One Million Bones on the National Mall

ImageThis is what our football pitch on the Mall looked like on Sunday. Taking over the space was a public art installation called One Million Bones. Read about it here. The non-governmental organization behind it is called ‘The Art of Revolution.’ The stated mission of the One Million Bones project “is to raise awareness of and critical funds for survivors of genocides and crises occurring today in Sudan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in Somalia.” Under ‘Conflicts Today’ on the web site there are 6 not 4 locations presented, with the addition of South Sudan and Syria.

 The geographic delimiting of this project is fascinating. Sudan has long been a focus of genocide awareness campaigns with the Stop Darfur project. Burma is a less known case, and the project is to be lauded for its spotlight on the crimes committed by the country’s deeply entrenched military regime. The case of the Kachin rebels is perhaps the best known of these. The BBC’s Jonathan Head has done some great reporting on this. Last month, the Burmese government and rebel leaders signed a 7 point ‘deal’ that is supposed to lead to a ceasefire, and re-deployment of the military forces on both sides. Previously, the Burmese military were advancing aggressively against the HQ of the rebels who have been fighting for decades. That the DRC is a human rights nightmare has long been known, Africa’s ‘World War’ in Gerard Prunier’s comprehensive study. Somalia and Syria are likewise places of tremendous human suffering and pain.

 Why these places and not others? The exhibition, ironically, was virtually in front of the American Indian Museum yet there was no call out to the ‘dark side’ of the process of state formation of the United States. Why not a location closer to home like Guatemala where there are direct ties to US policy at the time? And is what is happening in these places genocide, or something else? Finally, is ‘genocide awareness’ necessarily a good thing?

These are complex questions. The organizers of the One Million Bones project deserve fulsome praise. They are doing something creative, educational, tactile and visually striking to raise awareness in the United States of human security failures around the world. Care, one of their beneficiaries, does great work in my experience. I’ve a lot of respect for John Prendergast the co-founder of Enough!, another beneficiary, and I’ve just seen that he wrote an op ed in support of Rice and Power’s nominations in Politico last week. Good. It occurred to me that this exhibition’s timing was very positive for the nominations. One of our players, a White House insider, lightly scorned this suggestion with a glint in his eye (but why shouldn’t it benefit ‘the cause’ given years of labor on this issue [my thought, not his]). I haven’t got the chance to chat fully with our two Burmese players yet about their reactions.

Despite all these positives, there is a human rights case against ‘genocide awareness’ campaigns. Too many conflict regions around the world have that term as an integral part of the rhetoric of the conflict. I’ve tried to illustrate this fairly well established argument in the graph below, which concerns how ‘genocide’ as a performative speech act shuts down democratic political debate by inducing a stark moralized Manichean worldview, and subsequent securitization of an imagined core identity under existential threat from a ‘permanent historic enemy.’ The examples are too abundant, unfortunately. Consider the following list of conflict regions today (beyond those listed above) that are shadowed by genocide claims and discourse:

  •  Israel-Palestine
  • Armenia-Azerbaijan
  • Serbia-Bosnia
  • Serbia-Kosovo
  • Georgia-South Ossetia/Abkhazia
  • Rwanda

The cry of ‘genocide’ is powerful political discourse, and unfortunately too often the warrant for harsh policies and war crimes that soon have others shouting the same thing.



About Dr Gerard Toal

Irish born academic living in Washington DC researching geopolitical competition and territorial conflicts in post-Communist Europe. Author of CRITICAL GEOPOLITICS (1996), BOSNIA REMADE (w C Dahlman) and NEAR ABROAD: PUTIN, THE WEST AND THE CONTEST OVER UKRAINE AND THE CAUCASUS (Oxford University Press, 2017).
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