Some things we know about genocide 10 years, 10 lessons

In 1998, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) appointed an International Panel of Eminent Persons to investigate the genocide that had occurred in Rwanda four years earlier. Several months later, the panel asked me to write their report.

In 1998, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) appointed an International Panel of Eminent Persons to investigate the genocide that had occurred in Rwanda four years earlier. Several months later, the panel asked me to write their report.

First conceptualised as a relatively brief statement, the report was subsequently published as a 300-page history of Rwanda from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st.

In order that there be little ambiguity about its conclusions, the eminents agreed with my suggested title for the report. It was called ‘Rwanda: The preventable genocide’.

I had previously shown what I imagine to be the conventional interest in the Holocaust, at least for a Jew, and had read as widely about the subject as my primary obligations permitted.

For many years I made it a point to read at least a book a year about the Holocaust. But since histories, memoirs, novels and plays on the subject continue to pour off the printing presses with no apparent sign of slowing down, I never considered myself anything more than a casual browser in the grisly subject.

At the same time, I knew next to nothing about other genocides. I knew something about the German annihilation of the Hereros of South-West Africa in 1904 from my academic work on African history.

So far as I can now recollect, I didn’t have a clue about the Armenian genocide by the Young Turks; I can’t even say I was aware it had happened.

My longstanding interest in the way Joseph Stalin had betrayed the Russian Revolution introduced me to the famine in the Ukraine, but once again the issue of genocide was marginal at best.

Despite  perpetually trying to keep abreast of African matters, I had never heard a word about the anti-Tutsi pogroms unleashed by the new Hutu rulers of Rwanda in the 1960s, and certainly knew nothing whatsoever about the vast massacre in 1972 of educated Hutu by the Tutsi soldiers  who ran Burundi, which some consider to be the first African-inflicted genocide.

I was very much aware of the pathological reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, but that was related to my fury at US aggression against Vietnam and the secret bombings of Laos and Cambodia.

I remain persuaded that Pol Pot and company would probably not have been able to seize control of the country without the destabilisation caused by American B-52s, and I still consider this to be among the many counts against Henry Kissinger that the International Criminal Court (ICC) should be warranting.

But whether the Khmer were guilty of genocide
according to the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was not my major concern.

The same was true of the 1965 massacres by the Indonesian army of perhaps half a million so-called communists, along with countless ethnic Chinese who ran much of the country’s commerce – the opposite of communists.

In other words, the American embassy in Jakarta was smack in the middle of that one too, giving the killers lists of alleged communists, whom they duly murdered.

The slaughter of political rivals could be called ‘politicide’, though under Soviet pressure the 1948 convention had dropped the proposed use of that designation.

I knew and wrote about this appalling tragedy, but it was the insidious role of the US that most troubled me. For some reason, I read long ago – and still own – Robert Payne’s Massacre, a harrowing account of the vicious 1971 Pakistani attack on what was then East Pakistan which resulted in millions of Bengali deaths and countless rapes.

Many Indians and Bangladeshi have always considered this a genocide. I’m less certain, and Payne didn’t use the word, but concepts like ‘politicide’ and ‘femicide’ certainly seem to apply.

I acknowledge sheepishly but frankly that the genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi largely floated beyond my consciousness in 1994; I was immersed in reviewing the Ontario education system for the province’s (New Democratic Party) NDP government and had eyes for little else.

But I was quite aware of the Bosnian Serb massacre, now judged genocidal, of  8,000 Bosniak males a year later in Srebrenica. But I had also better concede that for much of the time I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the decade-long Balkan crisis.

All this changed with the OAU panel. For my report I spent some time reading in the literature of genocide generally, most of which I never knew existed.

Once the task was completed and the report released, it soon enough struck me that for a lifelong social and political activist, the real purpose of knowing something about genocide was to have something to say about genocide prevention, which is what in fact motivates most scholars in this gruesome field.

Besides beginning to throw myself into reading, writing, thinking and discussing these issues, I developed and spent the better part of two years running a virtual international organisation called Remembering Rwanda, which was devoted to gathering attention around the world for the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in 2004.

That experience too influenced my thinking about the subject, as did the tragic emergence in 2003 of the Darfur crisis, which former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan began describing as early as the following year as ‘another Rwanda’.

Towards the end of 2008, the decade-old crisis in eastern Congo had also won the dubious distinction of being described as potentially ‘another Rwanda’, even while Darfur continued to smoulder. 

Whether or not either constituted a conventional genocide, both were horrific beyond words and demanded interventions that never materialised. Perhaps I should say ‘that of course never materialised’.

Working through my experiences and new understandings over these past 10 years, I find 10 lessons that help me convey some of what I’ve learned.

There are some who would create a hierarchy among genocides. This is an unworthy and unhelpful exercise. It is inherently divisive, insulting those whose genocide is considered somehow less monumentally terrible than one’s own.

We need, as historian Peter Novick put it in his remarkable book The Holocaust in American Life, no Olympics of victimisation. Instead of demanding a gold medal in suffering, we should seek the solidarity of victims. Those who have been targeted for total annihilation share a singularly terrible place in history.

Generally, most genocides are remembered, commemorated and fought against by their own survivors. This is no doubt human nature. It is especially true of Jews and Armenians. Rwandans are far more interested in the Holocaust than Jews are in the genocide of the Tutsi.

There are of course individual exceptions to this generalisation, and after largely ignoring the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, many Jewish organisations got active in seeking an end to the conflict in Darfur.

Every genocide on record was carried out by a combination of some sadistic and psychotic leaders and plotters – mostly but not solely men – and a majority of ordinary people.

Such people have been, and can be, found in every corner of the world. This includes the Europeans and Americans who decimated the native peoples of the Americas; the Europeans who ran the slave trade and the Americans who exploited those slaves (even without killing them all, slaves were by definition robbed of their humanity, thereby constituting genocide according to the 1948 convention); the German soldiers who forced the Herero people into the desert to die of thirst and the ones who later ran the death squads and death camps; the countless good citizens throughout central and eastern Europe who willingly became Nazi collaborators; the Hutu peasants who got caught up in their leaders’ propaganda and slaughtered their own friends and neighbours; and the Sudanese pastoralists who have been killing Darfuri villagers.

No one who has pledged ‘never again’ has ever lived up to the promise. The phrase has become the empty rhetoric of blowhard politicians and small-time dignitaries on solemn occasions.

Often these bloviations are repeated by those who have no capacity whatsoever to carry out the promise but who feel they are obligated to sound serious; instead, they just make themselves look ridiculous. Too often this solemn commitment is made by those who have real influence but have no intention to act on their vow.

In practice, almost no potential genocide has ever been prevented in advance and no ongoing genocide (loosely defined) has been halted by outside intervention. This is true of Armenia, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Primo Levi, a Jewish–Italian survivor of Auschwitz, first believed, and wrote, that because the Holocaust had happened, it could not happen again.

Later he understood the real logic of the Holocaust: precisely because it had happened, it could happen again. Rwanda happened.

Darfur became ‘another Rwanda’. The DR Congo may become ‘another Rwanda’ or – who knows? – perhaps another Darfur. There will be others, as sure as humans inhabit the globe.

Genocides always involve outsiders in certain ways, direct or indirect, immediate or historical. Rwanda is the most obvious example, given the role of the Catholic church and Belgium in exacerbating divisions between Hutu and Tutsi and France’s close cooperation with insiders in the Habyarimana government who were plotting the genocide.

In Congo, Mobutu Sese Seko, openly backed by the US and funded by the World Bank, was allowed to turn his mineral-rich country into an anarchic non-state where warlords and resource companies could conspire to plunder whatever the president left behind.

When in 1994 France allowed unrepentant Rwandan genocide leaders to escape into the DR Congo, the scene was set for the subsequent central African wars that have never ended. America’s secret bombing of Cambodia (and Laos) during the US invasion of Vietnam so destabilised the country that it allowed the Khmer Rouge to take over.

In other words, more often than not the Western world shares responsibility for the tragedy. The imperative to intervene follows from that responsibility, not from our vaunted superior morality or our humanitarianism.

Activists too easily scorn ordinary people who simply want to live their own lives. Not being involved in the crises of others is the default position for most of the world, and nothing else can be expected.

It is no doubt gratifying to look down on the majority as ignorant, indifferent or self-absorbed. It is more accurate to think of them as unaware, busy trying to cope with life’s adversities, and having their own perfectly reasonable priorities.

For most, coping with everyday life is hard enough. We should give praise to the minority who always emerge to join a campaign rather than being disappointed about and scornful of the majority who don’t.

As for the righteous, the surprising thing is not how few there are but invariably how many. The gentile who saved Jews, the Hutu whosaved Tutsi, the Congolese women who stand up to their rapists, the Zimbabwean human rights activists, these few show a courage unimaginable to most ordinary people.

How many among us would risk ‘doing the right thing’ if it meant risking imprisonment, excruciating torture or even death? How many would give their lives to save another’s?

It helps nothing to have unreasonable expectations of others when most of us would not act any differently in the same circumstances.

Ever since it was decided not to destroy the train tracks leading to the Nazi death camps, the powerful have always found good reasons not to intervene. Look at the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – those who really control most of the UN’s agenda – during the Rwandan crisis.

The Russians and Chinese didn’t give a damn, the French had their usual diabolical political agenda, the British slavishly followed the US line, and the Clinton administration, for  its own good partisan political reasons, was prepared to face any public humiliation and self-debasement rather than send reinforcements to bolster the existing puny UN mission. 

For Darfur, all five once again had reasons of self-interest, persuasive to themselves, to oppose any attempt to force the Sudanese government to call off its armed forces and Janjaweed militia.

China wants Sudan’s oil and its weapons market. Russia too wants to sell oil-rich Sudan weapons to use against Darfuris.

France plays its usual geopolitical games revolving around language.

Britain is content to follow the US leader, and the US plays an astonishingly two-faced game.

The Bush administration led the way in publicly declaring the Sudanese government to be guilty of genocide in Darfur, yet has worked actively and openly with the Sudanese intelligence and secret services on the ‘war on terror’.

The US State Department’s 2007 annual report on state sponsors of terror notes: ‘The Sudanese government was a strong partner in the War on Terror and aggressively pursued terrorist operations directly involving threats to US interests and personnel in Sudan.’

Why then did we expect the Bush administration to seriously undermine that same government? To add insult to injury, one of the states that has been most protective of the Sudanese government, both within the African Union and at the United Nations, is South Africa.

Important recent business ties between the two countries apparently take precedence, in the eyes of the South African government, over the atrocities orchestrated by Sudan in Darfur.

Determining a full-blown genocide along the lines of the 1948 convention can be very tricky and controversial. Even now there is disagreement over whether Darfur constitutes a genocide. Determining a crime against humanity is much less problematic or controversial.

It is widely agreed that the Sudanese government is responsible for committing or orchestrating appalling crimes against the Darfuri people. Strangely enough, an eloquent statement of this position was articulated by none other than Colin Powell.

In 2004, Powell, as secretary of state, informed the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the US had decided, based on evidence it had commissioned, that genocide was taking place in western Sudan. But he then added the following critical sentences: ‘Mr. Chairman … let us not be preoccupied with this designation of genocide.

These people are in desperate need and we must help them. Call it a civil war. Call it ethnic cleansing. Call it genocide. Call it “none of the above”. The reality is the same: there are people in Darfur who desperately need our help.’  Exactly.

This is why the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is potentially more effective than the Genocide Convention. Assuming the political will to intervene – a huge assumption – it is far easier if actual genocide need not be proven or agreed on.

Way back in 1935, already distressed by the impunity with which Adolf Hitler was re-arming Germany, Winston Churchill shared his deep frustration with the British House of Commons.

Human behaviour, he complained, demonstrated the ‘long dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind’. Imagine what he’d say almost three-quarters of a century later.

The record shows there is ample reason for great cynicism about the possibility of genocide prevention in the future, let alone ending the ongoing conflicts in Darfur or eastern DR Congo.

Heaven knows we have the tools, if anyone wants to use them: the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, the 2005 UN General Assembly Declaration on the Responsibility to Protect, the moral authority of Never Again, not to mention international outrage.

But none of these tools is worth a Zimbabwean dollar if the major international actors lack the political will to invoke them. To date, national self-interest has always trumped all other humanitarian considerations.

To complicate matters further, the American invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration, in the name of democracy and freedom, has significantly muddied the waters. It has become difficult to distinguish a genuine humanitarian invasion from an imperial adventure. 

The differing opinions on the Afghanistan conflict among women and men of goodwill are a fine example. These complications can’t be dismissed. 

Still, there are pretty clear-cut causes on the agenda at this very moment, eastern Congo and Zimbabwe being among the most obvious.

Humans being their own worst enemies – ‘I have seen the enemy and he  is us’ (Walt Kelly’s Pogo) – we can be only too confident that others will present themselves momentarily.

And then there is only one method of moving a recalcitrant or self-interested UN Security Council:public opinion, the weight of organised civil society making demands.

We must put so much pressure on our own governments that they willmake our concerns their own, and take them to the United Nations.Nothing else will work. It’s never easy, but yes, we can too.

* Gerald Caplan is the author of The Betrayal of Africa

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