The mass killings in Gaza have been called genocide. This got me thinking about other genocides, and how they are similar to or different from what’s happening in Gaza.
For years, I have read articles and books about genocide. It is a particularly horrific phenomenon that needs to be studied and addressed. It is a challenge for those, like me, who support nonviolent methods of resisting aggression and repression.
According to the United Nations Genocide Convention, genocide refers to intending to destroy all or part of an ethnic, religious or national group. Technically, then, the mass killings in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 do not constitute genocide, because the targets were members of the same national and ethnic group. The Cambodian killings could instead be called politicide. However, most scholars diverge from the Genocide Convention definition, instead applying the term genocide to any state-sponsored mass killing aimed at destroying groups of civilians.
Some scholars are genocide specialists, devoting their entire careers to examining genocide in general, or specific ones. I have never been such a specialist, but I developed a framework for understanding the tactics used by powerful perpetrators of injustice, and found it applied to genocide, one of the greatest injustices of all.
In this framework, called the backfire model, powerful perpetrators commonly use five types of methods to reduce public outrage. They cover up their actions, devalue the targets, reinterpret events by lying, minimising, blaming and framing, use official channels to give the appearance of justice, and intimidate or reward people involved. I and others applied the model to censorship, sexual harassment, police brutality, massacres and torture.
I knew this model of outrage management would apply to genocide. For example, the Nazis used all these methods in their extermination of Jews, Slavs and others, known as the Holocaust, keeping the killing programme secret, devaluing their targets, and denying the extent of their culpability. The model would certainly apply, but given the massive documentation of the Holocaust, I decided to examine a different genocide, where it was more feasible to get on top of the evidence, and picked Rwanda.
In the course of studying the Rwandan genocide, I read about ten books and lots of articles, keeping an eye out for methods used by perpetrators to reduce outrage. It was shocking to read so much about the genocide. I knew it was bad, but it was much worse than I had imagined.
Rwanda is a small landlocked country in central Africa that had been a Belgian colony. The Belgian rulers introduced a formal racial distinction between the Hutu and the Tutsi, though they lived among each other and intermarried, and put Tutsi figures in charge, though they came from a much smaller group. These racial groups became a toxic legacy after independence, when Hutu politicians controlled the Rwandan government.
In 1994, the death of the president of Rwanda triggered a sudden and massive assault on the Tutsi minority, and on Hutu “moderates,” with over half a million people killed in a matter of months. Reading about the genocide, I learned several things that usually receive little attention.
Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa. The genocide involved Christians killing Christians, some of them slaughtered in churches where they had sheltered. Yet the worldwide Christian community paid little attention to the implications of this shocking violation of Christian precepts.
Before the genocide, the Rwandan government had been at war with Tutsi exiles based in the neighbouring country Uganda. Many other genocides have occurred during wartime, including the genocide of the Armenians during World War I and of the Jews during World War II. War seems to facilitate the unleashing of military force against civilians.
In Rwanda in 1994, there was a United Nations peacekeeping force, introduced to constrain the outbreak of war between the Rwandan government and the Tutsi rebels, who called themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF. After the genocide started, the RPF recommenced its attacks. The war was on again.
I found ample evidence of cover-up, devaluation and other methods of reducing outrage over the killings. For example, Western governments withdrew their nationals, thus aiding in cover-up. The head of the UN peacekeeping force, Canadian soldier Roméo Dallaire, desperately appealed to the UN for greater support and for permission to defend civilians, given that peacekeepers are normally expected to use force only to defend themselves. Dallaire’s hopes were dashed. Amid the worst killing, the UN withdrew most of the peacekeeping troops from the country.
Meanwhile, other governments did nothing to stop the ongoing massacres. Only the French government belatedly organised a military intervention, whose main purpose was to protect the killers.
When India gained independence in 1947, it was accompanied by a horrific breakup, called the Partition, leading to the creation of Muslim-dominated Pakistan, which was divided geographically between West Pakistan (today called Pakistan) and East Pakistan (today called Bangladesh), separated by 2000km.
India operated as a parliamentary democracy, but Pakistan suffered from authoritarian politics. In 1971, the military ruler of Pakistan, General Yahya, called elections. To his surprise, a party in East Pakistan, the Awami League, won the majority of seats and should have become the government. To stop this, Yahya sent troops to East Pakistan that began a massive killing operation.
Most of the people in East Pakistan were Muslims, but there was a significant Hindu minority, perhaps 13 million people. They were prime targets in the killing. Soon there was a vast tide of refugees, mostly Hindus, fleeing East Pakistan for safety in India. Within a matter of months in 1971, there were nearly ten million refugees, while hundreds of thousands of people were massacred in East Pakistan.
In writing about this story, I’m relying heavily on Gary Bass’s book The Blood Telegram. Bass did extensive interviews and studied archives. There was a rich lode of information about the US role. President Richard Nixon secretly taped all his conversations, and those with national security advisor Henry Kissinger were especially revealing.
In Dacca (now Dhaka), the major city in East Pakistan, staff in the US Consulate witnessed the slaughter of Bengalis by West Pakistan troops. They reported their observations to the State Department in increasingly desperate terms. The consul general, Archer Blood, supported his staff, using the word genocide to describe the killings. They were supported by State Department staff in Washington DC.
Meanwhile, the Indian government and press were in an uproar about the killings and the refugees. Likewise, in the US, there was considerable media coverage. Senator Ted Kennedy, who obtained reports from the Dacca consulate, attacked the Nixon administration.
Lots of people knew about the killings, but this had little impact on US policy, because Nixon and Kissinger saw General Yahya as their friend, and they hated India and its prime minister Indira Gandhi. They were using Yahya as a go-between to engage with the Chinese government for the first time since the 1949 revolution. It was a strange configuration. Nixon and Kissinger supported a military dictator who was massacring his citizens, made friends with China’s Communist rulers, and were intensely hostile to the major democracy in Asia, India, which turned to the Soviet Union for arms and diplomatic support. Nixon and Kissinger illegally organised arms shipments to Yahya’s government and encouraged Chinese leaders to mount a military threat to India.
As in every genocide, things were more complicated than apparent on the surface. As the killings continued in East Pakistan, Bengalis organised a guerrilla resistance, supported by the Indian military. As the refugee numbers increased, and public pressure increased, Indira Gandhi prepared for war with Pakistan. When it happened, it took only two weeks for Indian troops to take Dacca, ending the genocide and enabling East Pakistan to become the independent country Bangladesh.
Nixon and Kissinger furiously condemned the Indian government, and cynically used the United Nations as part of their campaign. Yet, as Bass tells the story, the role of Nixon and Kissinger in supporting Yahya and one of the worst genocides in the twentieth century has largely been forgotten.
Wars over the past century have killed more civilians than soldiers, and genocides may have killed even more than wars. Yet many genocides receive little attention.
Who now remembers the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66, a pogrom of Communists and others, with over half a million people killed? Western governments did nothing to stop the killing. As documented by Vincent Bevins in his book The Jakarta Method, the US government helped the killers. This “benign bloodbath” was welcomed by Western anti-communist leaders.
The record shows a remarkable lack of interest by foreign governments in intervening against genocide. During World War II, Allied leaders knew about the Nazi death camps, such as Auschwitz, and could have ordered bombing of the camps or rail lines leading to them. But they didn’t. They prioritised defeating the Nazis over ending the mass extermination.
Nor were the Allies all that concerned about civilian lives. In the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan during the war, civilians were the main casualties, despite this doing little to hinder the enemy’s war efforts. Some scholars have pointed to similarities between this bombing and genocide, but there seems to be little interest in examining strategic bombing through the lens of genocide.
Some of the greatest human disasters in the past century were in Communist states, especially the Soviet Union and China, where millions perished in purges and famines. These atrocities were covered up. The famine in China resulting from the Great Leap Forward, initiated in 1958, resulted in tens of millions of deaths, but information about this only became known outside the country decades later. Inducing famine, as in the case of Stalin’s ruthless policies against Ukraine in the early 1930s, can be a genocidal tool.
The human rights group Article 19 published a revealing report titled Starving in Silence, arguing that famine can usually be avoided when there is a free press. This helps explain why, in India, there have been no famines since independence, whereas famines have ravaged several African countries with authoritarian governments.
After the Gulf War in 1991, in which the Iraqi military was driven out of Kuwait, economic sanctions were placed on Iraq, leading to mass deaths due to hunger and disease, with perhaps two million people dying as a result over the following decade. In a widely publicised exchange, Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the UN, was asked whether the deaths of half a million children in Iraq was a price worth paying for keeping Saddam Hussein’s regime in check. She answered yes.
Finally, it is necessary to mention colonialism. European militaries invaded, conquered and occupied much of the rest of the world — North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia — leading to the mass death of Indigenous people due to war, disease and cultural destruction. On a per capita basis, deaths due to colonialism probably outnumber all other mass killings.
Despite the carnage, governments today are prepared for even greater slaughter. Every government with nuclear weapons — US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — is poised to kill millions of civilians, and some of these governments reserve the right to launch a first strike. Nuclear arsenals are commonly justified as deterrence against aggression, but in human terms they are a form of collective insanity, a willingness to be prepared to kill millions of people. The Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons came into force in 2021, but none of the governments holding them seems to care.
The Israeli military assault on Gaza, killing tens of thousands of Palestinians, has generated outrage worldwide. What lessons are there from earlier mass killings?
One important difference is the role of cover-up. From Nazi Germany to Indonesia to Rwanda, perpetrators and their supporters have tried to hide killings from wider audiences. But the killings in Gaza are in the glare of publicity, which is a key reason for the much greater public uproar. Nevertheless, it is plausible that future exposés will reveal Israeli actions even worse than those now reported in the media.
In nearly every genocide, there is devaluation of the targets. There is ample evidence of contemptuous Israeli attitudes towards Palestinians, for example as documented in the South African application to the International Court of Justice alleging Israeli responsibility for genocide in Gaza.
When mass killings are exposed, perpetrators and their allies provide explanations, or rationalisations, for their actions. I’ve called this reinterpretation, and it includes lying, minimising, blaming and framing. Lies include the claim that Hamas cut off the heads of babies. The Israeli government blamed Hamas’ 7 October attacks for its attack on Gaza, and framed the assault as defending against terrorists.
The US government has publicly warned the Israeli government about its actions, meanwhile providing arms for the Israeli military. In this context, foreign governments are a sort of official channel, giving the appearance of providing justice without much substance. The United Nations has been impotent.
Finally, there is the tactic of intimidating critics of the Israeli military attack on Gaza, including campaigns in several countries against critics of Israel, and the killing of journalists in Gaza itself.
According to the backfire model, counter-tactics to increase outrage include exposing the injustice, validating targets, interpreting actions as unjust, not relying on official channels but instead mobilising support, and resisting intimidation and rewards. Protesters against killings in Gaza have been using all these methods, including circulating information, humanising Palestinians through personal stories, emphasising the injustice of mass killing of Palestinian civilians, organising public protests, and standing up against threats.
Reflecting on genocides past, present and future can be demoralising. It seems that social institutions are set up to be humans’ own worst enemies. But there are also many examples of sustained efforts to oppose domination, exploitation and killing. Just don’t rely on national leaders to be our saviours.
For valuable comments, thanks to Mark Diesendorf, Jørgen Johansen, Janet Mayer, Michael McKinley and Dalilah Shemia-Goeke.