Kuper, Leo

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Kuper, Leo

[NOVEMBER 24, 1908–MAY 23, 1994]

Genocide scholar and activist

Leo Kuper's concern with the prevention of genocide was that of an academic and an activist. His pioneering scholarship influenced the development of a distinctive interdisciplinary field of genocide studies. He also worked to create public awareness on the nature of genocide that would lead to very early warnings and action to prevent, suppress, or punish it.

Kuper was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. He received his B.A. and L.L.B. from Witwatersrand University, graduating in 1931. Kuper then practiced law until 1940, defending human rights victims and representing one of the first interracial trade unions. During World War II he served as an intelligence officer in the Eighth Army.

In 1947 Kuper completed his M.A. in sociology at the University of North Carolina and soon thereafter became a lecturer at the University of Birmingham in England, where he earned a doctorate in sociology. He returned to South Africa in 1952, serving as a professor of sociology at the University of Natal, and remained there until 1961. At the 1960 World Congress of Sociology, Kuper presented a paper that outlined hypothetically a sociologist's recommendations on how best to increase racial tension in South Africa, and went on to show that the policies of the National Party government could be regarded as their very implementation. This exercise of the sociological imagination engendered considerable interest in his work.

Two of Kuper's studies on South African society, Passive Resistance in South Africa (1957) and An African Bourgeoisie (1965), were banned by the government. When racial tests were imposed on universities, Kuper wrote a satire on the newly segregated universities, College Brew (1960), and reluctantly decided to leave his country. In 1961 he accepted an appointment as a professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he remained until his retirement in 1976.

In California, Kuper developed a sustained interest in genocide. Given his background, it is no surprise that Kuper's interest was both academic and practical, and his writing both analytical and prescriptive. Concerned with the international community's approach to genocide, Kuper attended sessions of the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights as a delegate of the accredited human rights organization, the Minority Rights Group (MRG). This experience provided an exposure to member states that informed his later thinking on genocide.

Kuper published three works on genocide in the early 1980s: Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century (1981), regarded as his most important work; International Action against Genocide (1982); and The Prevention of Genocide (1985). Kuper's academic work on genocide returned him to his legal roots and thrust him into the arena of international relations, as he described how states pursued their own interests, even when supposedly acting on behalf of humankind. His comments on the drafting of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, based on a reading of the negotiations leading to it, are particularly telling. He concluded that diplomats negotiated a treaty that was ambiguous, weak, and lacking a guardian that might preserve its integrity within the UN system.

Kuper also studied genocides that occurred before and after the Genocide Convention's entry into force, analyzing risk factors and preventive measures. He concluded that "the sovereign territorial state claims, as an integral part of its sovereignty, the right to commit genocide, or engage in genocidal massacres, against peoples under its rule, and that the United Nations, for all practical purposes, defends this right" (1982, p. 161). Kuper recognized the UN Secretary-General's role in making intercessions and the humanitarian relief that the UN provided for refugees from genocide. However, he also demonstrated how the UN often stood by, acceding to states' claims to territorial integrity or to the enforcement of law and order, while genocide unfolded beneath its gaze.

Kuper made a number of suggestions for preventing genocide. He suggested that the UN devise an early warning system, drawing on the impartial observations of potential genocides linked with procedures to raise the alarm that could monitor situations and undertake initial preventive measures. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) could enlist sympathetic states to press the UN and delinquent governments. Informed public opinion could develop emergency campaigns to avert the genocide. Should the genocide escalate, then all possible means should be employed to suppress it. This would include the normal range of bilateral and inter-governmental measures, including UN Security Council sanctions. In addition, Kuper advocated a resort to forceful humanitarian intervention by states together or alone in extreme circumstances.

His study of genocide completed, Kuper sought to apply his findings to its prevention. In 1985, with the help of fellow sociologist Lord Young of Dartington, he established International Alert in Los Angeles and London to alert decision makers and public opinion to the advent of genocide. He was also a founding member of the International Council of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide, which had similar aims.

Kuper died on May 23, 1994. His final weeks saw South Africa's peaceful transition to democracy, a vision Kuper had maintained throughout apartheid's worst hours. Those weeks also witnessed the start of the genocide in Rwanda, a tragic vindication of all that Kuper had argued for in the field of genocide prevention.

SEE ALSO Holocaust


Kuper, Leo (1982). Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Kuper, Leo (1984). International Action against Genocide. London: Minority Rights Group.

Kuper, Leo (1985). The Prevention of Genocide. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Bernard F. Hamilton