‘I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.’ – Raphael Lemkin
On July the 11th, Muslim Bosniaks commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. The Bosnian War raged as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to crumble. Bosnian Serb forces entered Srebrenica, a designated United Nations ‘safe area’ and subsequently executed approximately 8,000 Bosniak Muslim boys and men. The intent was clear; destroy Srebrenica’s male population in a coldly efficient, planned manner. The massacre was utilised diplomatically to manufacture consent for NATO’s bombing campaign over Bosnia. Regardless of opposition to this campaign, or any imperialistic NATO intervention for that matter, the horror of Srebrenica undoubtedly constituted an act of genocide.
Right now, the Muslim Rohingya people of Myanmar are suffering in the midst of a continuing genocide. The Rohingya’s very existence as a distinct group is being officially denied by the highest levels of the Myanmar government. Freedom of movement, marriage and childbirth are being restricted. The Rohingya are being denied the basic necessities required to sustain life and are trapped in concentration camps. These official policies of discrimination are expediting popular hatred and violence towards the Rohingya, who are being persecuted by both state and non-state actors.  Darling of western democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, has outright dismissed the idea that ethnic cleansing and genocide is taking place in Myanmar.  Responding to a Human Rights Watch report on the Rohingyas’ plight, she told the BBC’s Mishal Husain that ‘the world needs to understand that the fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well.’ By creating a false equivalency, Aung San Suu Kyi is engaging in a ploy typically used by genocide deniers. The construction of mistruth deflects responsibility of genocide from perpetrators to victims. In 1915, the Ottoman Turkish government cast the Armenian minority as a fear-inducing rebellious security threat. Successive Turkish governments have since perpetuated this cruel myth as a fundamental element to the official policy of genocide denial.
The Indonesian occupation of West Papua, which began in 1963, triggered the ongoing genocide of indigenous Papuans. Basic human rights are absolutely denied. The threat of rape, torture and imprisonment is constant. To date, more than half a million civilians have been murdered. The Yale Law School presented a research paper to the Indonesian Human Rights Campaign in 2004. The findings state that ‘in the available evidence a strong indication that the Indonesian government has committed genocide against the West Papuans’.
These current events are, unfortunately, part of a long history of crimes against humanity that stretches back to brutal colonial legacies.
In 1933, the Kingdom of Iraq’s armed forces systematically massacred between 600 and 3,000 Assyrians in northern villages. In response to the atrocities, Raphael Lemkin, a young Jewish lawyer, made a presentation to the League of Nations on the Crime of Barbarity as a crime against international law. Lemkin’s presentation was informed by an exhaustive study of the coordinated extermination of more than a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government. In 1939, Lemkin joined the Polish army and was wounded defending the city of Warsaw from Nazi invaders. He evaded capture and settled in the United States, but his family was shattered by the Holocaust: 49 relatives were murdered.
Personal tragedy, coupled with extensive knowledge of past atrocities, compelled Lemkin to coin the term ‘genocide’ as a description of the systematic destruction of a nation or ethnic group. The idea of genocide as a crime against international law was one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 260, codifying the concept of genocide in what is now known as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as:
any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Resolution 260 was the result of Lemkin’s tireless work and he imagined its passing would safeguard the futures of millions of oppressed people from genocidal power structures; Never Again.
However, the noble mantra of Never Again cannot be applied to humanity’s collective experience following World War II. The processes of genocide have been repeated, again and again.
Between 1969 and 1973, the United States pulverised the Cambodian countryside in an attempt to smash Vietnamese Liberation Front supply routes, dropping over 2.7 million tons of explosives and killing hundreds of thousands. Popular support for the Khmer Rouge guerrilla group increased dramatically in the aftermath of Uncle Sam’s mass slaughter and the rebels ascended to power in 1975. The Khmer Rouge sought ‘purification of the populace’ and the Cambodian Genocide led to the deaths of 2 million people.
During the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, hundreds of thousands of Bengali citizens were systematically murdered, many by paramilitary groups that fought alongside the West Pakistan Army. Declassified documents show that United States diplomats working in Bangladesh at the time described the events that were unfolding as genocide. This view is not contentious; the academic consensus is that genocide took place.
Burundi’s post-independence history is scarred by two episodes of genocide. The democratic aspirations of nation’s Hutu majority had been frustrated by the Tutsi’s monopoly on state power. In 1972, a violent Hutu rebellion broke out and martial law was declared. The Tutsi-controlled armed forces began the systematic murder the Hutu elite, and then attacked the civilian population. Between 80,000 and 210,000 were killed. In June 1993, the first Hutu government was formed in the country, led by Melchior Ndadaye; the president was assassinated in October of the same year. His party structures responded violently, deliberately targeting Tutsi civilians. The murder of 25,000 was called a genocide by the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi.
The Rwandan Genocide unravelled over a 100-day period in 1994. The colonial strategy of divide and rule in Rwanda drastically accentuated ethnic differences between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. In order to consolidate their own filthy hold on power, the Belgians utilised elements of the Tutsi minority as their collaborators, promoting hatred and prejudice. An identity card system was introduced, formalising the Hutu/Tutsi distinction. When Rwanda won its independence in 1962, the Belgians had already cynically shifted their support to the Hutu majority in an attempt to retain economic gain and influence. A Hutu dominated republic was created and 300,000 Tutsi fled into exile in neighbouring countries. The exiled Tutsi would ultimately form the core of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and wage guerrilla war against the Rwandan Army in the early 1990s. On the 6th of April, 1994, Rwanda’s Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana was assassinated. The RPF was blamed for the attack and the long prepared for genocide against the Tutsi minority began within a few hours. Organised by the government and military, the Interahahmwe paramilitary group conducted much of the killing. These violent extremists were aided by the presidential guard and local populations. Roadblocks were erected and the spurious identity cards, introduced by the Belgian colonial administration, facilitated systematic murder. By mid-July, approximately 800,000 had been slaughtered.
In order to understand why the process of genocide has been replicated so frequently, it is necessary for us to reach further back into history and accept some ugly truths.
Our self-declared champions of human rights are themselves soaked in the blood of past genocides, the narratives of which have been cynically obscured or suppressed. While Raphael Lemkin utilised contemporary examples of the Armenian experience and the Holocaust to define genocide, he also understood the process of colonisation as being ‘intrinsically genocidal’. He writes:
Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals.
Today’s supposed beacons of democracy and freedom were yesterday’s imperial monsters, colonising huge swathes of the globe and subjugating hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples; complex civilisations decimated by campaigns of unfathomable genocide.
We can look to the Spanish invasion of the Caribbean and Americas, which began when the devil’s flagship ran aground off the coast of Hispaniola in 1492. The native Taino population of 8 million was obliterated by diseased, marauding Spanish forces who enslaved and murdered in the name of their white God and the fanatical pursuit of gold. Columbus organised his heavily armoured troops, cavalry and attack dogs into efficient death squads. Bartolomeo de Las Casas, a missionary who witnessed the horrors writes, ‘It was a general rule among Spaniards to be … extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings’.
The organisation of perpetrators into groups of methodical mass murderers and the identification of victims as anything but human is a theme that recurs throughout every shameful episode of genocide. By 1535, the entire Taino population had been exterminated. This nightmarish pattern was repeated throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America. Historian David Stannard outlines the scale of the American Holocaust:
By the time the sixteenth century had ended perhaps 200,000 Spaniards had moved their lives to the Indies, to Mexico, to Central America and points further to the south. In contrast, by that time, somewhere between 60,000,000 and 80,000,000 natives from those lands were dead.
We must recognise the genocidal campaigns of the British, French and post independence Americans against the indigenous civilisations of North America. The methodology of the past echoes that of today; native peoples were violently removed from their ancestral lands, often culminating in forced marches, enslavement and massacre. Disease and starvation was cultivated through overcrowding in concentration camps. Legal rights were negated. Native American culture was strangled; families were robbed of their children who were destined to be ‘enlightened’ in boarding schools, braids were symbolically cut off, native languages and ceremonies were outlawed and forced religious conversion was commonplace. Again, David Stannard provides the devastating statistics to emphasise the scale of the horror visited upon North America’s indigenous peoples. He states that by 1900, ‘about one third of one percent of America’s population – 250,000 out of 76,000,000 people – were natives.’
Britain’s eighteenth and nineteenth century colonial expansion in Australia can be defined as nothing other than genocide. The British declared Australia terra nullius, empty land. This declaration was an indicator of the violence that would unfold. Indigenous Australians, one of the oldest living populations in the world, were not considered human by the white supremacist colonisers. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defined Aboriginal man as ‘an animal of prey. More ferocious than the lynx, or the hyena, he devours his own species.’ The legal categorising of Indigenous Australians as animals meant they were accorded absolutely no rights; they were ultimately recognised as citizens following a national referendum in 1967. A people boasting the planet’s most enduring continuous culture was systematically targeted by genocidal death squads. A pattern of mass murder and fearless guerrilla resistance was set. Where armed forces failed to quell Indigenous resistance, chemicals such as strychnine, phosphorus and arsenic were used. Indigenous people in Tasmania were all but wiped over a fifty-year period between 1804 and 1854. In Queensland, the specially formed Native Mounted Cavalry slaughtered approximately 10,000 Indigenous Australians. The Native Mounted Cavalry can be likened to the Special Organisation, an Ottoman special forces unit that massacred Armenians during the Armenian Genocide, and the Einsatzgruppen, responsible for implementing Hitler’s maniacal final solution in Nazi occupied territories. The genocide of Indigenous Australians continued into the twentieth century. Echoing the strangulation of Native American culture, Indigenous children were stolen from their families by federal and state government agencies from 1909 to 1970, as a means towards eradication of blackness and white racial ‘purity’. The Bringing Them Home report from the Australian Human Rights Commission estimates that ‘between one in three and one in ten’ children were victims of this evil policy.
King Leopold II of Belgium’s private control and subsequent plunder of the Congo between 1885 and 1908 further strengthens the argument that colonisation is intrinsically genocidal in nature. Leopold ordered the feverish extraction of Congolese ivory, rubber and minerals for sale on the world market, enriching himself in the process. This fanatical exploitation of a land he never had, or would set foot in, meant enslavement, disease and murder for the Congolese people. The population, exhausted by forced labour and malnourishment, regularly succumbed to the pestilence of European colonists. During the rubber boom, enslaved Congolese that failed to meet rubber quotas were forced to watch as their children’s hands were severed by Force Publique sentries. Further failure signalled outright massacre, often of entire villages. The number of deaths attributed to Leopold’s brutal reign varies. As Adam Hochschild writes, ‘Few officials kept statistics about something considered so negligible as African deaths.’ With the guidance of professor Jan Vansima’s authoritative research on the subject, Hochschild goes on to estimate that 10 million Congolese lives ended as a direct result of Leopold’s genocidal brutality.
The German colonial machine also perpetrated genocide on African soil. In Namibia, the Herero and Namaqua peoples rebelled against the uncivilised barbarity they were subjected to by white savages. The German response was to deploy a heavily armed force, under the command of Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha. An official extermination order was issued, it read, ‘Within the German boundaries every Herero, whether found with or without a rifle, with or without cattle, shall be shot’. Those who survived the massacres were condemned to die in concentration camps, often transported to those hellish places in cattle trucks. An estimated 90,000 Herero and Namaqua were killed. In 2004, the German government officially apologised to the Herero and accepted that what its forebears inflicted upon them was genocide.
When looking at what we can term early modern genocides, I would argue that the transatlantic slave trade should too fall under this definition. This is sadly contentious amongst some, who argue that the system was one of exploitation, rather than one of extermination. However Lemkin himself, the man who coined the term ‘genocide’, argues that slavery is cultural genocide: ‘slavery may be called cultural genocide par excellence. It is the most effective and thorough method of destroying a culture, and of de-socialising human beings’.
Enslavement was both cultural and physical genocide. It was not a process from which eventual freedom was intended, but was a death sentence. It is estimated that 12 million enslaved Africans were victims of the most hideous expression of white supremacy. However, despite being torn from ancestral homelands and transplanted into a system in which their humanity was absolutely negated, enslaved Africans resisted the cultural genocide inflicted upon them. This was achieved through the retention of African beliefs, dance, music, philosophy and science. Women were fundamental in the passing of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next, and this knowledge served as a coping mechanism. Today, African Americans still suffer from the legacy of their ancestors’ enslavement. The frequency with which black women and men are brutalised by a racist ‘justice’ system is indicative of this infuriating reality. These stories of both survival and the on-going struggle of peoples who were the subject of early modern genocide is evident across the still-colonial societies of North America and Australia.
An examination of early modern genocides emphasise that these dreadful processes offered future power structures blueprints for systematic extermination of victim groups. The methodology deployed by the imperial monsters has been replicated throughout the twentieth and into the twenty first century. Those who physically enact genocide are organised from above, into chillingly efficient death squads. Victim groups are always identified as less than human. They are categorised as animalistic, bacterial, cancerous and savage. This policy of dehumanisation is necessary in manufacturing the wider consent for mass murder. Effective propaganda and hate speech creates a climate where bystanders either do nothing, or contribute to the killing. Concentration camps, death marches, enslavement and sexual violence are all recurring features of genocides throughout history. The systematic extermination of a people is not a singular catastrophic act, but a terrible process with the ultimate goal of annihilation. Being able to implement the genocidal process with impunity ensures that it will be repeated elsewhere. When addressing his generals before the invasion of Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler asked: ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’
Lemkin, Raphael. 2008. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: pg 79.
 Stannard, David. 1992. American Holocaust: pg 70.
 Ibid: pg 95.
 Ibid: pg 146.
 Pilger, John. 1992. A Secret Country: pg 33.
 Hochschild, Adam. 1999. King Leopold’s Ghost: pg 226.
 Ibid: pg 233.
 Ibid: pg 282.
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Robert Kazandjian is an educator and writer. He works with vulnerable children in North London. His writing seeks to challenge inequality, in all its guises. He has previously written for Ceasefire Magazine on racism in Israel, gender politics and hip hop music, and the necessity of Armenian Genocide recognition. He blogs poetry at makemymark.tumblr.com. He cites Douglas Dunn, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin and Nas as major influences. He tweets from @RKazandjian
This article was edited by Sunili Govinnage
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