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  • A Step Forward
  • Scott Straus (bio)


I begin this commentary with a general appreciation for the report of the Genocide Prevention Task Force (the Albright-Cohen Report).1 The contents of the report are a decisive step forward in the debate over how to prevent and stop genocide and other forms of mass violence. The report synthesizes in a coherent and accessible fashion a significant body of research, policy analysis, and insights from actors inside and outside government; it provides a menu of concrete and sensible policy options that are likely to frame debate on genocide prevention in the short term. These strengths, and a few more I shall discuss, constitute a major advance on policy and academic discussions regarding the question of genocide prevention. Such is my overall assessment, even if I will push back on a few points.

Before moving to the substance of the report, I want to comment on the process of commenting. The Albright-Cohen Report brings to the fore a substantive tension in the field of genocide studies. On the one hand, many scholars in the field maintain and insist on a traditional scholarly approach to genocide-studies research. Their focus is on theory, evidence, methods, and argument. On the other hand, many scholars take a more normative and practical approach, often demonstrated by interest in the policy questions surrounding prevention and intervention.

Scholars of the former rightfully approach their research topics from a value-neutral position, and they do not want policy concerns to drive the research design, results, and analysis. Indeed, a not particularly helpful but somewhat common response to scholarship is—I am paraphrasing—"How will your theory help us stop genocide?" This response is not helpful for a number of reasons. To thrive as a field—to attract serious scholars, to advance research and understanding, and to earn recognition from and integration with other established scholarly arenas—a value-neutral scholarly approach that prizes theory, evidence, and methods is paramount. At the same time, it does not follow, as some researchers in the field maintain, that scholars should be uninterested in the normative and policy implications of scholarship. While researchers should aim for a value-neutral approach, the topic, in my view, is one that has unavoidable normative and ethical dimensions. Genocide studies is thus not a typical field of scholarly inquiry.

The community of scholars in the field of genocide studies will benefit if there is room for the theoretical and normative approaches to cohabit a common intellectual space. To be sure, many scholars already bridge a theoretical/scholarly approach with normative/policy concerns, and, indeed, Genocide Studies and Prevention embodies that synthesis, as its title indicates. But there is also a need, in my view, to articulate the importance of a scholarly community that respects these two positions and aims for mutual engagement. In the end, the health of the field will improve if both positions thrive. The best scholarship will likely contribute the best ideas and information, which in turn will shape policy options for the better, even if the policy implications are not immediately clear. Genocide scholarship should not put policy first, but that does not mean that the former will not inform the latter. At the same time, it is a chimera to [End Page 185] think that the normative, ethical, and policy dimensions of research on genocide can be bracketed out of the discussion. These dimensions are ineluctable, and to wish them away is to alienate students, scholars, and policy makers who are drawn to genocide studies.


Turning to substance, I argue that the Albright-Cohen Report substantially broadens public and policy debate about the question of genocide prevention. Many existing public, policy, and even academic discussions of genocide prevention are narrow, usually revolving around the concepts of "political will" and "humanitarian intervention" (i.e., coercive military action to stop atrocities). The report does not ignore these issues; through careful language, concrete recommendations, and disaggregation, it provides significant substance and nuance to them. In addition, the report opens new domains of analysis in the debate. Below I identify five specific areas of strength.

First, the report identifies and addresses a significant and...


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pp. 185-190
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