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ANALYSIS: Genocide Watch thin on transparency and methodology

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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