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Genocide scholar remains an optimist in the face of inhumanity

Adam Jones wrestles with the worst that humans can inflict on each other yet remains an optimist.

By VIVIAN SMITH | SEP 09 2015
Photo by Albert Law
Photo by Albert Law

The photograph projected onto a large screen shows a tangle of lime-bleached arm and leg bones and skulls on wooden platforms at the Murambi Genocide Memorial in southern Rwanda. The image is hard to look at but the students and other audience members in the lecture hall do look, wordlessly. They remain silent when a grainy photo flashes up of a kneeling man about to be shot in the head, a pit of corpses below him, taken in 1941 in Vinnitsa, Ukraine. The man is carrying his coat, as if he might need it. Soldiers stand by, expressionless, most with their hands behind their backs. In the lecture hall, what little texting and web-surfing had been going on has stopped.

A 2009 photo of fresh-faced young people reacting to the Babi Yar memorial near Kiev – they look like many here in the University of Victoria lecture hall – seems easier for everyone to take in, but still disturbs. An Associated Press photographer took this photograph at the site in Ukraine where 33,771 Jews were murdered over two days in 1941. The memorial’s power causes a woman in a sundress to cover her mouth with her hand. The horror of what it represents is reflected in her eyes and in the eyes of those around her.

“What you need to know about Babi Yar,” Professor Adam Jones is saying as he looks searchingly at these images and then at his audience, “is in their faces.”

What you need to know about Dr. Jones, who took the photographs in Rwanda and thousands of others, is that he does not want us to look away in revulsion from such mass atrocities but to look deeply into individual faces and find the humanity there. A professor of political science at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, Dr. Jones is visiting UVic on this day to deliver a guest lecture called Understanding Genocide: A Personal Journey. The title of his talk could easily stand as the defining theme of his life. He has gone from an immigrant boy so anxious to fit in at a summer camp that he says he stood by while other children threw pebbles at a frightened girl, to a man who is able to take pride in his contributions as a scholar to the growing study of genocide.

No matter where he goes, Dr. Jones often has to answer the question, “Why would you want to study that?” His usual reply – “well, some subjects choose you rather than you choosing them” – he acknowledges sounds trite, but for him it seems accurate. More specifically, Dr. Jones needs to ask his listeners and readers to be witnesses to the dignity and the integrity of each person throughout human history who is targeted for death simply because they belong to a certain group. He dares us to consider that genocide is not an occasional, enormous barbaric eruption, but a simmering continuum, a possibility in all societies, in all hearts, able to be brought to a boil through institutions and social structures that permit such atrocities. As Canadians, we cannot be smug, he tells us, given how, for example, Indigenous children were forced into residential schools in Canada over many decades as part of a government policy of aggressive assimilation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its historic report delivered last June, would no doubt agree, calling Canada’s treatment of the children involved “cultural genocide.” Says Dr. Jones, “We must look critically at the skeletons in our closet and emerge as more clear-eyed citizens.”

At some level, Dr. Jones acknowledges, he also searches the pictures of faces of the dead, and those of the living, too, thousands of ordinary people whom he photographs in his constant travels, for clues to why his own mortality preoccupies him. “I felt paralyzed by a fear of death in my adolescence and early 20s,” he says, a few days before his guest lecture in his cramped, photo-lined office at UBC Okanagan’s Kelowna campus, where he has taught since 2007.

Until fairly recently, Dr. Jones, 51, had attached to that existential fear one of professional anxiety; would he die before making a significant contribution to genocide studies? He has decided that he will not.

Dr. Jones’s well-received and widely used 2006 textbook, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, is in its second, expanded 2010 edition and a third is planned for 2016. He has also written a highly personal, reflective essay, “Seized of Sorrow,” which is scheduled to appear sometime this fall in a new collection titled Scholars of Genocide Studies, adding to more than a dozen scholarly books he has either written or edited, journal articles, reviews and book chapters, plus regular postings on social media. His equal and connected passion for photojournalism – Dr. Jones wanted to be a roving reporter before the academy beckoned – has led to the publication of two recent non-academic photography books, In Iran and Latin American Portraits.

He is a consultant to the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide in New York, leading training seminars for UN officials, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs and advocates. He has just come off a sabbatical year in India and Myanmar, returning to teach a new course called Conflict and Post-Conflict in South Asia, along with his long-standing course called Genocide: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. His work in the subfield of “gendercide” focuses on gender-specific atrocities, particularly the targeting of males of battle age, which is happening “all around us,” he says. While mass media and scholars report on women as victims of gender-based violence in conflicts (such as in Nigeria with Boko Haram and ISIS in the Middle East), he argues that men are nearly always targeted first, and frequently worst, in genocidal outbreaks.

Genocide scholars across North America who were interviewed for this article agree on the lasting value of his research and activism. “Adam’s work has been path-breaking in expanding the definition of what genocide is, when and where it occurs and who is responsible,” says Christopher Powell, an assistant professor of sociology at Ryerson University who studies genocide and social theory.

“He is one of the good guys in the field,” sums up a pioneer of genocide studies, Barbara Harff, professor emerita at the U.S. Naval Academy, co-founder of the Genocide Prevention Advisory Network and winner of the 2013 Raphael Lemkin Prize presented by the Auschwitz Institute of Peace and Reconciliation in New York.

Travel and photography

As a dedicated wanderer, scholar and photojournalist, Dr. Jones has made the globe his field. He has logged countless kilometres through more than 80 countries, not only to document and witness sites of atrocities but also to do the opposite, which is to feed his optimism and emotional well-being. “Travelling,” he writes, “is the foundation of my faith in the basic goodness and potential of humanity.”

If you are going to try to understand – perhaps even hope to prevent – mass slaughter, it seems important also to search out and record moments that inspire, to celebrate those who fight back, or offer refuge and rescue, putting their own lives at risk. Finding these moments in his academic research inspires Dr. Jones. So does the opportunity to photograph – with a Sony HX400V – those ordinary individuals doing everyday things in market squares, on streets, in parks, anywhere in the world that is public space.

He looks for unguarded expressions of tranquility, self-reliance and dignity in his subjects, to see the preciousness, the fragility, of each life that he says lies at the heart of his scholarly inquiry. In the reams of photographs he has put online – under a Creative Commons licence, so anyone can use them – he counters the assumption that one must be morbid and unhealthily preoccupied to study genocide. For example, with his photograph of a smiling, resilient Juliette Mukakabanda, a survivor of the Rwandan massacre, he hopes to “counteract this massification [of genocide] and to put a human face on events that otherwise just seem unimaginable.”

His voluminous, open-use catalogue of photographs is invaluable to researchers and instructors, says Andrew Woolford, a genocide specialist and professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba: “It’s used by scholars all over the world.”

As a teaching tool, the photos from his pilgrimages are riveting, according to his political science students. “He doesn’t research from a distance, he sees countries and people first-hand,” says third-year student Kasandra Brownridge, during a break in Dr. Jones’s lecture on the complex political history of Nepal; he had been there the year before the devastating earthquake hit last April.

It’s one thing to hear him say that Nepalese women bear the burden of double discrimination because of their caste and gender and that their desperation spurred many to join Nepal’s revolution from 1996 to 2006. It’s another to see one of Dr. Jones’s own photos of Nepalese women labouring as bricklayers or with piles of straw loaded onto their bent heads. He “brings the world into his classroom,” says Amy McRory, one of his master’s students.

Perhaps being born in Singapore and living in two more countries before age 10 helps to create a nomad. Dr. Jones’s mother, Jo, is a former teacher and librarian, while his father, David, who died this past May at 82, spent 20 years in the military, including a stint in Singapore. For a working-class English couple, his parents, Dr. Jones says, were unusually worldly and cosmopolitan. And open-minded: both have been regular proof-readers of his work and Dr. Jones, who is single, includes passages in an essay from The Scourge of Genocide, that describe how making love with a certain woman, as well as smoking slivers off of a nugget of cannabis, helped fuel his writing. A younger brother, Craig Jones, is a law professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.

The family moved back to England, then to Ottawa and on to Vernon in the Okanagan Valley in 1972, where his father went into commercial real estate. Dr. Jones recalls a happy but solitary childhood, buried in books and music, writing his own “newspaper” that he sold for five cents a copy and reading about history and politics. “I do remember reading, quite extensively, quite early on, about the Jewish Holocaust and a number of other cases about what I today recognize to be genocide,” he says. He cites George Orwell’s writing and dictums – be observant and tell the truth – and the advice of Noam Chomsky – be fearless in denouncing horrors of the times – as major influences.

As a teenager in 1979, Dr. Jones returned to Singapore to attend the United World College of South East Asia, urged by his parents to get outside of his Canadian comfort zone. This proved transformative: he studied with students from many nations, went on field trips to neighbouring countries and edited the student newspaper. Over eight years, he travelled and attended four postsecondary institutions, finally abandoning the idea of a media career for political science studies, earning a master’s at McGill University and PhD at UBC. While completing his doctoral thesis on the press during political transitions in Nicaragua, Jordan, South Africa and Russia, his interest in human rights and ethnic conflict emerged and developed into a new research passion for genocide studies. Following a trip in 1986 to Nicaragua with a Canadian project called Tools for Peace, his commitment to activism grew.

Male gendercide

While at McGill in 1989, the foundational event of his studies in “gendercide” occurred when young women engineering students at Montreal’s École Polytechnique were separated from their male peers and shot. Fourteen women died that day. While he mourned with the rest of Canada, Dr. Jones later thought about how unusual it was for the genders to be separated and then the women murdered – more usually, when killers separate the sexes, the men are killed. “If men were overwhelmingly the perpetrators of murders and mass killings, other men were disproportionately their victims,” he reasoned. Paying attention to that phenomenon, and expressing moral concern for the victims, has been his project ever since.

Dr. Jones’s drive to expand the definition of genocide is not without its critics. He was kicked off the listserv H-genocide for trying to express the view that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan was potentially genocidal. “He is willing to play the rabble-rouser role,” says U of Manitoba’s Dr. Woolford, recalling how, as organizer of an international conference in Winnipeg in 2014, he had to clear the lecture hall after Dr. Jones delivered a paper called Israel and Genocide. “A lot of people were upset he was allowed to present the paper,” recalls Dr. Woolford. “They would have argued with him all day.”

His research in the area of gendercide prompts the most debate. “A lot of people like his work; as many find it to be deeply problematic,” says Laura Sjoberg, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida who specializes in gender-based and feminist approaches to the study of international relations. She agrees with those scholars who criticize Dr. Jones’s analyses for incorrectly (in their view) reading a great reversal of gender discrimination into the fact of gendered violence committed against men. Others dislike the term “gendercide,” saying it conflates sex and gender; they say gender is a social process having little to do with one’s biological sex.

Dr. Jones replies to these criticisms that his self-appointed task is to “do justice to all forms of gender-selective atrocity – against females, against males, and indeed against the transgendered. But my special focus is the gender-selective massacre of men and boys.” One of the most reliable canaries in the coal mine of an impending atrocity, he argues, is the selective rounding-up, detention, torture and disappearance of young men who are seen to be subversive or dissident.

To stand out as a contrarian in such a highly contentious field is no small feat. “Genocide is a fundamentally political concept,” explains Ryerson’s Dr. Powell. “It’s like human rights, designed to expose how states relate to their citizens and to produce social change.”

Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent, coined the term “genocide” in the early 1940s so that mass crimes against humanity would be defined legally and perpetrators punishable by international law. Having studied the murders of more than a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks that began in 1915, he asked, “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?” (The United States still does not recognize the Armenian mass deaths as genocide, while Canada does. In April of this year, the Turkish government chastised the Pope for calling the atrocities a genocide.)

In 1948, the UN defined genocide as committing acts intended to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” through killings, serious injuries, preventing births or the forcible transfer of children. In the 1970s and early 1980s, scholars of genocide – a small group – began to use a comparative framework of study, eventually establishing the Association of Genocide Scholars in 1994 and rechristening themselves the International Association of Genocide Scholars in 2001. Today, comparative genocide studies criss-crosses many disciplines, including history, political science, law, sociology and anthropology. In his introductory textbook, besides providing the UN definition of genocide, Dr. Jones devotes more than four pages to other possible definitions.

That book stands as a turning point in his career. In 2004, Dr. Jones found himself mired in writer’s block; he held an academic post in Mexico City that did not allow him to study genocide as he wished. He roused himself to write the first draft of his textbook and then honed it at Yale University during a postdoctoral fellowship with the help of Benjamin Madley, a genocide scholar and assistant professor of history at UCLA.

“This was not an abstract, ivory-tower venture for Adam,” recalls Dr. Madley of the textbook’s creation, but more of an activist’s call to expand the time and space boundaries of what scholars consider genocide to be. Dr. Jones documents a range of case studies (from Indigenous peoples to the atrocities of Stalin and Mao Zedong; from Cambodia to Bosnia) and adds psychological attributes of perpetrators, as well as sociological and anthropological perspectives. “By being more attentive to the forms genocide can take, more aspects of genocide can be identified,” says Dr. Madley. By extension, early warnings on potential genocides can be raised – many scholars are seeing all the signs in atrocities being committed currently in South Sudan.

In its latest edition, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction may provide scholars, students and general readers with enough good information to discuss what they believe the boundaries are for genocide, says Dr. Jones. He says he has a responsibility to make his writing and teaching accessible, and he gives talks about genocide in Rwanda and Yugoslavia to kids in junior high school, and even younger.

As we wrap up an interview and move from his office to the classroom, I notice two small plaques among the photos on Dr. Jones’s walls. One displays an often-used and uplifting quote attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Perhaps as a reminder of the darkest impulses that are his life’s work to expose, the other plaque bluntly warns: “Never Underestimate the Power of Stupid People in Large Groups.”

Vivian Smith is an author, consultant and journalism instructor in Victoria, B.C. Her book, Outsiders Still: Why Women Journalists Love – and Leave – Their Newspaper Careers, is available from University of Toronto Press.

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  1. Professor Emeritus Ferrel Christensen / September 10, 2015 at 10:19 am

    As a long-time friend and associate of Dr. Jones (since his student days), I can attest to his intelligence, energy, objectivity and passion for justice. I applaud Ms. Smith for recognizing the importance of his work.

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