example of this, where similar ethnic groups are divided by religion or ideology. Determining where somebody "stands" may require call-and-response style codes where one's answers may give away what side they're on. Listeners can readily understand and modify their relationship accordingly.

There are also cases where you can become ostracised even from a group you nominally possess membership in if you do not speak about a topic in the 'correct' way. This is a way of sorting who is or isn't sufficiently invested in a given cause, because the people "invested enough" would have already mastered the appropriate speech codes.

Dialogue, Leadership and Problematic Inclusion

Some frame dialogue as an opposing dynamic to narratives, political correctness and censorship. This is because dialogue is often described as a process by which polarized groups come to encounter the other as human, where narratives are deconstructed and murky, politicized definitions of words are unpacked. It can also be framed as an activity among "everyday" people, detached from their respective leaders and open to other stories that their leaders haven't made room for in public discourse.
While there have been many successes in the dialogue approach, it's not as simple as getting people into a room together and sorting through the impacts of leadership, information or censorship. Not everyone wants to engage in dialogue, for a number of legitimate reasons, and even those who do may not know of anyone in their immediate circle to dialogue with. This may be due to echo chambers, where your surrounding community believes similar things that you do, or it could be because of social, cultural or political segregation.

There can also be risks to engaging in dialogue – it might be perceived as a dangerous act of communicating with oppressive, malicious or otherwise problematic enemies. Reaching out to the other side can result in a backlash from one's own side which can have severe consequences on life or health. This is especially true in polarized cultures, or societies experienced protracted conflict. Proponents of dialogue can be seen, at best, as a misguided force trying to include problematic actors who should be resisted, or, at worst, as a "fifth column" trying to ruin the group or state from within.

Communities may themselves lose interest in listening to the truth, or even debating where truth can be found. This can be the case in repressive societies that engender a sense of learned helplessness – even among groups who don't support the regime, a feeling of defeatism can overwhelm attempts to sort through information or problematic narratives.

Dialogue on an international level may not even openly address issues of information, repression or other factors. If engagement is seen as a high enough priority, then the executive leadership may see dialogue on 'touchy' issues as a low priority as compared to dialogue on questions of aid or trade. A tension can then emerge between those who advocate for "talking about the hard issues" and those who say that any relationship is a good relationship and that, with time, these relationships may translate into the opportunity to promote change on more deeper levels.
In complex conflicts, especially with identity factors in play, all these factors and more are preventing groups with deep-seated disputes from de-escalating conflict dynamics or finding enough common ground to build a joint future. While addressing these factors is no simple feat, failing to take them into account may only serve to further exacerbate an already aggravated conflict.
Rohee Dasgupta teaches conflict studies at St. Paul University; her research interests include identity, cosmopolitanism, security and anthropology.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied identity-based conflict at St. Paul University in 2021.

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Further Reading
Toward a Natural History of Ethical Censorship
Katz, Jack (2007)
Law & Society Review, 41 (4)
How Can We Train Leaders If We Do Not Know
What Leadership Is?
Richard A. Barker (1997)
Human Relations, Vol. 50, No. 4
Self-censorship of Conflict-related Information in the Context of Intractable Conflict
Shahar, E. et all (2016)
Journal of Conflict Resolution
Vol 62, Issue 5, 2018