When the word genocide is invoked, many people might think of Rwanda 1994. In that genocide, the government of the country targeted a minority population for massacre during a civil war that had begun three years before, and killed hundreds of thousands of people, from both the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi populations. That government lost the civil war, and was replaced by the regime that still rules Rwanda today, the RPF government of Paul Kagame.
Others might think of the Nazi holocaust. In the holocaust, Germany invaded many of the countries of Europe, captured and killed millions of people. The German Nazi government, like the Rwandan government of 1994, lost the war, and was occupied by the very country (Russia) that it had invaded.
We remember these genocides. We remember their victims. We remember their perpetrators. There are museums dedicated to them, and academic scholarship, and media attention. We are taught the slogan, never again.
But these genocides are unique mainly because their perpetrators lost. In many cases, including recent cases, genocide has been a path to power, a way of achieving a goal. The perpetrators have power. No one is able, or willing, to stand up to them. This is frightening for the rest of us because the powerful can, in fact, get away with genocide.
Returning to Rwanda: Kagame’s RPF, which defeated the Rwandan government in 1994 and took over the country, massacred tens of thousands of Hutus in Rwanda in ‘reprisal’, in highly organized massacres. Then, in 1996, Kagame’s RPF invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo, and, directly and indirectly over the next 15 years, occupied it. The violence of Rwanda’s occupation of the eastern DR Congo has led to excess mortality in the millions, hundreds of thousands of which were from direct violence not unlike the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But Kagame remains in power, his regime is a highly unequal police state, and wealth continues to flow from the eastern Congo, through Rwanda, to the West.
In the film “The Act of Killing” (http://theactofkilling.com/), documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer meets some of the men who organized and carried out the mass political murder of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists in the 1960s. Oppenheimer has these killers re-enact their killings as a horror film. At one point, he asks one of the killers, “what you have done could be considered war crimes, couldn’t they?” The killer responds: “What is and isn’t a war crime depends on who has won. I am a winner, and I get to decide what is a crime and what isn’t.” Elsewhere in the film, the killers go on television, laugh and joke about their killings with approving talk show hosts. The killings of the 1960s in Indonesia set the political context for decades to come – including the present.
The Americas are the most dramatic example. Hitler himself saw the expansion of the United States and the destruction of the indigenous populations of the Americas as a model. If the US could do it to the indigenous, Hitler reasoned, why could Germany not do it to the people of Eastern Europe? Even today, you can go to museums in the US that describe how indigenous people “left” their territories after “raids and counter-raids”. As the Indonesian general said, the winners have decided what constitutes crimes and what doesn’t. The winners have decided how history is to be remembered.
Massacres of indigenous people in the Americas didn’t stop in the 19th century. The Guatemalan civil war in particular had a genocidal character, with hundreds of thousands of indigenous people murdered by the state. The war was ended in 1996 through a UN peace process, but, like elsewhere, the victors remain in power. The president in 2012 denied that there had been a genocide. How could there be? he asked, if the armed forces were indigenous. A report from January 2014, “Guatemala: El haz y el envés de la impunidad y el miedo”, shows how the Guatemalan establishment defends the political and economic status quo established during the genocidal civil war, through political murder, through legislation about ‘terrorism’, and through propaganda campaigns.
But these are whole states, or, in Rwanda’s case, regimes, that came to power, and strengthened their power, using genocide. But genocide can also be a tool for individual political figures.
Consider India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. He arrived in the Prime Minister’s palace from the state of Gujarat, where he had been Chief Minister since October 2001. Just a few months after he became Chief Minister of Gujarat, in February 2002, a highly organized, state-sponsored massacre, mainly of Muslims, occurred in Gujarat. The massacre was documented by Human Rights Watch in a report titled “We Have No Orders to Save You” (http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/india/). Modi remained Chief Minister for over a decade, then, this year, rode all the way to the Prime Ministership. He has dodged all legal proceedings about his role in the deaths of 3,000 people, which helped re-shape the politics of Gujarat – and of India. And even though, as Nirmalangshu Mukherji has written (http://www.countercurrents.org/mukherji070614.htm), millions of people are waiting for some key questions to be answered about the Chief Minister’s role in this well-organized slaughter, today Modi is moving forward with an agenda of re-making India in Gujarat’s image.
Or take Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is credited with ending the threat of the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, defeating them militarily in 2009 in what is called Eelam War IV. Filmmaker Callum MacRae gathered footage by Sri Lanka soldiers, ‘trophy’ footage of crimes being committed, and by victims, that show a pattern of slaughter of a trapped civilian population, in his film, No Fire Zone (http://nofirezone.org/). Rajapaksa has gone from electoral strength to strength, and having terrorized the Tamils, his regime is now terrorizing Muslims and even Buddhist monks.
Viewing this whole global panorama, several examples of which Israel loaned a hand (Sri Lanka, Guatemala), should anyone be surprised that Israel does not understand why it should not be allowed its own genocide against the Palestinians? And, like Modi or Rajapaksa or Kagame, Israel is being given a pass. At the end of a month-long war specifically against the children of Gaza, celebrating murders in demonstrations, in the parliament, and on social media, Israel is working hard to ensure that the Palestinians return to starvation and imprisonment, and that they have fewer means to resist the next massacre.
American writer Barbara Coloroso wrote a book, “Extraordinary Evil”, (http://www.kidsareworthit.com/Extraordinary_Evil.html) linking the logic of bullying to the logic of genocide. Genocide, like bullying, is a crime of power, and a crime of contempt. Like bullying, genocide is an act that depends on a bully, and on a bystander. If the bully can demonize his victim, then he can demobilize bystanders who might otherwise intervene and protect the bullied.
Can anything be learned from these genocides? Yes, but the lessons are not the ones that we are usually taught. The truth will not necessarily come out. The perpetrators will not necessarily be brought to justice. People’s consciences will not automatically be activated after some horrible threshold is reached. There is nothing so terrible that it won’t find apologists, as anyone who has had to watch one of these massacres unfold in North America, having to listen to the vilest talking points, knows. Those who commit genocide have power, and they hope to silence, or even attract, bystanders with their power. They want to use their power to get the bystander to suspend reason, fact, moral sense, and compassion. And they very often succeed.
So what can stop them? In each case, genocide occurred after resistance was broken. Whether armed or civil, it is resistance by the victim that provides the greatest chance of survival. Even if unsuccessful, resistance can help enough survive for a community to persist after a genocide. Look at the current Israel Gaza massacre, the so-called “Protective Edge”. Compared to Israel’s 2008-9 massacre in Gaza (“Cast Lead”), the Palestinians were more effective in their military resistance. Israel responded by going for mass civilian casualties and avoiding any close-quarters battles where they might lose soldiers, engaging in domestic and international campaigns to try to desensitize Westerners to Palestinian civilian deaths.
This Gaza genocide, a Western genocide, paid for and armed and covered by the West, is a test for Western bystanders. Many Westerners have sided with the bully, adopted the bully’s contempt for the victim, and in the process are helping speed up the genocide. On the other hand, for bystanders, genocide prevention is simple to understand, if difficult to enact: it means standing up to the bully, standing with the victim who is resisting, sheltering the victim and isolating the bully. Specifically, in the so-called ‘ceasefire negotiations’ and after, it means insisting that:
- The side that targets children and celebrates their deaths, killing overwhelmingly civilians (80%) does not get to proscribe as ‘terrorist’ the side that attacks overwhelmingly military targets (95%).
- The side that kills civilians must be disarmed before the side that focuses on military targets. We cannot arm the bully and insist on the disarmament of the victim. Security is for both sides. Freedom is for both sides. Full rights are for both sides.
- The blockade must be lifted, the siege must end, people and goods must be able to come and go freely from Gaza.
We have a long and arduous path to travel to make genocide no longer a rational choice for the powerful. In the West, it begins with taking a stand, even if it means risking something.