15 September 2008

A Problem from Hell: A Brief History of Genocide in the Twentieth Century

In light of recent events in Sudan, I thought it might be fitting to take a look back at all of the times the US and other western nations vowed "Never Again" only to turn our backs as soon as the promise required any real action.

It was my freshman year of college and I had just finished reading An Ordinary Man, Paul Rusesabagina's autobiography. Sitting in my dorm lobby, I flipped through his list of recommended books - when the man who saved over a thousand lives during one of the most violent massacres of our time tells you to look into a book, you listen. In this list, Samantha Power's A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide is called "an indictment of the West's tendency to fold in the face of evil."

Without hesitation, I went to a bookstore and grabbed a copy. Decade by decade, Powers lists the genocides of the twentieth century, charting the complacency of the US throughout, citing government memos, many of which urge a willful ignorance of the slaughters.

So, with great gratitude to Ms. Power, here is a list of six distinct cases of genocide and six distinct failures of humanity.
  1. Armenia - During the early days of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire faced both enemies on the front lines and from abroad. Within the Armenian population, a small group of rebels, backed by czarist Russia, began fighting against the Ottoman government. As tends to happen in these situations, the government turned on the entire group of people, forcibly evicting Armenians from their homes and sending them, on foot, into the deserts of the Middle East. During this forced exodus, women were raped and entire families were killed. Notably, the Allies did condemn these "crimes against humanity and civilization" and the concept of "race murder" first came into being. To this day, the Turkish government refuses to recognize the Ottoman massacre of the Armenian population as "genocide".
  2. The Holocaust - World War II is the defining event of the twentieth century. And during Hitler's campaign of destruction, the world would not (and perhaps could not) bring itself to the realization that the Nazi government was leading a mass extermination of Jews, Africans, the Roma people, the handicapped, and anyone deemed to be a lower class of human. Given the tremendous amount of study devoted to this bleak period of history, I will cut discussion of this event short.* The resulting Nuremberg Trials came to set the path for acting on genocide: Wait until after the fact, then arrest a few perpetrators for show.
  3. Cambodia - Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge led a campaign of extermination against their own culture. Targeting all who were educated, wealthy, or connected in anyway to the pre-communist government, "reeducation" (read: torture) and mass killings were used to return the nation to an agrarian society. The US, in an attempt to maintain relations with China, was soft on the Cambodian government. Just as the US started to put pressure on the Khmer Rouge to stop the killing, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The West immediately condemned the invasion and sided with Cambodia. Noam Chomsky has stated that the reports of "killing fields" are anti-communist propaganda.
  4. Iraq - During the war with Iran and before the war with Kuwait, Saddam Hussein targeted the whipping boy of the Middle East - the Kurds. The Kurds, allegedly supported by the Iranian government, used the war as a distraction and attempted to gain independence from the Ba'athist government of Iraq. Saddam Hussein, along with other top officials, ordered attacks using chemical and conventional weapons on Kurdish villages, arrests and torture, and mass deportations. Following the invasion of Kuwait, the Kurds once again used the resulting war as a distraction, and were once again put down brutally. The Ba'athist regime also targeted other non-Sunni non-Arabic populations for oppression.
  5. Serbia/Bosnia/Kosovo** - Following Bosnian independence, Serbs living in Bosnia, backed by the Serbian government, took up arms and attempted to gain control of the new state. In so doing, the targeted Bosnian Muslims, deporting families, indiscriminatly bombing villages, raping women, and butchering men. After NATO and UN intervention, the Serbian government began to target ethnic Albanian seperatists in the region of Kosovo, using the same tactics used in Bosnia. It is worth noting that even with the UN and NATO presence, the war in Bosnia did not immediately cease - 1995 saw the massacre of Srebrenica. Many of the perpetrators remain at large and the region remains volatile today.
  6. Rwanda - Following years of Hutu rule and Tutsi rebellion (the distinction between the two "races" was made by Belgium colonists), the assassination of the Hutu president*** plunged the nation into a power vacuum in which Tutsis and "moderate" Hutus were killed. Within a hundred days, between 800,000 and one million people were killed. Europeans in the country were evacuated. After ten UN peacekeepers were killed, the UN mission was drastically downsized. The US avoided involvment by claiming that the goings-on were only "acts of genocide", not genocide itself. France sided with the perpetrators. The rest of the world ignored it.
This list fails to completely describe the attrocities of the twentieth century - a total number of lives lost to genocide is impossible to give. Many of the names of those killed are lost to history, known only but to God. And of the small number of people who stood up to do something, an even smaller number are named in the history books.

And it is because of these people that we do not know that we must act. It is because of these people that we will never know that we must act. It is because of these people that we were not allowed to know that we must act.

Never again will we watch Armenians die. Never again will we watch the "non-Aryan" die. Never again will we watch the Cambodians die. Never again will we watch the Kurds die. Never again will we watch the Bosnians and Albanians die. Never again will be watch the Rwandans die.

Never again will we say "Never again" only to never act.

Rock on.

*It is worth noting that while Power does not mention it, there is a very strong case for applying the term "genocide" to the Japanese action in the Pacific; namely, the attempt to destroy the native cultures of any and all conquered lands, most famously Korea and China, but let us also not forget the plight of the people of the Philippines and Pacific islands. Much like the government of Turkey, the Japanese government still refuses to admit any wrongdoing during this time.

**The situation in the Balkans is so incredibly complex and took place over such a long period of time (nearly a decade) that it recieves three fully devoted chapters in A Problem from Hell.

***The president was negotiating an end to the war with Tutsi RPF rebels. The assassination was blamed on the Tutsi, but some believe it was done by Hutu nationalists angry with the president and aiming to start a massacre.

Post Script: There are many excellent books about the problem of genocide, and I encourage you to do further research. But beyond that, I ask that you write your Representatives, Senators, and the President and encourage them to do research as well, looking not only into the problems in Sudan, but the Congo as well.

Photo: Poster distributed by the American Committee for Relief in the Near East during the Armenian genocide. Retrieved on Wikimedia Commons.

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