The shock of the Holocaust provided the impetus for the formal recognition of genocide as a crime in international law, thus laying the basis for intervention by judicial process.1 As a result, says Leo Kuper in Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century, the declared purpose of the [UN Genocide] Convention, in terms of the original resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, was to prevent and punish the crime of genocide.2 The UN Convention defines genocide as follows:
Genocide means 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; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The development of the Genocide Convention was a major milestone in the protection of basic human rights, despite its extremely broad and compromised nature (for example, after much debate, political groups was excluded from its wording and members of such groups from its protection).3 The sad fact is, however, that implementation of the Convention has been sorely ineffective, and the post-Holocaust world has witnessed the perpetration of one genocide after another in which millions have been brutally murdered.
Among the many places where genocide has occurred in the past half century are: Indonesia (1965-1966), East Timor (1975-1979), Bangladesh (1971), Burundi (1972), Cambodia (1975-1979), Rwanda (1994), and Bosnia-Herzegovina (early 1990s). Moreover, this list of large-scale genocides does not touch upon the many small indigenous groups that have been subjected to both genocide and ethnocide in recent decades.
More often than not, the international community has failed either to intervene when genocide was being perpetrated or to subsequently hold the perpetrators accountable for their actions. While one cannot be sanguine about the prospects for ending genocide, there are at least glimmers of hope in the commitment of some individuals and groups to staunch the mass bleeding of humanity. At the same time, there are counter forcessome subtle and some overtthat are bound to pose barriers in any attempt to come to grips with the problem.
Barriers to Ending Genocide
Most responsible world leaders decry the act of genocide. The problem is that they seem to do so after the fact, that is, after an act of genocide has been committed and members of the targeted group are lying dead in the tens to hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Indeed, during those periods when genocide is actually being carried out, it almost seems as if world leadersincluding those at the United Nationsare time and again playing out a deadly and scurrilous game of see no evil, hear no evil.
Undoubtedly, there are numerous reasons why world leaders, both individually and collectively, persistently ignore both the early warning signs of an impending genocide as well as the actual genocidal events. These include, but are not limited to, the following: (a) the concept of so-called internal affairs and the related issue of the primacy of national sovereignty, which cause many nations to hesitate before becoming involved in another nations internal affairs; (b) the hesitancy to commit ones troops to a dangerous situation; (c) the lack of care regarding the problems of a nation whose geopolitical status is deemed insignificant; (d) the wariness of many nations at entering into agreements that could, at some point, subordinate national sovereignty to international will; and (e) a myriad of other reasons related directly to the concept of realpolitik.
Not surprisingly, the issue of internal affairs is often used by genocidal nations to keep outsiders at bay, and by bystander nations as an excuse for not acting to prevent the genocide. In effect, the group perpetrating genocide is asserting, This is our business, not yours [e.g., the international communitys], and we will handle our problems as we wish. Conversely, and while possibly sickened by the actions of the genocidal state, the onlooker nations are, in effect, saying, As disturbing as the situation is, it [the perpetration of genocide] is their problem, not ours. Left unsaid but subsumed under the latter is the notion that We dont want other nations poking their noses in our business, and thus we wont poke our nose in theirs.
The trouble with this attitude is that it ignores the central tenet of the Genocide Convention that genocide is a crime under international law. More specifically, Article 1 of the Convention states: The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish. The problem, as Kuper notes, is that The doctrine of humanitarian intervention, [which] may be defined as the right of one nation to use force against another nation for the purpose of protecting the inhabitants of that other nation from inhumane treatment by their governing sovereign, is clearly in conflict with the cardinal principles of respect for national unit, territorial integrity, and political independence.4 Until this thorny issue is resolved, the intervention of outside nations to prevent genocide is bound to remain problematic.
Hesitancy on the part of a nation to commit its own troops to a dangerous situation (e.g., where genocide is taking place in another nation) also acts as a deterrent vis-a-vis intervention. A classic case of late was the Clinton Administrations decision not to intervene in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia because of the so-called Somalia factor. As Neier explains:
[I]n October 1993, the Somalia factor reappeared when eighteen Americans were killed in battle with the loyalists of a Somali warlord...Amid cries that America could not be policeman to the world, the episode gave Washington an additional reason not to deploy Americans in Bosnia...[R]etreat from the plan to intervene with force in Bosnia left the new president looking weak and inept. Accordingly, supporting the idea of a war crimes tribunal became...opportune to the Clinton Administration. It was a way to do something about Bosnia that would have no political cost domestically.5
The same situation was reportedly at work regarding the Rwandan genocide:
... The United States ... heard early warnings of the slaughter but resisted getting involved until it was far too late ... It was the Americans, stinging from their failed peacekeeping operation in Somalia in 1993, who put up the most resistance to getting involved in Rwanda in the spring of 1994, aides to Mr. Annan [Secretary-General of the United Nations] said privately.6
As cynical as it sounds, nations may also ignore genocide when it is perpetrated in a locale deemed of little or no geopolitical significance. Again, the genocide in Rwanda provides such an example.
There is also the wariness of many nations to enter into agreements that could, at some point, subordinate national sovereignty to international will. A case in point is the fact that the United States did not ratify the UN Genocide Convention until 1988, due to the fact that within the United States suspicion of international law has remained a potent political force.7 This issue is obviously tied to interest in preserving ones own internal affairs from interference by other nations.
Finally, there is a wide array of other reasons for nations to act tentatively about preventing and/or intervening in genocide that relate to perceived national interest, or realpolitik. As Charny trenchantly notes:
Without doubt, one of the greatest obstacles to progress is the fact that, with few exceptions, leaders and governments employ self-interest cruelly and unashamedly...
[For example, as of 1988] the United States remained a supporter of Pol Pot [the architect of the Cambodian genocide between 1975-1979] as the vested leader of the
Cambodian people so as to undermine the standing of the Vietnam-supported government of Cambodia. This left the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and Cuba trying to unseat the Pol Pot representation...Prior to the time that Vietnam fought against Pol Pot, the same Soviet Union was supporting the Agrarian Peoples Government of Pol Pot despite the reports of massive genocidal killing, while the United States was bringing to bear impassioned spokesmanship for human life and liberty against him.8
Up until the mid-1990s, the international communitys record on bringing perpetrators of genocide to justice was nothing short of dismal. The examples are many and include those leaders responsible for genocide in Uganda (Idi Amin), Cambodia (Pol Pot, Leng Sary, Khieu Samphan, and Non Chea), and Bosnia-Herzogovina (Radovan Karadzic and Rakdo Mladic). However, the Cambodian government did recently arrest Ta Mok, a top military commander in the Khmer Rouge, and plans to try him.
In 1993, the UN Security Council established a war crimes tribunal in The Hague to prosecute individuals responsible for serious violations of international humanity law in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991. As Neier has observed, this decision set a precedent for the world body: it was the first time in its forty-eight year history that it tried to bring anyone to justice for committing human rights abuses.9 Equally significantly, The charter for the ex-Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal...uses language from the UNs 1948 Genocide Convention, even though the Convention itself was never invoked before Bosnia.10
In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the UN Security Council established a second tribunal in Tanzania to prosecute those who committed genocide and crimes against humanity in that nation. The new Rwandan government also established its own tribunal. As positive as these developments are, all have had their share of problems.
Two of the major figures responsible for the genocide in the former Yugoslavia (those named above), as well as more than half of the 62 other men indicted on war-crimes charges, have evaded capture.11 Many of those who best understand the situation, including senior United States diplomats, have argued that no lasting peace is possible in Bosnia until Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic are brought to justice.12
As for the situation in Rwanda:
[Over] 120,000 Hutu people have been arrested in Rwanda over the past [four] years on genocide charges stemming from the four-month bloodletting in 1994 in which at least 500,000 Tutsi died....Since January of 1998, the Rwandan courts have tried more than 200 people, handing out death sentences to about 40 percent and life in prison to about 30 percent. About 1 in 20 defendants has been acquitted.
But the Governments relative success in training new judges and bringing cases to trial has not eased the legal crisis here, nor has it brought about reconciliation between the ethnic groups...With ethnic war raging in this hilly nations western provinces, the police and the Tutsi-dominated military continue to arrest more than 1,000 Hutu a month on various genocide charges, shoving them into already teeming prisons, where most await hearings without formal charges lodged against them. At the present rate of trials, it would take 500 years to try all the defendants.13
Though rife with limitations, each tribunal is undoubtedly a major step toward facing up to and addressing the profound need to punish those who commit genocide. For a detailed and highly readable discussion of the war crime tribunals and related events, see Aryeh Neiers War Crimes: Brutality, Genocide, Terror, and the Struggle for Justice.14
The Study of Genocide
Approximately 25 years old, the field of genocide studies is eclectic in nature and involves a small group of scholars working on numerous fronts in an attempt to understand those factors that culminate in genocide. Most are also committed to developing the means for intervening in or preventing future genocides from taking place. Thus far, and understandably so, scholars in the field are making more headway in regard to understanding causes than in achieving the desired effects.
One major undertaking by scholars has been an effort to develop a more useableand some would say, accuratedefinition of genocide. For example, some agree with the late Leo Kupers inclusion of political groups in the definition on the ground that political affiliation can be as permanent and as immutable as racial origin.15
Scholars have also engaged in ample debate over the use of the word intent in the UN Genocide Convention. Numerous scholars have argued that the inclusion of the term intent is problematic in that genociders brought to trial could argue that they had no intent of committing genocide, thus opening a loophole to wiggle out of prosecution.
Another major area of study has focused on the predictable conditions as to when genocide will take place.16 If scholars can detect the conditions under which genocide is likely to be perpetrated, then it may be possible to prevent a situation of geopolitical upheaval from slouching toward genocide. Some of the situations that scholars have noted as being ripe for genocide include: war; colonization; tribal conflict; periods of extreme nationalism; struggles for power between ethnic, racial, or religious groups within a single country; consolidations of despotic regimes; and economic expansion.17
Hand-in-hand with trying to ascertain when genocides are likely to take place, some scholars have also attempted to distinguish between various categories of genocide. For example, early in the development of the field, sociologist Helen Fein distinguished between four major categories of genocide: (1) developmental genocide, where the perpetrators clear the way for the colonization of an area inhabited by an indigenous people; (2) despotic genocide, where the perpetrators clear away the opposition to their power as in a political revolution; (3) retributive genocide, where peoples are locked into ethnic or other dominance-submission struggles; and (4) ideological genocide.18 Still other scholars have examined the nature of societies in which genocide is perpetrated.19
Early Warning Systems
As humanity moves into the 21st century, it is still struggling to determine the most effective means for intervening in and/or preventing genocide from being perpetrated. As previously noted, numerous scholars are examining situations and signals that need to be monitored in order to detect whether various geopolitical situations are likely to erupt into genocidal acts.
Some of the specific signals that may come into play include: (1) ongoing civil and human rights violations, particularly those that target specific groups of people (as was common during the Nazi reign of reign of terror during the Holocaust years); (2) newspaper articles or radio commentaries that systematically disparage, malign, or attempt to ostracize a particular group (again, this use of media for organized propaganda was common during the Holocaust); (3) radio reports that incite violence against a particular group of people (as happened in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide); (4) sporadic and violent attacks against a particular group of people by government or government-sponsored forces; and (5) ethnic cleansing, wherein a targeted group is forced en masse from their homes, communities, and region (as took place in Cambodia in the mid-1970s and the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s).
Among the many ideas that have been proposed as possible means for preventing or intervening in genocide are:
> the establishment of a Genocide Bureau (or genocide early warning system) that would monitor hot spots around the globe that have the potential to explode into genocidal acts; 20
> a Committee on Genocide that would periodically report on situations likely to result in genocide and/or actual genocidal actions,21 and that would be empowered to indict a State against which charges of genocide were raised;22
> the convening of mass media professionals to examine and develop more effective ways of disseminating information about genocidal acts;23
> a specially organized and systematic effort to collect first-person accounts of targeted groups, relief workers, and journalists in areas where a potential genocide was brewing;24 and
> the development of a World Genocidal Tribunal that would have the authority to try individuals as well as governments that have committed genocide.25
Although some of these ideas were spawned as early as 1982, none of them have as yet been implemented. That said, two real advances have been made.
First is the establishment of International Alert (IA), whose initial mandate was both to alert world public opinion and government leaders as to potential genocides and to implement conflict resolution programs in areas of on-going violence with the potential to explode into genocidal massacres. For over a decade, IA has quietly gone about its work in various parts of the world to attempt to resolve internecine violence and other types of conflict. For some reason, IA has not acquired the same stentorian voice as Amnesty International in alerting the worlds populace to serious human rights infractions, but that is possibly due to the fact that it has focused more on the second part of its its mission.
Second, in June 1998, the United Nations established the first International Court, a permanent body on call to deal with rogue leaders in a systematic way so that a mastermind of death like the late Pol Pot would not pose a jurisdictional problem if caught.26 As positive as this move was, heated disagreement over the wisdom of subordinating national sovereignty to international will placed a damper on the establishment of the court.
[A]long with half a dozen other nations including Iraq and Libya, the Americans voted against setting up the new court. The Clinton Administration, especially the Pentagon, feared that there were not enough safeguards to prevent American soldiers from being brought to trial for acts committed in the line of duty abroad. A Republican-led Congress would go further, saying that no American should even be subjected to international legal proceedings. (italics added)27
Another hope for preventing future genocides lies in the use of satellite photos for the express purpose of detecting early signs of ethnic cleansing, such as the rounding up of large groups of people and the presence of earthmoving equipment at new excavation sites in close proximity to these people. Satellite photos could also detect where dead bodies have been buried during a genocidal action.
The Role of Teachers in Addressing Genocide
With few exceptions, most teachers who address the issue of genocide focus on the Holocaust. In many ways, this is understandable. First, the Holocaust is one of the most (if not the most) documented events in the history of humanity. Second, and this is obviously related to the first point, a plethora of books, essays, first-person accounts, films, curricula, teacher guides, and other adjunct materials are available for use by teachers. Third, numerous documentaries, feature films, and television mini-series on the Holocaust have captured the interest of educators and students alike, thus creating a strong constituency for focusing on the tragedy of the Holocaust. Fourth, the Holocaust was perpetrated by a Western nation against its own citizens and people of neighboring countries, providing a focal point that is of great interest to other Westerners. Fifth, many survivors of the Holocaust live in the United States, and teachers and students with access to them have been extremely moved by their stories. Sixth, the recent establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has generated a tremendous interest in this event among not only students and teachers, but the general public.
Two other genocidal events studied at the secondary level, but to a much lesser extent than the Holocaust, are the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks (1915-1919) and the Khmer Rouges slaughter of their own people (1975-1979). Even fewer study the Soviet man-made famine in the Ukraine (1932-1933). Most other genocides perpetrated in this century appear to have been consigned to a black hole of forgetfulness in the schools.
Why? Many genocides do not have a constituency, let alone a strong constituency, calling attention to them. Very few materials addressing such genocides have been designed for use in secondary schools. Many high school teachersnot being specialists in particular periods of history, geographical areas, or the field of genocide studiesare, understandably, not aware of such events with the possible exception of those perpetrated during their lifetimes. Moreover, the issues inherent in each genocidal event are complex, and it is not easy to ascertain the antecedents that led up to and culminated in the genocides.
What, then, are teachers to do if they want to extend the study of genocide beyond the Holocaust? First, they should seek out key works about genocide in order to become familiar with the major genocidal events and conversant with the key issues in the field of genocide studies. Second, it is helpful to obtain a few key texts for classroom use that provide both an overview of genocide and insights into theories about it. Third, rather than focusing on the same genocidal act every semester or year, teachers could engage students in study of different occurrences of genocide. Fourth, students should be encouraged to conduct individual and/or small group studies into specific genocides and present their findings to the class.
Some teachers and students may be interested in founding a student-led Amnesty International Adoption group. In such groups, students work on the behalf of prisoners of conscience across the globe. Although the main focus of such groups is a wide range of human rights violations and not only genocide, such work provides students with powerful insights into problems faced by nations and individuals across the globe, some of which lead to genocidal acts. (For information about student A.I. Adoption Groups, contact Amnesty International USA at 322 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10001; email@example.com; or 212-807-8400.)
Finally, when studying any genocide, it is imperative never to forget that behind the massive and frequently numbing statistics of the dead are individualsmen, women, and children; mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandmothers and grandfathers, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. As this writer has written elsewhere, to comprehend the enormity of genocide, any study must move from a welter of statistics, remote places and events, to one that is immersed in the persona#146; and particular.28
With the ratification of the UN Convention on Genocide in 1948, there was widespread hope that the crime of genocide would become a thing of the past. Sadly, that hope proved naive; the latter part of the twentieth century has been as bloodyif not more sothan the first half.
It is easy, of course, to point ones finger at bystanders of genocides in the past. It is more difficult to look in the mirror and admit that ones country and oneself are doing nothing to ward off a modern genocide.
However much we hope for it, we simply cannot assume that our government or the United Nations is going to act for us to counteract genocide in a timely fashion, if at all. It becomes imperative, therefore, for individuals to act on their own accord, or preferably, in concert with others who do not want to see humankinds worst actions repeated.
1. Leo Kuper, Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 20.
2. Ibid., 36.
3. Ibid. For a detailed discussion of the many problematic aspects of the definition settled upon by the United Nations, see Chapter 2, The Genocide Convention.
4. Leo Kuper, Theoretical Issues Relating to Genocide: Uses and Abuses, in George J. Andreopoulos, ed., Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 31-46.
5. Aryeh Neier, War Crimes: Brutality, Genocide, Terror, and the Struggle for Justice (New York: Time Books, 1998), 129.
6. James C. McKinley, Jr., Ugly Reality in Rwanda: Leadership in Denial over Ethnic Genocide, The New York Times (May 10, 1998): 4.
7. Neier, 122.
8. Israel W. Charny, Intervention and Prevention of Genocide, in Israel W. Charny, ed., Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review (New York: Facts on File, 1988), 20-38.
9. Neier, 21.
11. Tim Weiner, U.S. Drops Plan to Raid Bosnia to Get 2 Serbs, The New York Times (July 26, 1998): 1, 8.
13. James C. McKinley, Jr., Massacre Trials in Rwanda Have Courts on Overload, The New York Times (November 2, 1998): 3.
14. See Neier for a highly readable discussion of the war crime tribunals and related events.
15. Leo Kuper, The Prevention of Genocide (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985).
16. Israel W. Charny, The Study of Genocide, in Israel W. Charny, ed., Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review. (New York: Facts on File, 1988), 1-19.
17. Ibid., 4-5.
18. Helen Fein, Scenarios of Genocide: Models of Genocide and Critical Responses, in Israel W. Charny, ed., in collaboration with Chanan Rapaport, How Can We Commit the Unthinkable?: Genocide, The Human Cancer (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984), 3-31.
19. Irving Horowitz, Genocide: State Power and Mass Murder (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1976; revised under the title Taking Lives, 1980).
20. Gerald Knight, A Genocide Bureau, text of talk delivered at the Symposium of Genocide (London: March 20, 1982).
21. Knight; Ben Whitaker, Revised and Updated Report on the Question of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1985/6, 2 July 1985).
22. Charny, Interventions and Prevention.
23. Charny, How Can We Commit the Unthinkable?
24. Samuel Totten, Introduction, in Samuel Totten, ed., First-Person Accounts of Genocidal Acts Committed in the Twentieth Century: An Annotated Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991), xi-lxxv.
25. Luis Kutner and Ernest Katin, World Genocide Tribunal: A Proposed for Planetary Preventive Measures Supplementing a Genocide Early Warning System, in Israel W. Charny, ed., Toward the Understanding and Prevention of Genocide: Proceedings of the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984), 330-346.
26. Barbara Crossette, Dictators (and Some Lawyers) Tremble, The New York Times (Nov. 29, 1998.
28. Samuel Totten, The Personal Face of Genocide: Words of Witnesses in the Classroom, Special Issue on Genocide: Issues, Approaches, Resources, Social Science Record 24, No. 2 (1987):63-67.
Charny, Israel W., ed. Encyclopedia of Genocide. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio Press, in press. The Encyclopedia of Genocide addresses a wide-range of critical issues germane to all facets of genocide. Most of the noted scholars in the field of genocide studies have contributed entries to this pioneering volume.
Kuper, Leo. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981. 255pp. A classic in the field, this book addressees such issues as the genesis of and controversy over The Genocide Convention, theories of genocide, social structure ad genocide, the genocidal process, related atrocities, the sovereign territorial state and its relationship to genocide, and what it will take to develop a non-genocidal society.
Kuper, Leo. The Prevention of Genocide. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985. 286pp. In this volume, Kuper examines such critical issues as the right to life, dynamics of ideological conflict, the performance of the United Nations in preventing genocide, and punishment and prevention.
National Council for the Social Studies, Social Education 55, No. 2 (February 1991). Special Issue on Teaching About Genocide guest edited by William Parsons and Samuel Totten. Includes over 15 articles by noted scholars and educators on various aspects of genocide, including but not limited to: Teaching and Leaning About Genocide: Questions of Content, Rationale an Methodology, Genocide: An Historical Overview, Genocide Intervention and Prevention, and articles on the Armenian genocide, genocide in Burundi, the Holocaust, the genocide of the Gypsies by the Nazis, and the genocide in Cambodia.
Neier, Aryeh. War Crimes: Brutality, Genocide, Terror, and the Struggle for Justice. New York: Times Books, 1998. 286 pp. In this highly readable and significant work, the author, a Holocaust survivor and long-time human rights activist, examines, through the lens of the recent events in the Balkans and Rwanda, the ineffectual response of the international community to one human rights tragedy after another that has been perpetrated in this century. In doing so, he examines such critical issues as the problematic nature of amnesty for the perpetrators, the issue of realpolitik in addressing human rights infractions and bringing perpetrators to justice, and the need and means for bringing perpetrators to justice.
Totten, Samuel, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny. Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997. 488pp. This book includes critical essays by specialists on fourteen of the major genocides perpetrated in the twentieth century. First-person accounts accompany each essay.
Samuel Totten is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
The photos in this article were taken at Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site near Munich, Germany, in 1997. The subjects in order are: a section of the Monument by Nandor Glid; a bas relief with the Biblical inscription, Was sucht ihr den Lebenden bei den Toten or Why seek ye the living among the dead (Luke 24:5); and a wall bearing the admonition Never Again in five languages. Together, these memorials bear the poignant message that we remember the victims of the Holocaust for themselves and in the hope of preventing future genocides.
Photographer: Jessie Rothwell.
©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.