Tag Archives: genocide

Genocide reflections

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.


Raphael Lemkin, the prime force behind the UN Genocide Convention

                  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.

Rwanda, 1994

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.


Aftermath of the killing of thousands of people in a Rwandan church

                  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.

Bangladesh, 1971

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.


Yahya Khan

                  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.


Kissinger and Nixon

Other genocides

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.


Madeleine Albright

                  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.

Gaza, 2023–24

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.

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                  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.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

For valuable comments, thanks to Mark Diesendorf, Jørgen Johansen, Janet Mayer, Michael McKinley and Dalilah Shemia-Goeke.

The narrow corridors of US power

A new documentary film, “The corridors of power,” portrays how US government decision-makers agonised over what to do about genocide. It also shows, unwittingly, their narrow perspective.

At the Sydney Film Festival in June this year, I saw a new film, “The corridors of power.” It is about human rights violations and US policymakers, showing how they responded — or didn’t. The background was World War II. The Allies had reliable evidence that the Nazis were undertaking genocide against the Jews, now known as the Holocaust, but did nothing about it, not even bombing rail lines conveying Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps.

The filmmakers don’t try to explain this but present it as the motivation for the United Nations genocide convention, passed soon after the war. The slogan was “Never again.” Never again should the world — meaning governments — be bystanders to genocide.

            The film focuses on events following the end of the Cold War in 1989. It features high-level policy-making discussions under US presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The film is built around interviews with high-level players in the decision-making process, plus photos and videos of the victims of massacres and genocides. There is vintage footage of presidential speeches, UN Security Council meetings, and meetings of world leaders.

            The filmmakers were able to obtain interviews with many high-level figures and their advisers. A few, like Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, are prominent public figures. Others are well-known to those who follow US foreign affairs, like Madeleine Albright, George Moose, George Schultz and Paul Wolfowitz.


Colin Powell

            As the film presents it, the end of the Cold War unleashed ethnic warfare in former Yugoslavia, and in 1992 there was a war in Bosnia with so-called “ethnic cleansing,” which included forced relocation by ethnicity plus much killing. For US policymakers, the question was “What to do?” If this was genocide, then by the Genocide Convention there was a responsibility to do something about it.

            Next was the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which a half million or more members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group were massacred in just a hundred days. Rather than intervening, Western governments withdrew their citizens and then the United Nations withdrew most of its peacekeeping force.


Roméo Dallaire was head of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the genocide

            The film continues with the story of Serbian massacres in Srebrenica and Kosovo, the NATO bombing of Serbia, 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama came to office with a human rights rhetoric. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 before he had done anything for peace. The film tells of the advisers who helped with Obama’s Nobel lecture, including how it was carefully worded not to make definitive promises of action.


Barack Obama giving his Nobel address

            If the film could be said to have a central figure, it is Samantha Power. She had direct experience with US policymaking and wrote a book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. Published in 2002, it is a scathing critique of US government policy in relation to genocide. She wrote, “The United States had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred,” the only possible exception being the 1999 bombing of Serbia. She said that US politicians saw no political cost — namely, citizen protest — in doing nothing. I read the book when working on an article about the Rwandan genocide.

            Obama, before he ran for president, read Power’s book and sought her out for discussions. She joined his administration and became US ambassador to the UN, and was a persistent voice pushing for US government action against genocide and mass killing.

            In 2010 and 2011 there were uprisings in Tunisia and then Egypt, overthrowing long-time dictators, and these inspired uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya and Syria. The governments of the US and European allies led a military attack in Libya to stop impending massacres, but then withdrew as fighting spread throughout the country.


Bombing of Libya, 2011

Chastened by this disastrous intervention, the next question was what to do about horrendous violence in Syria, including chemical weapons attacks. Obama initially supported US military intervention but then had second thoughts, and sought Congressional approval, which meant no intervention although the Syrian government, by using chemical weapons, had transgressed Obama’s “red line.” Through this time, Power was the voice arguing for doing something, with the argument that early intervention could prevent worse consequences later.

            “The corridors of power” is a long film and, with so much graphic footage of bombings and dead and mutilated bodies, is not easy to watch. For me, it was incredibly frustrating, because for decades I’ve studied these issues and I had a good idea of what was missing.

Nonviolent action

Throughout the film, there is no mention of nonviolent action. Over previous decades, there have been numerous dictatorships overthrown via people power — protests, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins and other methods — so it might be imagined that this sort of resistance could be supported by policymakers. Maybe some of them knew about it, but it doesn’t come through in the film.

            In Kosovo, there was a society-wide nonviolent struggle for a decade, but it was not supported by the US government, perhaps not even known about or understood by policymakers. Instead, the US government only took notice when an armed group in Kosovo took action.

            The Arab spring uprisings are discussed briefly, but without acknowledgement that in nearly every country — including Libya and Syria — the protests began largely peacefully. Policymakers seemed completely unaware of the dynamics of nonviolent action.

            The 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia is covered, with no mention that a year later the authoritarian Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, was ousted from power following a massive nonviolent movement led by the group Otpor. US policymakers, as shown in the film, seem oblivious to people’s movements.


Otpor protest

Military intervention

The president and his advisers seemingly discussed only two options: do nothing or use military force. In only one case was a diplomatic resolution discussed. Not only were nonviolent alternatives ignored, so were arms embargoes, offering safe havens for defectors, and collecting documentation of human rights crimes.

            Imagine a different sort of intervention: providing information and training in nonviolent strategy and tactics. Of course, that might get out of hand, with skills used against US-backed rulers in places like Saudi Arabia.

US perspective

The film shows the world as seen from the perspective of US leaders, and this may lead viewers to see the world the same way. It’s all about whether and how to use US military power to fix other people’s problems. How different it would be to see discussions in a peace movement or in other countries. In the film, that others might see things differently only arose when joint operations were considered. Everything that happens seemingly is from a US government point of view. Policymakers regularly refer to “we,” taking for granted their identification with the US government.

Invisible conflicts

The plotline of the film follows the major international crises involving major human rights violations, as recognised by US policymakers. What it omits are massacres and genocides that don’t conform to the assumption that the US is the solution.

            In 1965-1966, there was a genocide in Indonesia, with up to a million people killed. It was an anti-communist purge, and the US government did nothing about it except aid the killers behind the scenes. So much for “never again.” In 1971, there was genocide in Bangladesh, with one to three million killed. Unmentioned. In 1975, the Cambodian genocide began. The conditions for it were laid by covert US bombing as part of the Indochina war. This genocide is mentioned in the film, but not the US government’s role in its genesis. Nor is there any mention that when, in late 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and stopped the genocide, the US government continued to support the deposed genocidal Cambodian regime. So much for “the responsibility to protect.”

            Those cases were during the Cold War. Subsequently, there was a genocide in Iraq, almost entirely hidden and forgotten. During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraqi troops were driven out of Kuwait, but Saddam Hussein remained in power. International sanctions were imposed, and they had a devastating impact on ordinary Iraqis. In the 1990s, as many as two million Iraqis died because of the sanctions, which were led by the US government.

Madeleine Albright was interviewed in the film, and sympathetically presented. No mention was made of the time she was questioned about half a million Iraqi children dying due to sanctions. She replied that the price was worth it.


Madeleine Albright

            If there is an imperative to intervene against human rights violations, then why has the US government supported so many ruthless governments, for example Argentina 1974-1983, Brazil 1964-1985, Chile 1973-1990, Iran 1954-1979, and others since?

            Virgil Hawkins wrote a revealing book titled Stealth Conflicts. He documented how and why most major lethal conflicts have been ignored by governments, media, academics and the public — including human rights organisations. How much have you ever heard about the world’s most deadly wars since 1989, which include those in the Congo, Burundi, Algeria, Angola and Zaire, each with hundreds of thousands of deaths? The deadliest was in the Congo, where as many as five million died.

The blob

Ned Dobos is the author of Ethics, Security, and the War Machine, in which he presents a powerful non-pacifist argument against having a military. Recently, Ned alerted me to a recent article titled “The beliefs of the blob,” by political scientist Christopher J. Fettweis. Contrary to my usual mental image, “the blob” here refers to a set of assumptions underlying US foreign policy. These assumptions are familiar to many political scientists. Fettweis summarises them beautifully. Watching “The corridors of power” reminded me of the six beliefs he outlines.


Christopher Fettweis

#1. The US is the indispensable world leader. Several of the interviewees say explicitly that the US is the world’s superpower and needs to use its power accordingly. Fettweis notes that this belief leads to overconfidence and a preference for action over inaction.

#2. The world is dangerous. The entire film is about how the US government should respond to international dangers, especially to US citizens and soldiers. As well as shots of the 9/11 attacks, there is a scene showing the desecration of corpses of US soldiers killed in the 1993 mission in Somalia.

            Fettweis notes one consequence of this assumption: there is no limit to military expenditure, because more of it means greater safety. In the film, there is no hint that some military spending might be usefully redirected to diplomacy or foreign aid.

#3. US rivals are realists. Hence, enemies are assumed to respond only to force, and lack any concerns beyond their national interests. Repeatedly in the film, policymakers assume that the only alternative to doing nothing is the use of force, which will achieve their objective: peace.

#4. US foreign involvement is beneficial. In the film, the only question for many interviewees is whether to intervene. They always assume that any such intervention is beneficial to everyone concerned, except to enemies.

#5. It’s worth maintaining credibility. Several times in the film, the point is made that the US government, especially the US president, must avoid making any promise that is not fulfilled. For Obama’s Nobel lecture, his advisers didn’t want him to say anything that would constrain policy options. The assumption was that promises were somehow binding, and this only makes sense if credibility is crucial. Indeed, one of the segments of the film is titled “credibility.”

            A corollary is that credibility is assumed to be maintained by aggressive action, not inaction. This comes across repeatedly in the film.

#6. Don’t appease dictators.

Fettweis notes that sometimes appeasement is better. But viewers of “The corridors of power” would never get this impression.


Obama and Power

One of the central tensions in the film is disagreements about intervention, notably the disagreements between Obama and Samantha Power. But these disagreements are not fundamental: they all take place within the blob.

            Although I found “The corridors of power” annoying because of its unarticulated assumptions about the role of the US government and military in world affairs, on reflection I think there could be value in students reading Fettweis’s article and other critiques of US policymaking and then undertaking a minute-by-minute scrutiny of the film, pointing to examples of each of the beliefs of the blob.


Nothing can stop the blob!

            By the way, at the film festival “The corridors of power” was “presented” by the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

Brian Martin, bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Ned Dobos, Anneleis Humphries and Michael McKinley for valuable comments.