July 10, 2020

Globalization and Inaction During Genocide: Breaking a Bystander Mold

By Alexis Herr

Genocide scholars often employ the tri-party system of bystander, perpetrator, and victim to navigate the complex field of a community’s activities during genocide. Of the three categories, “bystander” continues to be the most ambiguous and problematic to define. Renowned Holocaust Historian Raul Hilberg conceived of “bystanders” as helpers, gainers, and onlookers.  In the modern era, however, our greater access to international news and the globalization of industry and goods means that the international community has become bystanders to injustice even if they are far removed from the conflict zone.

The difficulty of comprehending and understanding bystanders resides in the looming question of why individuals not targeted for annihilation acquiesce to murderous regimes. Holocaust scholars have dedicated numerous pages to trying to understand why individuals who did not self-identify as antisemitic or were not emphatic to Nazi race ideology acted in a way that allowed the genocide to continue. Philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen has examined the significance of a bystander’s ability to resist. He contends that bystanders represent “the potential of resistance,” and that an onlooker’s capacity for action renders her/him responsible for acts of genocide.

Hilberg’s codification of bystanders as helpers, gainers, and onlookers seem increasingly relevant when we move from looking at bystanders in conflict zones to those nowhere near the bloodshed. Access to mass media and a global market mean that anyone who is literate and owns electronics can easily discover that she/he is connected to the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo by (1) purchasing products that contain conflict minerals (tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold) and thus lining the coiffeurs of rebel militias, (2) buying cheaper electronic products from companies that do not track the origins of their minerals, (3) and reading in newspapers about rape and exploitation in Congo without acting.

Fear is often credited as the greatest blockade to bystanders becoming resistors in conflict zones, but what do individuals thousands of miles away from atrocity have to fear? Indeed, some resistors in oppressive societies are punished and/or killed for going against a dominating regime, but an American in the United States will not be penalized for speaking out against conflict minerals. If action poses no threat to an individual’s safety, why would a global witnesses not act?

One reason why people do not act originates from a feeling of powerlessness and fortunately, this is easy to correct. The violence and injustice in the Democratic Republic of Congo is so vast it can easily become overwhelming, which is why one way to combat inaction is by stepping away from the big picture and focusing on something that feels manageable to conqueror. The good news is that there are innumerable ways a person can make a positive impact on a victim’s life and wellbeing.


Below you will find an example of an individual and an organization that have done just this:


Nicholas Kristof: As a columnist for the New York Times, Kristof keeps the world appraised of human rights violations. In addition to significant aid work, Kristof uses the power of the written word (in books and newspapers) to inspire his readers to think critically about violence and injustice.


Solar Cookers Project: Jewish World Watch has a project entitled Solar Cookers Project, which supplies solar cookers to women and children in refugee camps. Many Sudanese refugees living in UN camps have to leave the camp in search of wood to cook with. Typically women and children are sent to collect wood and as they do so are raped and attacked by rebel forces (men are killed, which is why women and girls are sent out). While the Solar Cookers Project does not end the Sudanese Genocide, it helps protect its victims.

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