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Africa Today 48.3 (2001) 168-169

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Jonassohn, Kurt with Karin Solveig Björnson. 1998. Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations. New Brunswick and London: Transactions Publishers. 338 pp.

This is a curious book. The authors maintain that the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide, which defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group," no longer applies to today's violence-prone world. Jonassohn and Björnson instead argue that genocide is a "one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator." The authors also express the hope that Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations might help "to reduce the number of genocides and to intervene in those that do occur."

The authors' concern about mass killings is beyond reproach. Organized violence, whether motivated by economic, political, racial, or religious reasons cannot be justified under any circumstances. However, the African coverage leaves a great deal to be desired and inevitably raises questions about the book's objectivity.

In their review of "genocide" in Africa, Jonassohn and Björnson have compiled seven case studies, all of which pertain to the colonial period (Matabeleland and Mashonaland; Belgian Congo; Ivory Coast and the French Congo; Ethiopia; two related to German East Africa (GEA); and Kamerun. The authors justify this one-dimensional approach by claiming that all European colonial powers engaged in "various forms of exploitation and brutalities" (for the sake of fairness, it should be pointed out that European contributions in areas like education, medicine, and transport benefited countless numbers of thousands).

By ignoring the pre- and postcolonial periods, Jonassohn and Björnson give the impression that Africans were immune from reprehensible behavior. Anyone vaguely familiar with African history knows this is not the case. The depredations of the Zulu king Shaka and his descendants laid waste to vast areas of southern and eastern Africa. The savagery of rulers such as Idi Amin, Milton Obote and "Emperor" Bokassa ranks among the worst excesses of the twentieth century. Incomprehensibly, the Rwandan genocide receives no analytical attention. Similarly, "genocidal" activities in Angola, Biafra, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries are not mentioned. Such omissions prevent the authors from achieving their goal of contributing to reducing the number of genocides and they erode the book's credibility.

The other weakness of Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations concerns the chapter entitled "Hunger as a Low Technology Weapon." The comment that Ethiopia "has been ruled by a communist regime" since 1974 (Mengistu's communist government collapsed in 1991) raises questions about the authors' knowledge of that country's history. Also, the observation that Ethiopia "could produce enough food to export in appreciable quantities" does not tally with long-standing scientific analysis of the causes of [End Page 168] famines. In Ethiopia, such catastrophes are due to natural causes such as droughts, plagues of locusts or caterpillars, or outbreaks of rinderpest. Other factors like deforestation, soil erosion, wars, poor land tenure policies, and inadequate grain storage cause famines, which have plagued Ethiopia for centuries. The most recent example of this chronic problem occurred in January 2000, when Addis Ababa appealed for food aid for 8.1 million people to stave off a looming famine.

Apart from all these problems, the notion that the violence that claimed scores of lives in coastal Kenya during the 1990s can be included in the same category as the 1994 Rwandan genocide seems to be a gross affront to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives to rampaging Hutu killers. Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations has very little to offer the Africanist community.

Thomas P. Ofcansky
Department of State



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