Kate Wilkinson ANALYSIS: Genocide Watch thin on transparency & methodology

Genocide Watch places South Africa on stage six of its “Ten Stages of Genocide”. But it was either unwilling or unable to provide evidence to show that the country meets the organisation's requirements of that stage.

In 2016, and for many years before that, South Africa has been placed on stage 6 of Genocide Watch’s “Ten Stages of Genocide”. This stage – called polarisation – is followed by the stages of preparation, persecution, extermination and denial. (A previous Genocide Watch model only had eight stages.)

Genocide Watch lists “Whites, Boers, Immigrants [and] Policemen” as victims of genocide in South Africa and “Marxist racists” and “xenophobes” as killers. The organisation, set up by its president Gregory Stanton in 1999, works to “raise consciousness of genocide as a global problem and to raise awareness of specific high-risk situations”.

The organisation is staffed by Stanton and interns but suspended its operations in August 2016.

South Africa’s ranking was raised to the seventh “preparation” stage in September 2011, when EFF leader Julius Malema (described by the organisation as a “Marxist racist”) was president of the African National Congress’ Youth League.

“We returned it to polarisation after the ANC expelled Malema and kicked him out of the presidency of the ANC Youth League,” Stanton told Africa Check.

No (white) genocide underway in SA

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Despite what many people tweet and post on Facebook, Genocide Watch has not said that there is a genocide (white or otherwise) occurring in South Africa. The organisation’s president, Gregory Stanton, has made this very clear.

“One of the false uses of Genocide Watch’s model for genocide prediction is the claim by some South Africans, racists in the United States, and a few South African expatriates, that South Africa is undergoing a ‘white genocide’,” Stanton told Africa Check. “Genocide Watch has never said ’white genocide’ is underway in South Africa.”

(Okay, two things out the way: the United Nation’s hasn’t placed South Africa on a genocide watch list either. We checked with them.)

We can’t fact-check the future

Over the years Africa Check has received many requests to interrogate Genocide Watch’s ranking system. It’s tricky though.

You can’t fact-check the future. Just like we can’t tell you with 100% certainty if (or when) South Africa is going to be downgraded to junk investment status, we also can’t fact-check if (or when) there will be a genocide in the country.

What we can do, however, is look at how an argument is constructed and whether it is supported by evidence. So that’s what we set about doing by speaking to experts in genocide and mass killings.

“The Ten Stages of Genocide provides a useful conceptual framework to explain the main ‘ingredients’ as well as [the] process of genocide,” researcher at the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Netherlands, Kjell Anderson, told Africa Check.

“It is a useful analytical tool which helps us to identify warning signs, not only for genocide, but for serious human rights abuses.”

But a theory (like this one and others) can’t be fact-checked, according to postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland’s school of law, Melanie O’Brien. She sits on the editorial board of the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention.

“The Ten Stages is a theory by an academic, of which there are many,” says O’Brien. “A theory is not necessarily a truth or an untruth (a ‘fact’), but a way of assessing something.”

‘Warning signs’ not always a sign of genocide

However, the theory has its shortcomings, according to experts in the field of forecasting and genocide studies.

The theory behind the Ten Stages of Genocide is limited in its “reliance on a set of strong assumptions about the process by which mass atrocities unfold”, according to political forecaster and independent consultant in the US, Jay Ulfelder.

“Genocide Watch’s framework codifies narratives about how genocide emerged in a few archetypal cases, including the Holocaust and Rwanda in 1994.”

The organisation’s theory of genocide is based on a limited number of cases where genocide or violence of that nature did occur, according to research director of the World Peace Foundation and lead researcher on the Mass Atrocities Research Program, Bridget Conley-Zilkic.

She said that when analysts only compare instances where genocide occurred, they come up with “warning signs” that they treat as unique to the lead up of genocide. However, these “warning signs” occur in many countries where they do not produce or lead to large-scale killings or genocide.

In-house interpretation unclear

The methodology used to rank countries is also a concern.

“One of the general challenges with these types of rankings is that the specific ranking method is often not made publicly available,” associate professor at the University of Notre Dame’s political science department, Ernesto Verdeja, told Africa Check.

“So, we get a broad outline of a model, with the various stage, ‘indicators’, and the like, but we don’t necessarily know how the in-house analysts interpret information in light of those indicators.”

We asked Stanton about Genocide Watch’s “in-house” interpretations used to determine South Africa’s ranking.

South Africa’s stage 6 ranking has a very detailed description. At this stage, the organisation claims that “extremists drive the groups apart”, “hate groups broadcast polarising propaganda”, “extremist terrorism targets moderates”, “moderates from the perpetrators’ own group…are the first to be arrested and killed”, “leaders in targeted groups are the next to be arrested and murdered”, “laws erode fundamental civil rights and liberties” and “targeted groups are disarmed to make them incapable of self-defense”.

Stanton told Africa Check that these “qualitative indicators” were based on news reports and direct reports from people of all races and groups in South Africa. He said that he made the final determination of a country’s ranking after consulting with Genocide Watch’s interns and its board of advisors.

We had a lot of questions. How did Genocide Watch determine that South Africa met the stage 6 description? What events in the country ticked these boxes? What sources in particular were used?

We put these questions to Stanton but didn’t get answers.

He wrote back saying that “evidently you are treating our descriptions of each stage as separate sentences that can be added up as factors. That is a complete misunderstanding of our model.”

But if the Ten Stages of Genocide’s explicit and detailed descriptions are not used to determine the ranking… then what is? At this stage, it’s not clear.

Other outcomes much more common than genocide

South Africa is ranked as being “polarised” by Genocide Watch, although it didn’t show us how the country meets the stage’s requirements. But is polarisation – theoretically – always a warning sign of genocide?

Conley-Zilkic thinks not. She argues that polarisation can be a sign of many different things.

“One could counter that polarisation might also be considered a sign of political shifts, social activism taking on long-standing polarisation (hence, it’s more visible [but] not actually a new issue), or possibly a sign of instability that could lead to a large number of outcomes, such as electoral changes, political violence at various low levels, or even a very bad and unlikely scenario: civil war without mass killing,” says Conley-Zilkic.

“And in fact, all of these types of outcomes are much more common than genocide.”

SA not on the radar of other organisations

South Africa isn’t on the radar of other organisations monitoring the risk of genocide around the world.

As mentioned earlier, the United Nations (UN) has not said that there is or will be a genocide in South Africa.

Human rights officer in the UN’s Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, Claudia Diaz, told Africa Check that they use a framework to monitor and assess the likelihood of genocide worldwide. She told Africa Check that they have not made statements noting concerns about South Africa.

The Atrocity Forecasting Project, based at Australia’s University of Sydney, uses a statistical model to forecast mass atrocities and genocide around the world.

It takes a number of factors into account, including ethnic divisions, infant mortality rates, political institutions, elections, recent regime change, assassinations, conflicts in neighbouring states and the use of guerrilla war tactics.

The most recent findings gave South Africa a very low risk of genocide or politicide onset for the period 2016-2020, the project’s chief investigator, Benjamin Goldsmith, told Africa Check.

South Africa was ranked 110th out of the 149 studied countries, between Australia and the Slovak Republic.

“While there may be serious and troubling communal violence in South Africa (for example against immigrants from other parts of Africa), according to our model it is not at high risk of the onset of genocidal violence, and has not been at high risk in recent years, either,” said Goldsmith.

“That’s our best estimate.”

Is the genocide framework helpful or harmful?

“Some people might ask, does it matter if a place is mistakenly identified as at risk? Wouldn’t the extra attention be good in any case?” Conley-Zilkic asked in an email to Africa Check.

“I am torn on this, tending to worry that the framework can do harm.”

She suggests that Genocide Watch’s ranking, and the interventions it proposes, may make it more difficult to identify and solve pressing problems in a country.

“South Africa has an enormously high homicide rate. The ‘genocide’ framework is unlikely to help improve this matter, which is a real and present threat of lethal violence in the country.”

Admirable intentions but lacking credibility

Genocide Watch’s intentions for predicting, preventing, stopping, and punishing genocide and other forms of mass murder are admirable. But the tool they use to advance this work – the Ten Stages of Genocide – is thin on transparency.

The organisation’s president was not prepared to provide the sources or methodology he used to determine a country’s ranking. Neither would he pinpoint the events in South Africa that met the detailed description of stage 6.

Genocide Watch’s credibility takes a knock without answers to these simple questions.



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Comment on this report

Comments 8
  1. By Dries

    I’m not exactly sure which “groups” are being “driven apart” here… Did black and white people hold hands and sing Kumbayaa a lot back when top hats were a thing? Lol!

    And I find it utterly laughable that our taxpayer-funded thugs-in-blue, who abuse and exploit the South African citizenry on a daily basis (more often than not violently) with near-impunity should be cast as “victims”.

    Reply Report comment
  2. By Etienne Terblanche

    Please have a look at the statistics on how many white people have been brutally murdered in 2017 so far. Yes the butchered body count is on 42 so far and still counting. Sorry, that is without another two white farmers who just got kidnapped from their farm and beaten to death on the side of road !!

    Really ?? You people do not reconise this as a white genoside ?

    Is this maybe because you’re also bought and paid for ? Our corrupt government and top elite alike would not want SA declared trash status now would they !!

    Wake Up and see what’s going on please !!

    I know this will not be posted as the truth does not meet your “house rules ”


    Reply Report comment
  3. By Liam

    I cannot respect your argument which seems to be based on semantics between two opposing views. There is an inordinately high rate of murder in a very specific and small part of the white South African population.
    A part of the population that is vulnerable and who because of historical politics, are viewed as expendable.
    I don’t care what watch list we are on. People are being killed with seeming impunity.

    Reply Report comment
  4. By Joe

    If secret meetings are held by government officials baying for genocide secretly while they smile and embrace other race groups apart from their own whilst engaging with them in the real world then their could be a big problem looming
    This is what happened i the ruanda genocide years ago before it had suddenly broken out
    Neighbours that had been loving for years suddenly butchered their neigbours just because they were of a different clan

    Reply Report comment
  5. By Jack

    As I see it the fact that the so called government of South Africa are not acting or even replying on the concerns of the farming community regarding the senseless murdering of farmers on a regular basis, means that they approve of such. If they do not condemn publicly the approve. The message to the murderers are that it is ok to kill farmers. The fact that the murder statistics ha s risen with 27% this year measured against the previous year must prove something. I am afraid that the world id turning a blind eye.

    Reply Report comment
  6. By JJ

    The problem with the qualitative view is that sources may be differently interpreted by different people of varying competence, authority and bias.

    The problem with the UN view is that it is a UN view – based and biased within the international diplomatic framework which it serves to propogate.

    The problem with the Atrocity Forecasting view is that it is a statistical model. Notoriously bad for forecasting complex emergent system changes. (See all the great statistical forecasts of the Arab Spring in 2009).

    The existence of other possibilities do not exclude the worst case probability of genocide. Here the question is rather if it is a significant probability and if it is, then the other possibilities are not relevant to the ranking.

    Last point in agreement: the future does not exist and cannot therefore be fact checked.

    So, it comes down to this: Is Prof. Stanton and his team a relatively unbiased authority that interpreted available information competently?

    Reply Report comment
  7. By Torryn Tara

    ‘THIN ON CREDIBILITY’? Dr. Stanton was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, worked against Apartheid with the United Democratic Front in 1989 – 1990 as a Fulbright Professor of Law at the University of Swaziland, and was the author of the UN Resolutions that created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1994. He was also the legal advisor to the government of Cambodia and drafted the rules for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. He founded Genocide Watch and the International Alliance to End Genocide in 1999. The Alliance now has fifty member organizations in 24 countries.
    Genocide Watch was the first international human rights organization to protest the murders and hate crimes committed against farmers in South Africa. Since his research trip in July 2012, Dr. Stanton said that hate crimes against Afrikaner farmers have not declined. The murder rate of the whole South African population remains at over 31 per 100,000. The murder rate of farmers, including Afrikaner farmers, is four times as high. The Institute of Security Studies estimated the farm murder rate at 120 per 100,000 in 2013, and the Transvaal Agricultural Union, using verified names of victims, placed the figure at 130 per 100,000 in 2013, one of the highest murder rates in the world.
    Since 2007, the South African government has denied and covered up the crisis by not releasing any breakdown of how murders are distributed among ethnic groups in South Africa. American and European governments have remained silent about the problem, reinforcing the campaign of denial.

    Reply Report comment

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