A well-known scientist from Yale University (USA), senior lecturer at the Jackson School of Global Affairs, director of the Genocide Studies Program, Dr. David J. Simon told us about how Russian aggression made the Ukrainian nation stronger, why talks about a ceasefire reward the aggressor , and expressed the opinion that it would be extremely difficult to end the war on fair terms.
– 24 February. You heard the news about the full-scale Russian invasion to Ukraine. It has started despite all the diplomatic efforts, all the prognostics that it will never happen, but it has started. What have you felt on having heard this message?
– It’s tough to go back to that day, but I guess there were several thoughts and emotions going through my head at the time. And again, this is from my perspective in New Haven, Connecticut, so whatever I was feeling and thinking I am sure was nothing compared to what was being felt in Ukraine itself, but as you said there have been warnings, there have been efforts to prevent this. And so part of me had little faith that those efforts would succeed. It didn’t seem like anybody was willing to negotiate at that point in time.
Nevertheless, I felt a measure of disbelief that this type of gross violation of sovereignty would happen in the year 2022. Also, I would have to say with that there was disappointment that these efforts, which, although I did not have much faith in them, I really wanted them to succeed, the efforts to prevent the war, because, you know, I knew, that I feared that the war would be violent, obviously deadly and would create many, many tragedies.
I could have predicted the way that it has, but simply the precedence around of war in this century whether it is in Syria or in Yemen, war has been violent. War takes a tall on civilians and all these things, you know. It’s a disappointment that efforts to prevent it failed, and I was fearful of what the consequences would look like. And I think I would also have to say I was concerned, if from a sort of academic perspective, with what this meant for the change in the world order.
My own heritage is, obviously, I’m American, my parents were American, my grandparents were born in the United States, but all eight of my great, great grandparents were born in Lithuania, so I identify as Lithuanian-American to some extent, and I know that the Baltics are always in a … are always threatened by a sort of possibility of Russian belligerents of even aggression. But Baltics, you know, are under that NATO umbrella in the way that Ukraine has never been so I sort of understood the stakes were that in some sense or the way I understood mistakes to be were that this was an effort of Putin’s Russia to really try to re-establish its Soviet era borders.
And, you know, I felt for the people of Ukraine and the nation of Ukraine, because I know the way that Lithuanians process that same fear, and I know that, it also meant that, it raised the likelihood that the Baltics might be the next, so not to minimize what happened, what was going on to the Ukrainians, but I think it raised some sort of sense of brotherhood or siblinghood with other republics that had been under the Soviet cloak in the former years.
– Can Russia's actions be called genocide of the Ukrainian people? Is it pure genocide or just war crimes?
– I want to say one thing first before I address the issue of genocide that there is a handful of international crimes including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. There is really not meant to be a hierarchy among these crimes, a violation of any one of them is a flagrant violation of international [law], that they should all be condemned and resisted and responded to in equal terms and equal measures.
So, I say that in part because there is a risk in trying to set up a standard of genocide that if the popular conception is genocide is the worst of all things and for some legal reasons there is some court makes a finding that genocide did not occur, it could be misinterpreted that it wasn’t really that bad, you know, the victims being alarmist when in fact in the case of Ukraine there is extraordinary clear evidence, you know, that a proverbial six-year-old could understand, that there was aggression, that there were war crimes, violence committed against civilians, that there were crimes against humanity.
I would argue that there were also crimes of genocide being committed, but I think that requires the determination of genocide, requires meeting a fairly specific set of legal tests.
I should also say that I’m not a lawyer but I’m familiar enough with the genocide convention that I could lay out, I think, the three principles that matter most. The genocide convention reads that, it states in Article 2 that the genocide is a series of acts committed with the intent to destroy, I should say, any of the civic acts committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group as such.
Now, parts of that definition are easily met. Obviously, the idea of a national group, Ukrainians as a national group in whole or in part question is easily met. In whole or in part basically means that genocide does not have to be completely successful in order to be deemed genocide.
But it also means that genocide can be a target, a campaign of violence can be considered genocide event if it is targeting only a sector of the targeted group, the elites, or the women, or the men, or the women or the men in a certain area as long as it’s a part of the intent to destroy that group as a whole or destroying to … the destroying is the idea, then it would count as genocide.
And then there has been acts committed, there certainly has been killings, there’s been much bodily and mental harm caused, and these are, I didn’t read these before but these are the basic acts, there is inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring destruction in whole or in part that we saw in Bucha.
We see that in formally occupied parts of Ukraine. Imposing measures to prevent births within the group, and that actually the clause that brings gender-based violence in under the realm of genocide when it has other elements.
And then forcible transfer of children from the group to another group that we have seen through the filtration centers and other ways in which Ukrainian children have been forcibly removed from Ukraine by the Russian military into Russia and it is not even clear what is happening there.
The tricky part actually goes back to connecting to some extent the evidence of what’s happened to all of these things that we sort of intuitively know have happened. In particular, some of the strongest rhetorical evidence is that members of Putin’s circle or Putin himself sort of issuing declarations that the Ukrainian nation does not exist, you know, denial of nationhood, that the people in Ukraine are said not to belong to according to Putin’s logic here.
Now, it is in my book that’s very similar to what the government of Myanmar has done with respect to the Rohingya people. They denied that the Rohingya identity exists in that case as an ethnic group, but it’s sort of similar, and then the violence against the existence of the Rohingya people, it actually involved less killing and more forced displacement, but it was an effort to destroy the Rohingya people, and in that case the first step was to deny the existence of the Rohingya people, to deny the existence of that ethnic group.
I think, there’s a strong parallel that what’s happened that Russia began with the denial of the existence of the Ukrainian nation and that in the Russian mindset permits any and all measures against the people of Ukraine in the service of destroying that nation.
Nevertheless, there is this kind of tricky legal matter, does the effort to destroy a nation, the idea of a common identity, common political identity, can that be equated with the language of the genocide convention, the intent to destroy a national group? There is the idea of a nation versus a national group.
I think that it amounts to the same thing when it is accompanied by the various acts, but especially the killing of civilians in the name of that effort, but I think that when and I think this will happen that there will be a genocide case against the perpetrators of this violence in Ukraine in international court.
When it is heard, the dispute will be over the interpretation of that clause. So that’s why I wanted to begin as I began with that statement that genocide is not the be-all and end-all of the finding of wrongdoing. There is already prima facie evidence of aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity. I think genocide can and should and probably will be added to that list, but from a legal standpoint it can be trickier to show that.
– And if we add not only killing the civilians but also the efforts to destroy culture on the occupied territories, for instance, burning Ukrainian schoolbooks, destroying museums, burning their paintings, etc., demolishing the monuments. It is also like a crime of genocide?
– That’s a great question because it is but something else that’s not directly covered by the convention, this notion of cultural genocide.
If we go back to Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who basically coined the term genocide even during the Holocaust, even before the Holocaust was over, in his mind the intent to destroy included all of these acts. Genocide was not the equivalent of mass killing, but rather it was mass killing with intent to destroy the group that shared an identity.
And again, in my view, the way the convention is written it doesn’t directly cover destruction of cultural heritage as a crime unto itself.
In other words, the five enumerated crimes — killing, causing harm, inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births, forcibly transferring children… None of those directly covers cultural destruction, but for me cultural destruction is absolutely evidence that speaks to the state of mind, well, of all of those acts were going on.
There were not just killing, so to speak, because they want kill civilians because they were in the way of war… They were killing civilians because those civilians belonged to a group, because they held a set of beliefs and an identity, and that part of the way which is genocide. I mean doing that killing was genocide and the way we know, one of the ways that we know, that people were being killed because of their beliefs and because they believed to belong to a group is that Russia was at the same time trying to destroy all those kinds of physical manifestations of what people believed in, at any event, their language, their religion, their cultural practices.
I have followed the legal cases with respect to the proving of genocide in Rwanda more than any other case in my academic career, and there again it is prima facie, on the face of it, intuitively, an open and closed, shut case of genocide, and yet the legal twists and turns that have taken place in the court of law, the wordsmithing that’s required the construction of concepts is sort of bewildering and actually had been bewildering to many Rwandans who are saying, why, you know, why it takes six years to prove a case of genocide when we all know it was genocide.
So, perhaps some other kind of moral of the story is that genocide is not just for the courts to determine, it’s for the public to talk about, it’s for scholars to think about, and it’s for artists to address.
I think it’s sort of helpful to have a sort of anchor, a common vocabulary, so that we can all sort of say, yes, there was genocide because … but we probably shouldn’t be so, and I am guilty of this in this very conversation, we shouldn’t be guilty of trying to shoehorn everything into a legal case when the horrors of genocide are felt outside, whether or not the legal case may have a court of law make a specific determination.
– How do you think will the world change after this war in general and Ukrainian nation in particular? Is it going to be like a strengthening factor to form, to crystalize a new identity from your point of view?
Absolutely. I mean, I think that the war against Ukraine has clearly strengthened the Ukrainian nation in ways that no other event could have, sort of the forging, I mean the Ukrainian identity was strong beforehand. Solidarity that you, that Ukrainian have shown in the face of the Russian aggression has, you know, had… It’s Putin’s greatest mistake, it’s had 100% opposite effect of what he intended. He wanted to destroy the idea of the Ukrainian nation. Instead, he made it as twice as strong, more than twice as strong as it ever was.
The experience of being aggressively invaded and attacked, and enduring horrific crimes has once created this resilience, I think, not created resilience but has been met by resilience of the Ukrainian people, and that is the stuff of legends and war that is, it strengthens. I would say it is the foundation of the strength.
It strengthens the foundation of nationhood and I think within Europe no one will be able to pretend, and maybe it was only Putin that was pretending in the first place, but in Europe no one will be able to pretend that there is no Ukrainian identity. So, I think that in some ways is the nature of effect, I think, I hope there will be a renewed recognition of the horrors of war, that we really do need to take more serious efforts to stop wars from starting because once they do …
There is some extent to which the aggressor is favored, you know, discussions of the negotiations, discussions of a ceasefire reward the aggressor. This was a lesson that actually should have been learnt in the Balkan wars of the 1990s where in particular Serbia was particularly aggressive against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there was a settlement that ended this conflict in late 1996, but it’s a settlement that gave Bosnian Serbs most of what they had fought for and that has continued to bedevil Bosnia-Herzegovina to this day.
We need to redouble our efforts and effort that at times have been fairly strong to stop wars before they start because they are awfully hard to start on just, to stop rather, they are awfully hard to stop on just terms once they have begun.
– Does not it mean that numerous international organizations, be it the Red Cross or the United Nations, should become more self-confident, not just express their deep concern but make some particular steps?
– Absolutely. I know the workings of the United Nations best with respect to how to deal with atrocities, and there I think, there are three elements of the United Nations that aren’t always in sync and in fact should not really be in sync.
There is the Security Council, which is run by sovereign nations, and the United States and Russia have among others veto power. That means that on certain issues the Security Council is going to be effectively useless. The Security Council cannot do anything with respect to Ukraine as long as Russia has a vote…
So, the second option is the General Assembly, and again that’s also run by sovereign nations, but no one has veto power. The General Assembly does not have that much power according to the UN Charter, but I think there has to be an effort in atrocity situations to grant the General Assembly more power to act, to condemn aggressors in particular.
And then, finally, there is the Secretariat, I mean essentially the permanent staff, and for all the fact that the UN gets, I know, so many people who are on the permanent staff, who are really dedicated members of sort of global humanity and have a vision of essentially world peace.
If you want world peace, the UN is where you find a lot of people who really want to make it happen, but they’re hamstrung by the political authorities in the General Assembly, especially, in the Security Council. So, I think, recognizing the expertise of people like I’m thinking in particular very small office called the office of the special advisor for the prevention of genocide who has a lot of insight, a lot of knowledge, a lot of ability to forewarn that there is a risk of atrocity over the horizon or on the horizon.
But they have a harder time getting people to actually listen to them or do things in response. We have a much better infrastructure for anticipating atrocities than we did 30 years ago. We are just… we do not quite have the … ways to form policy as a result.
It’s like we have built this magnificent automobile but we haven’t installed the steering wheel yet, so we need to work on letting the people who have the insight have a more direct path to being able to make policy changes.
– Let’s switch to some more particular topics. Right now I am talking about the collection of the Museum of Civilian voices founded by Rinat Akhmetov, and since 2014, it has been collecting stories of simple civilians who had suffered from the war, at first, just from the Eastern region, now it covers nearly the whole Ukraine. How can you evaluate this initiative and what do you think is it really important so collect such life stories and why it is important, if you find it important?
– I do think it’s important. I think that, you know, as a scholar who studies mass atrocity, I am a political scientist and many of my colleagues are historian, and we have so much to learn for the voices of people who have experienced these atrocities. We don’t really know what a trauma an atrocity really is until we, or we don’t understand fully, an atrocity until we hear about its effect on those who experienced that.
Unfortunately we will never be able to hear that from those who have perished as a result of atrocity, but we can hear from witnesses or sometimes people who were able to testify before they’re gone. So, there is a lot to learn from the scholarly perspective, but that’s actually probably the second or third most important reason.
The most important reason is that in a case of atrocities like those that you can experience as you said since 2014, that one way to sort of honor those who have suffered is simply to listen.
I have seen certain archives of Holocaust survivors, testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Here at Yale University we have one called the Fortunoff archive of Holocaust testimonies. And the overriding principle behind it is that we in some ways in part because the world failed to intervene in time for people who are testifying but not for their relatives, but the very least we can do now is listening, what it was like going through those atrocities and also listen to who they were, what was their family life beforehand.
One of the ways that we, I have personally learned so much about the Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust, and therefore learned about the consciousness of Hitler’s aims, was from understanding the community and culture of Jews in Eastern Europe and in Germany, and in France as expressed in these testimonies that are now preserved for all time.
We can learn a lot from listening, but we have to do so, I think, from a standpoint of trying to honor and respect those who have suffered. And so in that learning, which is important, we can understand the horrors of war but we can also understand resilience, how some people are able to survive, or whole communities are able to survive, we can understand how war affects people, how enduring atrocities affects people’s outlook towards life, and how communities that form and reformulate themselves in sometimes quite inspiring ways, so it’s sort of hard to say it because listening to, again, Holocaust testimonies and the testimonies of Rwandan survivors, it is really gut-wrenching, because you hear all these horrors and then lives lost, but there’s also you know one can seize on these moments of resilience and brotherhood when people helped out and they didn’t need to, or they did but they made pressure against doing so, and that’s quire inspiring. That’s I think is a kind of thing that we need to kind of propagate, we need to not just learn from but figure out ways that we can sort of demonstrate to the rest of the world that there were people who took these acts, that were courageous, that didn’t just stand by, but stood up in times of crisis and threat, and sometimes, it is from testimonies that we learn about that most.
– And except for the psychological effect that it has, except probably for the scientific effect that it has, from a legal point of view will we be able to use it as a proof of Russian aggression, of Russian war crimes?
– That’s a very good question. I think the answer is it depends. In some cases there needs to be, I mean, so what’s typically needed from a legal perspective is fairly specific evidence, like I saw somebody do this in that place at that time. That can be hard to document in a sort of long-form open testimony that I’m describing, and so sometimes what a testimony might do is provide a basis for something that will then be legally admissible.
So, researchers can go into the archives and say, oh, here I found a family that was living in Bucha, and they are describing what appear to be war crimes and acts of genocide against Ukrainians in Bucha. It’s unlikely that they can just sort of cut that clip and show it to the judge.
It’s more likely that what would have to happen is that a lawyer would have to come and take sort of a deposition with whatever under whatever oath that would apply and that deposition would then be entered. So that in a way is unfortunate because it can be traumatizing to people, because they will have to say these stories again, although it is also empowering because people can then know that their words are mattering, their words are contributing to a legal effort.
– What do you think, how should a museum or a collection look like, so that we transmit all these memories to our future generations?
– I think what you are doing, is what the future of what museums are. That is to say the past of museums is, you know, a grand stone hall with sculptures and posters that say one thing to everybody. The future of museums is that they are maybe less rooted in a physical space.
I think it’s useful to have a physical space but in some ways most of the outreach and effectiveness of a museum will be through its digital platform, the way that is the ability to access stories online and throughout the world. There is a possibility for that global reach.
It’s really important to have a physical footprint somewhere as well. It can become a sort of destination, almost a point of pilgrimage for people who, let’s say for Ukrainian Americans who have felt so much solidarity and grief as they have watched what’s gone on in Ukraine often without being able to go there, being able to help the cause without being there. I think to sort of connect to that past and to sort of fully understand what’s happened during the war. There will be a kind of need to go to Ukraine and connect, and sort of pay respect to attempt, so a physical footprint matters, but what I think that the main point of, or the main output to some extent, will be the accessibility to stories.
However, having those stories accessible is there still needs to be some quite a bit of curation and some sort of guide posting. It’s really not enough just to have to, say hey, we have got forty thousand hours of testimony here, feel free to search it. I think when you have 40 000, I just made that number of course, but you have some large number of hours of testimony, it’s an opportunity to create multiple journeys through that an outsider that a viewer, that someone who’s coming to understand, can take through the voices of people who have experiences, and that actually takes quite a bit of curation.
What we have started to do at Yale with the Fortunoff collection is create a school curricula based on testimonies that could then be weaved into a more conventional textbook-type presentations or in-class presentations.
There’s a teacher’s guide that says, all, right, let’s listen to this clip, let’s talk about it, let’s understand the backdrop. Let’s say, you are talking specifically about some city in Ukraine, let’s look at it on a map, talk about why it was strategically important, why Russia was attacking it, let’s talk about the resistance, how it was retaken, and then let’s understand what was it like to be inside from listening to these voices, and it’s much more complete way to learn if the resources of a museum, a museum of civilian voices can be instrumental in making, helping to create these educational resources.
We learnt from art as well, and I think it’s important to make sure that artists are brought into this conversation because the way, their speciality is to kind of present things in a non-linear fashion.
– The final question, the most important issue that is the most important for us, I guess, for every citizen of the world, is when this war is going to end.
– We don’t know when it will end. I think that looking in history, there are some guides as to sort of what will typically happen to bring about its end.
Certainly, a break of anything like a military stalemate, I think, there was a military stalemate, we could accurately describe as a military stalemate in the middle to later months of 2022, but beginning in September-October and continuing since then stalemate has started to, I know, it’s less accurate to describe as stalemate.
As Ukraine continues to gain and expand a military advantage, then pursuing the conflict becomes more and more untenable for Russians, and it’s not necessarily a matter of untenableness, that’s not really a word, but the lack of ability to keep thing going on the battlefield.
It’s also though the way it becomes less tenable, less viable for the Russians, for the Putin regime, and this is unfortunately, you know, Russia has in the 20th century, Russia threw millions of people at conflicts in the first two world wars. The regimes don’t easily change in Russia, they don’t.
I think that one path sort of the most obvious; the most historical precedent for the ending of a conflict is for either pressure on a regime or an outrage change of regime in the aggressor state. I don’t and those that is what’s most unpredictable of all, you know, perhaps occasionally, sometimes what happens that the regime backs down because that’s only thing it can do in order to stay in power. We saw this to some extent in Serbia under Milosevic.
So, from that the lessons that sanctions matter, Russian civil society matters, emboldening Russian civil society, I get that too. It’s far from materializing but you know the protests over mobilization, those matter that when people resist mobilization, that is extraordinary uncomfortable for the Russian regime, and I think that that type of things, I’m hoping, has a snowball effect because there is going to be another mobilization, it is going to affect more and more people who never thought would be mobilized and sent to the front in an essentially losing cause, and that is going to, it strikes me that that can have political repercussions. It’s again so hard to imagine how regime change takes place.
I will say, if it does, it may bring, it will bring a moment of extraordinary sort of instability, and it’ll be a very frightening moment because although it regime change means that Putin is gone, Putin has gone through power whether he sort of abdicates peacefully or is arrested by people surrounding him, it’s entirely unclear what comes next, especially, in the short term. There is a short-term power vacuum that means there’ll be a power struggle between hardliners who don’t understand why Russia hasn’t been more aggressive towards Ukraine, those aren’t to match, and people who sort of recognize that what really needs to be done is to pull out of Ukraine and establish, re-establish its own sovereignty on internationally recognizable terms.
Sometimes Americans or outside Europeans who want this war to end quickly, and I certainly want this war to end quickly, as I think everyone does, but some of those, and I won’t include myself in this group, say, there needs to be peace talks with a dignity and honor, and on-ground and off-ramp for Russia that leads them to dignity and honorably, let them keep part of Ukraine that they have invaded. I don’t, I certainly don’t think, right, again, that rewards aggression, that rewards violation of international law and norms that should not be on the table at all.
What there should in terms of dignity and honor for Russia is a roadmap back to international respectability within their own borders, to sort of say, and part of that roadmap means it does not exclude reparations. There is going to have to be reparations for what Russia has done to Ukraine, but there needs to be a way that those reparations are paid and asked for in a way that isn’t merely punitive but somehow be restorative for Russia as a member of the international community of states. So, right now I think that ultimately is a carrot for Russia, but it needs to be presented.
In order for that to exist Russia needs to be continued to be punished in international realms, sort of sanctioned and outcast for the all the violations that it’s undertaken so far, So basically a regime, the international regime of law and order that respects the laws that were on the books, which means punishing those for crimes when they have taken place and a punishment that includes reparation of a nation and then provides some viable status quo after the war and after all that justice has taken place, viable status quo that says, yeah, Russia, you can exist, but not so long as it is bullying and invading or threatening to invade its neighbors. So, that part is tricky thing I suppose for the international relations specialists around the world to try to figure out, but nothing short of it, nothing, you know, no concessions, short of that, really makes sense to me in any way whatsoever.
When quoting a story, a reference to the source – the Museum of Civilian Voices of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation – is mandatory, as follows:
The Museum of Civilian Voices of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation https://civilvoicesmuseum.org/