We know a lot about genocide. So why do we keep letting it happen?
April is the cruelest month, apparently. Over the past four weeks an extraordinary cluster of dates has prompted a flurry of remembrance. The twenty-first anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda (April 7). The centenary of the Armenian genocide (April 15). Holocaust Day (also April 15). The fortieth anniversary of the start of the mass slaughter of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge (April 17). So what is it about this particular time of year?
That’s one minor mystery we’ll probably never get to the bottom of. But no matter – it pales into insignificance against the bigger questions that these commemorations confront us with. Why do people persist in killing each other on such a grand scale? And why do we keep allowing it to happen?
There are, in fact, those who would argue that we’ve made a lot of progress in preventing mass slaughter. The globalization of media and the power of information technology, writes Paul Stares of the Council on Foreign Relations, now make it “much harder for those contemplating mass atrocities to believe their actions will go unnoticed and unpunished.” He points out that the international community has created institutions designed to bring killers to justice, such as the International Criminal Court, as well as establishing new legal norms for intervention, such as the Responsibility to Protect. And the United States has elevated the prevention of atrocities to one of its major foreign policy objectives.
These are all entirely valid points, and I don’t want to be too harsh on Stares, who acknowledges that we have a long way to go. Yet I have to confess that I don’t find the signs of progress he cites quite so encouraging. There are far too many places in the world where people are still being singled out for death on a grand scale simply because they belong to the wrong group.
“As far as genocide is concerned, I think we’ve learned a lot intellectually,” says Ugur Ungor, a scholar at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “We have a pretty good understanding of how it starts and how it ends. But this increasingly sophisticated understanding hasn’t led to a safer world, one where we can prevent the escalation of violence.”
As I write this, the death toll in Syria’s four-year civil war has risen well past the 200,000 mark. Three million people have fled the country, and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced – astonishing figures for a place with a prewar population of 23 million. As Ungor points out, one could argue that there are actually two parallel genocides going on in Syria and its immediate neighborhood right now: one perpetrated by President Bashar al Assad against his own majority Sunni population, the other by the Islamic State against groups that it doesn’t consider to be Sunni enough. The world has plenty of information about what’s going on there, but the killing continues unabated.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan have all experienced recent outbreaks of mass violence, and the problems underlying those conflicts remain largely unresolved. The government of Sudan continues to wage war on minority groups in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains; in 2009 the International Criminal Court indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes committed by his government in Darfur, but last year the court was forced to climb down, citing “inaction” by the United Nations. Burundi is currently experiencing severe tension between Hutus and Tutsis, two groups with a long and lethal history of mutual animosity. So far, thankfully, the situation there hasn’t boiled over into mass bloodletting. Is the international community ready to intervene if it does?
Meanwhile, just this very week, Burma’s harsh treatment of the Muslim minority group known as the Rohingya has prompted observers to speak of “early warning signs of genocide.” Such warnings might seem a bit overheated: There are some 1.3 million Rohingya in the country, while those killed in sectarian strife since 2012 number in the low hundreds — scandalous enough, but still quite a way from 1970s Cambodia.
But it’s hard to dismiss the experts’ fears when you consider the government’s apartheid-like policies towards the Rohingya — and, above all, the way that some Burmese talk about them. “Muslims are like the African carp,” the extremist Buddhist monk Wirathu told a journalist not long ago. “They breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.” He may hate Muslims, but his words are reminiscent of those used by Abu al-Zarqawi, the Al-Qaeda terrorist and now-deceased godfather of the Islamic State, who just a few years ago described Iraqi Shiites as “snakes.” IS atrocities against Shiites as well as Yezidis, Christians, and Kurds, all of whom it targets for persecution based purely on their religious beliefs, signal a distinctly ominous intent.
As experts often explain, mass slaughter sometimes begins with one group systematically denying the humanity of another. Vladimir Lenin referred to the kulaks, the independent farmers the Soviets aimed to starve into submission, as “bloodsuckers” or “vampires.” The Red Guards in China’s Cultural Revolution called their class enemies “pigs,” “parasites,” and “dogs.” The Nazis dismissed Jews as “vermin.” The Hutu killers in Rwanda in 1994 labeled their Tutsi victims as “cockroaches.” Writing off members of a particular group as pests is a key step on the path to exterminating them.
The potential consequences of this sort of murderous hate speech ought to be eminently clear to everyone by now. But the Wirathus and the Zarqawis of the world couldn’t care less. As Ungor points out, there are still plenty of homicidal thugs in positions of power and influence who simply aren’t prepared to let go of their hatreds – despite our admirable awareness of past crimes.
So can we at least deter them? Early warning systems are one potential solution. Two years ago the Obama Administration set up something called “the Atrocities Prevention Board,” which is designed to coordinate U.S. policies when mass slaughter appears to be in the offing. Yet so far the body doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference – certainly not as far as the continuing scandal of Syria is concerned. Supporters claim that the APB has contributed to stronger U.S. responses in the Central African Republic and northern Iraq, but skeptics counter that’s hard to tell, given the agency’s general lack of transparency.
To be sure, increased awareness of the conditions that lead to mass slaughter is a step in the right direction. We can also say the same of the international tribunals and the Responsibility to Protect. And yet, as Ungor points out, “I don’t see any evidence that President Assad, sitting in his palace outside Damascus, is really worried about either.”
The reason is simple. The brutal reality is that the countries in a position to prevent mass slaughter often see little reason to get involved if doing so might threaten their broader interests. That was true in Cambodia forty years ago, when great power rivalry in Southeast Asia prevented any sort of coherent response to the Khmer Rouge holocaust, and it’s still true in Syria today. And until we solve that larger problem, we won’t be able to assure ourselves that we’ve lived up to the oft-repeated vow: “Never again.”
The sad reality is that there are far too many cases in which the perpetrators of mass slaughter have escaped paying a price for their crimes. “In most genocides,” says Ungor, “people have gotten away with murder.”
In the photo, a tourist takes a photo beside portraits of Khmer Rouge victims at the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh.
Photo Credit: TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP/Getty Images