In early November 2013, Adama Dieng, the UN genocide adviser, briefed the Security Council on the Central African Republic’s (CAR) unraveling humanitarian crisis. “We are seeing armed groups killing people under the guise of their religion,” Dieng said, referring to a recent spike in reprisal killings between “self-defense groups” and loosely government-linked militias. The former, according to UN officials, are predominately Christian, and the latter–led, though led is too strong a term, by rebel alumnus Michel Djitodia–are Muslim. This tragic divide prompts a familiar vocabulary. The Rwandan ambassador to the UN, no stranger to genocide, observed, “I had the impression it is like in 1994 at home.”
If CAR’s conflict is a prototype of genocide, the UN’s comments are a typical response. We–those who concern themselves with mass violence–define genocide through impression, and impression only. An event looks like genocide–a slaughtered minority, a violent speech, unmitigated reprisals–and so it must be. But genocide does not describe mass violence; rather, genocide describes the identity of those who commit violence, and its meaning for those who bear its scourge. Genocide is real, as identity is real, but it is also invented–by its participants, by its victims, by its survivors, and, perhaps most relevantly, by us, its global bystanders.