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Damien Short, Redefining Genocide: Settler Colonialism, Social Death and Ecocide (London: ZED Books, 2016), pp. 261.

Reviewed by: Guy Lancaster (Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture)

The field of genocide studies has long been afflicted with some definitional issues. The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide has, due to its legal standing, exerted the most influence. However, its theoretical shortcomings have been challenged by many scholars, who have responded by either creating their own definitions or advocating for the recognition of related phenomena, such as ethnocide, politicide, cultural genocide, and gendercide. Some experts have even dismissed the term “genocide” as a viable label for the phenomenon it purports to describe. [1] However, a number of scholars have recently been revisiting the work of Raphael Lemkin, whose 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, originally laid out a broader concept of genocide than the one enshrined in international law. In particular, Damien Short’s new book, Redefining Genocide, mines the work of Lemkin in order to make fascinating, compelling, and theoretically coherent connections between colonialism, genocide, and ecological destruction. The field of genocide studies puts out a number of books each year, but this one truly counts as a required reading that unites a number of fields of study that have remained separate for too long.

Palestine Arab Refugees (Alliance Camp, within the city of Damascus.)

Palestine Arab Refugees (Alliance Camp, within the city of Damascus.) Photo Credit: UN Photo/JG

Short begins by addressing definitional issues, noting that Lemkin has viewed “attacks on culture as part of a broader offensive on the totality of group existence, and consequently he came to view cultural and physical destruction as interrelated, interdependent elements of a single genocidal process” (p. 30). The term “cultural genocide” has long been problematic for scholars, who have either tried to argue that forced cultural change rises to the level of mass slaughter, or have ended up reducing the concept of genocide to an abstract label of moral opprobrium that might apply to any experience of collective denigration. This is a circle that is hard to square, especially within the framework of the U.N.’s Genocide Convention. For example, Lawrence Davidson’s 2012 book, Cultural Genocide, defined cultural genocide as the “purposeful destructive targeting of out-group cultures so as to destroy or weaken them in the process of conquest or domination.” [2] Cultural genocide, for Davidson, is typically a prologue to “real” atrocities that produce an actual body count. By contrast, Short’s account of cultural genocide is enriched by a theoretically robust view of group identity as a “social figuration” that is “made up of a fluid network of consensual practical social relations which form a comprehensive culture, from which an exit would be arduous” (p. 33). Certainly, culture changes over time, but there remains a recognizable continuity through the years; genocide is the disruption of that continuity, which produces “social death,” by a variety of means not just limited to a large-scale murder. Short, like Lemkin, sees the “cultural” modifier as superfluous—there is only genocide.

Given that cultures arise from the interaction between human beings and their immediate environments, disruptions of ecological systems also constitute disruptions of culture. In his second chapter, Short surveys the institutional history of the “ecocide” concept, especially as it was handled in various United Nations’ commissions and sub-commissions. While various crimes have been widely acknowledged as ecocidal (such as American actions during the Vietnam War), the question of intent—comparable to the genocidal intent required by the U.N. convention—has made application of the concept difficult for many. For example, most ecological destruction occurs as a result of industrial or agricultural development, which is not undertaken specifically to harm people. Here, ecocide is revealed as another manifestation of genocide that operates largely unacknowledged within the structure of capitalism.

As resources become scarcer our scramble to use them grows, increasing the political prioritization of fossil fuel extraction over ecosystems, human health, and security; while increasing demand also ensures that such resources will run out sooner, which in turn will result in further human rights violations as requirements for food, healthcare and other basic needs are no longer met, to say nothing of the abuses to human security, which will also necessarily increase (p. 55).

Capitalism requires constant growth. Historically, this growth has been met by the appropriation of foreign lands by colonial settlers. The removal (through expulsion, murder, or both) of indigenous peoples by settlers was genocidal in nature. This history of genocide has now paved the way, through the development of even greater forms of resource extraction, for even greater human rights abuses, to say nothing of mass extinction across the planet.

Short explores this larger nexus through a series of four case studies. The first two case studies are situated in wartime contexts, while the latter two are situated in “peacetime” contexts. Short’s chapter on Palestine, co-authored with Haifa Rashed, ably connects the dots between Israel as a settler colonial project, Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian land and the deliberate damage wrought to the ecology of Palestine (such as the discharge of untreated waste), and its attacks upon Palestinian cultural practices. The chapter on Sri Lanka, co-authored with Vinay Prakash, focuses primarily upon the violent conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil populations.  It also illustrates how the postwar “development” agenda has become “the preferred rationale for contemporary population relocations and is the cause of considerable displacement of Tamil people from their lands and their livelihoods,” constituting a form of genocide in and of itself (p. 126). The next two chapters elaborate upon this theme. Examining the Australian government’s relations with various Aboriginal groups, Short briefly touches upon the history of settler-led massacres. Instead, he focuses upon modern policies, such as the Howard government’s 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response Act, which included a compulsory land acquisition measure that would have opened up indigenous land to extensive resource exploitation. As Short observes, although genocidal social death might be produced without a specific intent to destroy, “[w]hatever the underlying motives, certainly the forcible dispossessions are intentional, the exertion of forcible control over peoples’ lives is intentional, and the moves to forcibly coerce people off their sacred homelands are intentional” (p. 157). Finally, Short (together with his co-author Jennifer Huseman) analyzes the exploitation of the Tar Sands located in northern Alberta. This exploitation of tar sands is described as an ongoing genocide directed against native groups living there, through the appropriation of their lands and the poisoning of their bodies. Short and Huseman also argue that this development constitutes a potential genocide against humanity in general, given that extraction and burning of the Tar Sands oil will, according to the latest studies, push global climate change beyond the ‘tipping point’.

Air Pollution: Romania. Photo Credit: UN Photo/R Marklin

Short offers little in terms of a way forward. The primary goal of this volume was to establish a critical theoretical framework. which we can use to recognize the reality of our current condition. However, his own conclusions closely correlate with those of Laura Westra’s 2012 book, Human Rights: The Commons and the Collective (reviewed by ACUNS in 2013). In particular, Westra establishes the right to food, water, and clean environment as the basis for all other rights. Basic, individual biological integrity is the most fundamental right of all, and it can only be actualized within a larger ecological integrity. In such a framework, pollution is more easily viewed as an ecocrime, or as a form of institutional violence that infringes upon these basic rights. [3] Westra writes that individual and collective rights are connected to particular territories, as with indigenous groups, and the preservation of such groups is also important for Short. Short argues that cultural diversity, “the multitude of ways of living and communicating knowledge,” provides humans with “an adaptive edge” by maintaining multiple strategies for survival (p. 155).

Redefining Genocide ranks as one of the most important works published in the field in recent years. In this volume, Short and his co-authors combine a critical sociology of genocide with deep understanding of institutional history and international law. They apply an array of case studies that illustrate those core concepts at work. Yes, this is a frightening book, for it reveals that our current economic and political systems can be described as inherently genocidal. However, only by understanding the reality of our situation can humankind hope to change how it engages with the world—before it is too late.


[1] Christian Gerlach, in Extremely Violence Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), argues that the term is too narrow, failing to take into account the various forms of violence that occur in situations dubbed “genocidal,” while Payam Akhavan, in Reducing Genocide to Law: Definition, Meaning, and the Ultimate Crime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), views the term “genocide” as having more rhetorical than descriptive value, arguing that, from a legal standpoint, it would be better subsumed under the banner of crimes against humanity.

[2] Lawrence Davidson, Cultural Genocide, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2012, p. 1.

[3] Laura Westra, Human Rights: The Commons and the Collective, Vancouver, UBC Press, 2012, p. 76.