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Nation Topics - Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing

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The twentieth century was arguably the bloodiest in modern history,
earning from one commentator the moniker of the Age of Barbarism. From
the Nazi genocide, to the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, to the
"ethnically cleansed" areas of the former Yugoslavia, the twentieth
century was one of unprecedented horror for many.

Mass slaughter of civilians is, of course, much older than these
horrors. The modern world brought about by European expansionism, the
famed Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad once observed, is a time of
extraordinary unrecorded holocausts. How many of us, for instance, are
familiar with the deaths of upward of 10 million in the
Belgian-controlled Congo in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries? Or how about Australia's extermination of the indigenous
population of Tasmania? The decimation of inferior races in settler
colonies, brought about by Western imperialism and the associated
legitimizing ideologies, in fact, contends Sven Lindqvist in his
brilliant Exterminate All the Brutes, ostensibly laid the
groundwork for Hitler's crimes by creating particular habits of thought
and political precedents.

What was unique to the twentieth century--and thus the subtitle of
Samantha Power's very impressive "A Problem From Hell": America and
the Age of Genocide--
was the invention of the very word "genocide"
and its establishment as a legal construct outlawing one of the most
egregious forms of state terror. That represents a great advancement in
the construction of international law and associated political and
juridical mechanisms, but the fact that genocide continues to occur and
to go unpunished speaks to the difficulties of giving life to a legal
regime.

While the parties most responsible for this shortcoming are those that
perpetrate genocide, Power focuses much of her opprobrium on the party
that is in her estimation best positioned to put an end to or at least
significantly curb such horror: the US government. "No US President has
ever made genocide prevention a priority," she writes, "and no US
President has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its
occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."

The myriad horror stories of this age of genocide have many ugly
characters, several of whom Power profiles in her well written and
extensively documented book. But there are also many heroes, namely
those within and without the US government who have spoken the
proverbial truth to power with the goal of making Washington appreciate
or acknowledge--and thus take appropriate action--that genocide was
taking place in the various case studies that Power carefully details.

Perhaps the biggest hero in Power's book is Raphael Lemkin. A Polish Jew
who as a young boy had a fascination with the history of mass
slaughters, Lemkin became a lawyer and international legal scholar. He
set out to ban the destruction of ethnic, national or religious groups,
to end the national sovereignty-granted impunity of state actors
who perpetrate such atrocities and to insure universal jurisdiction for
their prosecution.

Forced to flee his homeland when the Nazi army invaded in 1939, Lemkin
ended up in the United States soon thereafter. He worked indefatigably
to bring attention to and to record Hitler's extermination of Jews,
while urging Americans to do everything they could to put a stop to it.
At the same time, he endeavored to invent a word to characterize such
slaughters, one that, in Power's words, "would connote a practice so
horrid and so irreparable that the very utterance of the word would
galvanize all who heard it." When he coined the term "genocide" in 1944,
Western governments and political pundits quickly embraced it. This led
Lemkin to assume that actions to codify the term and fight the practices
comprehended in it would quickly follow. He soon learned that he had a
long fight on his hands--one that he waged incessantly until he died,
penniless, in 1959.

Before his demise, however, Lemkin saw the United Nations General
Assembly pass the genocide convention on December 9, 1948, the body's
first passage of a human rights treaty. And less than two years later,
the necessary twenty countries had ratified the convention, making it
international law. But he did not live to see the United States ratify
it, a necessary step, Lemkin thought, to insure its enforcement, given
American power. Indeed, it would not be until 1988 that the Senate did
so, but not before attaching a set of reservations, understandings and
declarations that insured that the United States itself could never be
charged with the crime, thus rendering American approval largely
symbolic.

The architects of the convention understood the danger of making
Hitler's crimes the standard by which to determine future genocides.
States must be able to identify as genocide acts aimed at destroying "in
whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group"--the
legal definition of the crime--well before they have the chance to reach
such a scale in order to trigger appropriate actions. (The convention
enjoins its signatories to take measures to prevent and punish the
crime.) Despite such intentions, the link between genocide and Hitler's
so-called Final Solution "would cause endless confusion for
policy-makers and ordinary people who assumed that genocide occurred
only where the perpetrator of atrocity could be shown, like Hitler, to
possess an intent to exterminate every last member of an ethnic,
national or religious group."

While the Hitler-standard problem did help to undermine effective
responses by American officials and opinion-makers to various
post-World War II genocides, there were other dilemmas as well,
including the difficulty of believing reports of horrific slaughter.
Even in the face of extensive and graphic media coverage, Power writes,
"American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to
muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil." In addition, there
is a tendency to assume, before the fact, that the would-be perpetrators
of genocide are rational actors who will not engage in horrific terror;
that traditional diplomacy can resolve the crisis; and that civilians
who keep a low profile during the conflict will survive. At the same
time, cold geopolitical calculations underlie official reactions, and
they often spin the violence as two-sided, a result of age-old hatreds
and thus inevitable, while arguing that any type of serious intervention
would be futile and even counterproductive. Thus, not only does
Washington abstain from sending troops but it also takes very few steps
along a continuum of potential interventions to deter genocide.

This nonresponse, Power demonstrates, is not something unique to the
presidencies of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, who emerge looking
especially bad. It manifested itself to varying degrees in all the cases
she examines, beginning with the Ottoman Turks' slaughter of almost a
million Armenians in 1915. The United States under Woodrow
Wilson--despite being well informed of Turkey's crimes--did not support
the Allies' condemnation of Turkey's crimes against humanity, lest such
support undermine American neutrality. Disregarding the pleas of
Washington's ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, the Wilson Administration
refused even to issue a direct government-to-government appeal to cease
the killings or to pressure the Turkish authorities to allow
humanitarian aid deliveries to Armenians driven from their homes and on
the brink of starvation. For Power, Wilson's nonresponse "established
patterns that would be repeated."

But as Power illustrates, it was not simply that the United States did
nothing. Often Washington indirectly and directly aided the
genocidaires. In Cambodia, for example, the US bombing that
preceded Pol Pot's seizure of power "killed tens of thousands of
civilians." While horrific in its own right, "it also indirectly helped
give rise to a monstrous regime" responsible for the deaths of upwards
of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. And in the case of Iraq's
slaughter of the Kurds, the Reagan White House dismissed reports of
Saddam Hussein's gassings and other atrocities while maintaining aid to
his regime, preferring to maintain its unholy alliance with Iraq in its
war with Iran. The year after Saddam's forces decimated several thousand
Iraqi Kurdish villages and killed close to 100,000 Kurdish civilians
(1987-88), Washington, now under Bush Sr., actually doubled the
amount of agricultural credit it had been providing to Saddam's regime,
increasing it to more than $1 billion.

In other cases, the United States helped to undermine effective
international responses to genocide. Perhaps the most shameful case was
that involving the Clinton Administration during the 1994 slaughter in
Rwanda, which involved the killing of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and
moderate Hutus in the span of 100 days, making it the fastest, most
efficient killing spree of the twentieth century. Clinton, whom Power
inexplicably refers to as "a committed multilateralist," one with "faith
in the United Nations," did everything he could to avoid doing something
constructive. Throughout, and similar to their conduct through much of
the Serb-perpetrated atrocities in Bosnia, Administration officials
feigned ignorance of what was going on. US intelligence reports had
warned Washington of the likelihood of mass killings in Rwanda.
Nevertheless, Clinton refused Belgium's request to reinforce the small
UN peacekeeping mission to the country. And once the killing started,
the Administration denied almost until the end that genocide was taking
place, despite full knowledge to the contrary. To do otherwise would
have required that Washington take appropriate action. Instead, the
Administration insisted that UN peacekeepers withdraw from Rwanda and
then refused to authorize the deployment of a stronger UN force. It was
not until the Rwandan Patriotic Front had driven most of the
perpetrators out of the country and seized power in the capital that
Clinton ordered the closing of the Rwandan Embassy in Washington and the
seizure of its assets.

In her investigation, Power justifies her choice of case studies by two
key criteria: that each meets the terms of the 1948 genocide convention;
and that it presented the United States with the options for meaningful
diplomatic, economic, legal or military intervention. But as we shall
see, it is questionable whether all her cases satisfy the criteria.

In terms of the first, to suggest that what took place in Kosovo was a
genocide, or would have been had NATO not intervened, is a highly
contentious issue in the international legal and human rights community.
As for the Khmer Rouge, while they were guilty of killing large
percentages of the country's Muslim Chams, Vietnamese and Buddhist
monks, the bulk of their human targets were alleged political enemies.
In this regard, these killings would not form part of a genocide, at
least through the narrow criteria of the 1948 convention.

As Power explains, the architects of the genocide convention made the
explicit decision to exclude political groups--a move actively supported
by Lemkin. They did so in order to insure the support of many countries,
largely those of the Soviet bloc and some from Latin America as well,
that feared the inclusion of political groups would inhibit the ability
of states to suppress armed rebellions within their boundaries. It
appears that Lemkin was sympathetic to neither the underlying
assumptions nor the implications of such an argument but supported it
for pragmatic reasons--a position that Power seems to share. This might
explain why she has no problem including the horrors inflicted by the
Khmer Rouge under the general rubric of genocide. But given this more
flexible notion of what constitutes genocide, it begs the question of
why Power chose the cases she did in laying out her argument and ignored
other possible instances.

This question also relates to the second criterion for her choices,
namely that the United States had a variety of options available for
meaningful intervention. Here, Power is treading on even weaker ground
in some instances.

On Rwanda and Bosnia, Power makes her most convincing case that there
were concrete steps the United States could have taken that would have
had significant effects in lessening the bloodletting. In other
instances she examines, however, such as those of the Nazi and Khmer
Rouge holocausts, she is less convincing. Regarding Cambodia, for
example, she contends that the Khmer Rouge were less immune to outside
criticism than was claimed by American authorities. In this regard, she
argues that "bilateral denunciations by the United States may well have
had little effect on the Khmer Rouge's internal practices.
Unfortunately, because so few US officials spoke out publicly against
the genocide, we cannot know." In terms of the Nazis, Power appeals to
conventional wisdom and suggests that Washington could have done things
to prevent Hitler's crimes, but makes no serious effort to persuade the
reader or to engage the literature that has called such arguments into
question. As Peter Novick argues in his much-acclaimed The Holocaust
in American Life
, the various ex post facto proposals for rescuing
Jews from Nazi clutches ignore what were very real constraints at the
time and often would have been of little practical use. Substantial
rescue efforts, Novick contends, would have had a marginal effect at
best. (Nevertheless, he asserts, it would have been worthwhile to carry
out the proposed actions; but they would have saved 1, or perhaps 2
percent at most, of those who died.)

Power applauds US action loudly in the case of Kosovo. Indeed, she
argues that hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost had the
United States and its NATO allies not engaged in the bombing campaign
against the Serbs. She offers no substantiation for this claim. And, of
course, how could she? Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Kosovo
chapter, however, is that she does not engage any of the critiques put
forth by the likes of Noam Chomsky and other commentators--many writing
in this magazine--that there were alternatives to the NATO action, ones
that would have been consistent with international law and might have
actually lessened the killings and expulsions that increased
dramatically after the start of the bombing, to say nothing about its
effects on Serb civilians. At the very least, Power should have
presented and grappled with such arguments. Hardly anyone contends that
Milosevic & Co. were not capable and guilty of enormous brutality.
Indeed, Power graphically shows how Serb forces put this capacity to
horrific and massive use in Bosnia and the fatal consequences of the
failure of the West to acknowledge the bloodshed and respond
appropriately. In this regard, mass killings in Kosovo were arguably a
distinct possibility. But the question remains, Were there courses of
action other than that taken up by Washington and its NATO allies?

Power understandably feels outrage at international and, more
specifically, American inaction in the face of mass killing. With an
American audience in mind, she challenges the reader to do
something--whatever is in her power--to suppress and/or bring to justice
those responsible for the slaughter of innocents. She makes a compelling
case for a collective moral, as well as an international legal,
obligation for the US government to do so. But this also raises what is
perhaps the biggest problem with "A Problem From Hell": Even
though she acknowledges that the United States sometimes directly and
indirectly aids genocidal regimes, the overall effect of her examples
and the manner in which she frames the book is to situate Washington as
an outsider to such horrors. In the book's final pages, for example, she
asks, "Why does the United States stand so idly by?" In this sense,
Power's choice of cases is quite safe. Had she looked beyond the
parameters of the conventional and examined instances in which the
American role in mass slaughter has been less that of a bystander and
more that of a partner-in-crime perpetrator, her call for greater levels
of US intervention would seem at best unpersuasive and at worst
hypocritical and potentially dangerous. Three cases--those of Indonesia,
East Timor and Guatemala--illustrate this point.

Led by General Suharto, the Indonesian military and the civilian militia
that it armed and directed engaged in one of the worst bloodlettings of
the postwar era. Over the course of several months in 1965-66, they
slaughtered members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) along with
members of loosely affiliated organizations (women's groups, labor
unions, etc.). While Indonesia's holocaust does not meet the strict
guidelines of the genocide convention, the scale and nature of the
killing spree were undoubtedly genocide-like, similar to the bulk of the
Khmer Rouge's crimes in Cambodia. Amnesty International estimated "many
more than 1 million killed." The head of the Indonesian state security
system approximated the toll at half a million, with another 750,000
jailed or sent to concentration camps. The American political
establishment welcomed the slaughter and the emergence of Suharto's New
Order, with Time hailing it as "the West's best news for years in
Asia."

The United States had effectively helped to lay the groundwork for the
military's seizure of power through its interference in Indonesian
affairs and support for the military over the years. Washington had also
long urged the military to move against the PKI. Accordingly, it
supplied weaponry and telecommunications equipment, as well as food and
other forms of aid, to the Indonesian Army in the early weeks of the
slaughter. The American embassy also provided the military with the
names of thousands of PKI cadres who were subsequently killed.

About ten years later, the Indonesian Frankenstein that Washington had
helped to create decided to invade Indonesia's tiny neighbor of East
Timor. Rather than just looking away, as Power incorrectly reports in
her one reference to East Timor, Washington aided and abetted an
international crime of aggression. While this has long been alleged, the
recent release of formerly classified documents by the Washington-based
National Security Archive now proves that then-President Gerald Ford and
Henry Kissinger, his foreign policy czar, gave Suharto the green light
for the December 7, 1975, invasion while meeting with him the previous
day. Over the following quarter-century, various US administrations
provided billions of dollars in weaponry, military training and economic
assistance to Jakarta during its more than two decades of occupation.
And in the early years of the slaughter, a time described by an
Australian government body as "indiscriminate killing on a scale
unprecedented in post-World War II history," Washington took
concerted steps to insure that the UN did not take effective action to
end Indonesia's annexation. The result was the death of well over
200,000 East Timorese, about one-third of the preinvasion population.

And, finally, Guatemala. There, more than 200,000, most of them
indigenous Mayans, lost their lives in the context of a brutal conflict
between a US-backed military oligarchy and a guerrilla force during the
1970s and '80s. The 1999 report of the internationally supported
Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that the
state was responsible for over 90 percent of the deaths and had
committed "acts of genocide." The commission also found that American
training of members of Guatemala's intelligence apparatus and officer
corps in counterinsurgency "had significant bearing on human rights
violations."

Because Samantha Power excludes cases like these from her analysis, she
seems to have little problem endorsing American global dominance and, on
the basis of such, calling for the United States to take the lead in
battling genocide. At the very end of an excellent chapter on the grisly
slaughter by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica, for example, Power lets
Senator Bob Dole explain why the United States finally became involved
in helping to end the terror in Bosnia. "Because we happen to be the
leader of the world," Dole stated.

Clearly there is a problem with Washington taking the lead in fighting
something it has helped to perpetrate on numerous occasions, and for
which it has never atoned, apart from a halfhearted admission of
wrongdoing (but not an apology, by Clinton in the case of Guatemala).

Simply because the United States has been complicit in gross atrocities
in the past does not mean, of course, that it is therefore incapable of
doing good, if even for the wrong reasons. But it does mean that we
should remain extremely skeptical of American leadership on the global
stage. As the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict painfully
demonstrates, what Washington calls American leadership is, as often as
not, unilateralist, bullying, obstructionist. All of these manifest
themselves in Washington's acceptance of Israel's flouting of
international law regarding its ongoing occupation and dispossession of
the Palestinian people. The United States has long been a principal
obstacle to an internationally acceptable solution, and it has done what
it can to prevent a multilateral approach to resolving the conflict.
Such antipathy toward international law and political institutions means
that "genocide prevention" could turn out to be just another instrument
in Washington's empire-maintenance tool kit.

If one of the main objectives of Power's book is to get the United
States to take a more active role in ending mass slaughter, surely it
would seem to be more efficacious--as well as principled--to begin by
scrutinizing cases in which the United States has been directly
involved. In this regard, her appeal to the American political
establishment on the basis of morality and enlightened self-interest
(genocide, she argues, causes regional and international instability,
something bad for the United States) is ill conceived. Ending
Washington's role in the slaughter of innocents requires struggling
against American militarism and unilateralism, as well as against
Washington's refusal to submit to international security and legal
mechanisms that would have even a remote possibility of holding US
officials accountable. The US refusal to sign on to the recently
established International Criminal Court and to cooperate with efforts
by a number of countries to question Henry Kissinger regarding various
international crimes is merely the latest manifestation of such
obstructionism.

This is not to suggest that if we could get the American house in order,
the world would be fine. As Power's book shows, there are plenty of
"evildoers" to go around. Something must be done to stop them, yes, but
it should be a truly international project. The best place to start is
at home, but not by first and foremost asking Washington to intercede
abroad. Demanding a US foreign policy consistent with international law
and human rights standards, as well as international accountability for
American officials who may have engaged in war crimes and crimes against
humanity, is the first step. Doing so will also increase the likelihood
of international cooperation in cases championed by Washington.

Finally, it is not obvious why mass killing that falls under the rubric
of genocide should be paramount in terms of international prevention and
adjudication. Power does not claim this explicitly, but it is a fair
conclusion to draw given that she does not discuss other terrible crimes
against humanity that result in massive loss of life. Why, for example,
should Serbian crimes in Bosnia be more worthy of scrutiny and demands
for accountability than, say, the US war against Vietnam, which caused
the deaths of 2-3 million civilians? In this regard, we must be
careful that the need to suppress and seek justice for genocide does not
prevent us from seeing all mass killings of civilians, no matter who
commits them, as unacceptable, and from acting accordingly.

Certainly...get him hanged! Why not? Anything--anything can be done
in this country. --Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness

So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications
couldn't be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and
II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget
that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of
darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it,
until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That's old news. It
was old even before the "short Twentieth Century," which began amid
nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin
came down. It's hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe's second
Thirty Years' War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace,
while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had
become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid
waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by
refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place
like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.

What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don't: Mass death,
massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the
whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in
countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all
these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East
Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which
hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like
Congo--and most important of all, they're doing it to one another. Even
when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two
superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history
(though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands),
and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and
Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other
without (at least initially) involving us at all.

We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there;
that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without
pity. We've more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only
remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or
too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral
obligation to intervene for their own good?

With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to
the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory
devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems
complete. So it's hard to know whether to respond with a spark of
elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers--Mark
Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist--have begun
an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last
centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with
Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional
historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem
largely ignorant of one another's work. Yet their solitary efforts have
much in common.

They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West's now
largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work
represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective
near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the
West to that of the Third World--especially to Africa, that continent
where for so long whites knew that "anything" could be done with
impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe
might have been previewed.

Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers
has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three
of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish
seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed
one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century
published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the
four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that,
in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but
reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so
re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern
moment conveniently makes no sense.

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During the Kosovo crisis of last year, it was commonplace if not routine to hear two mantras being intoned by those who had decided that "never" would be about the right time to resist ethnic cleansing with a show of force. We were incessantly told (were we not?) that NATO's action would drive the Serbs into the arms of Slobodan Milosevic. And we were incessantly told (were we not?) that the same NATO action would intensify, not alleviate, the plight of the Kosovar refugees.  Now there has been an election that was boycotted by almost all Kosovars and by the government of Montenegro. And even with the subtraction of these two important blocs of opposition voters, it is obvious that Milosevic has been humiliated, exposed, unmasked, disgraced.

Holly Burkhalter

Holly Burkhalter has more than twenty years' experience in the human rights field.

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