Genocide Research Paper

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Genocide is the deliberate and systematic attempt to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. The equivalent of what we now call genocide has occurred throughout much of human history, but the term was not coined until Raphael Lemkin applied it to the Nazi occupation of Poland and subsequently to the Holocaust.

The word genocide is a modern term for an ancient practice. It was first coined by a Polish jurist, Raphael Lemkin, who sought to describe the Nazi occupation of Poland as one designed to eliminate Polish identity. Lemkin’s initial work is sometimes erroneously linked to the Holocaust. Nevertheless, it was the Holocaust and its aftermath in the postwar United Nations that led to the formulation of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which remains the principal accepted definition of the practice. Article II of the convention (Chalk and Joassohn 1990, 44–49) defines genocide as follows:

—In the present Convention, 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;

(e) Forcibly transferring the children of the group to another group.

While this formulation is not without some controversy, it is plain that massacre, a practice most commonly associated with genocide, is only one aspect of its perpetration. This is because genocide is essentially a crime of identity: Its objective is to eliminate some form of cultural identifier rather than, necessarily, to slaughter those who identify with it. Historically, however, the most direct means of achieving a genocidal objective has been mass murder, although other, more indirect means have also had currency throughout history. Moreover, one controversial aspect of the convention is its omission of political groups. This reflects its origin as a document negotiated in the senior echelons of the United Nations, and has led some scholars to seek to supplement the term genocide with further terms, including “politicide” (Harff and Gurr 1988, 359–371) and “democide” (Rummel 1994).

It is worth noting that the disappearance of any culture, or cultural group, is not in itself necessarily evidence of genocide. In world-historical terms, cultures have their own lives. The processes of decay, decline, and assimilation are often unforced, driven by voluntary cultural shifts in response to the realities of social and linguistic hegemonies. Over centuries, for example, the dominant Zoroastrian faith of Iran has given way to Shia Islam; languages like Oscan, Lycian, Coptic, Sogdian, and Breton gave way to Latin, Greek, Arabic, Pathan, and French.

As a comprehensive phenomenon, genocide is more modern than it is ancient. Cultures like the Assyrians and Hebrews talked genocide in the ancient world, but lacked the technology to achieve it. The Book of Joshua makes claims about the utter destruction of the peoples of pre-Hebrew Palestine which cannot be borne out archaeologically. In the same way, the Annals of the Assyrian kings make extravagant claims about the utter annihilation of peoples who were not, actually, annihilated. The ancient Greeks, with the more limited objective of the elimination of rival city-states, were more successful, inventing the practice of andrapodismos: the slaughter of the adult males of a city and enslavement of the remainder. This was visited by the Crotonians against the Sybarites; the Athenians upon the Melians and Scionians; the Thebans upon the Plataeans; and Alexander’s Macedonians upon the Thebans. The Romans inherited this practice, killing and enslaving all of the Carthaginians and sowing their fields with salt (Leadbetter 1999, 272–274).

These massacres remain the exception rather than the rule in antiquity. There were social identifiers for ancient people, as for modern, which invited genocidal intent. What prevented a wider and more savage manifestation of genocide was the lack of requisite technology to carry out such acts. The principal identifiers that have emerged over time are religion; imperial identity; nationalism; political identity; and ethnicity, sometimes nuanced as race.

Genocide and Religion

Religious conflict has been common in world history. From time to time, these conflicts have been genocidal, particularly with the emergent dominance of exclusivist monotheistic religions in the Middle East and Mediterranean from the fourth century CE onwards. Traditional polytheistic religion was, nevertheless, not immune from the genocidal impulse, principally because it was embedded in the ideological structures of the state. In the third century, for example, the Roman state made a systematic attempt to eliminate the Christians and Manichaeans, who threatened the religious foundations of imperial ideology. Likewise, in the eleventh century the Hindu king of Pandya in India sought to eliminate the Jains, impaling over eight thousand of them.

While such instances of genocidal practice are linked to traditional pagan and polytheistic religions, a significant impetus for genocidal violence also came with the emergence of Christianity as a hegemonic religion in Europe. This violence initially focused on the emergent Islamic communities of the Middle East. The crusading movement, in particular, was principally directed at the Muslim communities of the Levant. While this aspect of the crusading movement failed to eliminate Islam in Palestine, other crusades had more murderous success. The most notable of these was the crusade against the Albigensians, or Cathars, a Manichaean community centered in the Languedoc region of southern France. This crusade took the form of a series of military campaigns conducted between 1208 and 1226, which were marked by atrocity and indiscriminate massacre, notably the massacre of the entire population of Beziers in 1209. Even after the conclusion of military hostilities, the Inquisition continued the work of eliminating Albigensianism.

The Inquisition, founded largely as a consequence of the emergence of Catharism, was the principal genocidal agency in Europe until the Reformation. It hunted Hussites, witches, Waldensians, and, from time to time, Jews. The Reformation entrenched religious diversity in Europe, but genocidal massacres still occurred from time to time, most notably the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of French Protestants (Huguenots) in 1572. Christians could be victims too. The Jesuit missionaries based in Japan were expelled in the early seventeenth century and Japanese Christian converts were tortured and killed, with the result that Christianity was eliminated from Japan until the Meiji period.

More recently, the emergence of an intolerant version of political Islam has seen eliminationist assaults on the Baha’i community of Iran. Almost inevitably, genocide on religious lines is associated with the use of religious language by political authorities. This reflects the fact that genocide is a crime almost exclusively committed by those who have political power to use violent means over those who do not.

Genocide and the Imperial State

Genocidal practice has been inherent to imperial powers from the earliest times. While most empires have been consciously multicultural, they are all established and maintained by violence, a class of which is designed to eliminate particularly recalcitrant opponents in order both to prevent further resistance and also to terrorize the remainder into acquiescence. The Persians destroyed Miletus during the Ionian Revolts; Alexander obliterated the city of Plataea; the Romans targeted and sought to eliminate the Druids; in the fourteenth century Timur (Tamerlane) established an empire across Eurasia based upon the terror inspired by genocide. In his campaigns in India, he slew all of the inhabitants of Batnir and Meerut, marking his progress with vast pyramids of heads. He marked his 1399 capture of Delhi with four of these, at each corner of the city. He punished the rebellion of Isfahan in 1387 by massacre, and a tower of seventy thousand skulls was piled up. Genocidal massacres were also employed in his capture, variously, of Baghdad, Damascus, and Tiflis (Katz 1994, 94).

The impact of the imperial encounter between the Old World and the New was immediately genocidal. In 1519, Hernan Cortes slaughtered or deported all of the inhabitants of the town of Cholula, and in 1521, he marked his recapture of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan by the massacre of its surviving inhabitants, in the course of which an estimated 100,000 people were slain (Churchill 1997, 98). The muskets and cannon of the conquistadors were accompanied by the smallpox pathogen. While there is some (relatively late) evidence of the deliberate infection of indigenous people with smallpox in North America, such an act was largely unnecessary. Smallpox, typhus, and other imported diseases wrought havoc among the indigenous peoples, leading within a few decades to unsustainable population levels (Stannard 1992, 102–112; Churchill 1997, 129–157). In respect to the European discovery of the New World, particularly the confrontation with its indigenous peoples, it has been argued that “the sixteenth century perpetrated the greatest genocide in human history” (Todorov 1984, 5).

Colonial Empires

The establishment of the New World empires of Spain, Portugal, France, and Great Britain marked a major expansion—indeed a globalization—of European power. They are also a clear instance of small emigre elites subjugating a vast indigenous population. This was a process facilitated by disease, but also marked by an especially ruthless brutality toward indigenous peoples which can only be described as genocidal. There was resistance, but the strength of native arms was sapped by disease and thwarted by technology. Arrows and spears might match muskets, cannon, and rifles in occasional skirmishes, but they could not win the long wars of attrition waged in North and South America, and in Australia, by colonial occupiers. Many of these policies have persisted until relatively recently. In Australia and elsewhere, the genocidal practices which marked the frontier conflict between indigenous people and British colonists resulted in massacres and campaigns of extermination. These were succeeded, during the course of the twentieth century, by a more subtle policy of marginalization and the forced removal of children to “breed out the color.” This policy even persisted after 1967, when indigenous Australians were granted full citizenship rights, and was the subject of a major investigation in Australia in the 1990s (Tatz 2003, 67–106).

In a similar way, the economic development of the Paraguayan countryside was accompanied, in the 1950s and 1960s, by the slaughter of indigenous Ache (or Guayaki) people. The Paraguayan government, charged with genocide in 1974, pleaded in its defense to the U.N. Human Rights Commission that no genocide had been committed since there had been no intent to eliminate the Guayaki as such, merely the pursuit of an economic objective, which had been hindered by people who happened to be Guayaki.

Colonial occupations in those instances were genocidal in nature principally because the occupying colonizers were also settlers. In other places, colonial empires took a different form, with minority colonizing elites dominating majority indigenous populations. In such places, the colonists’ principal interest lay in the economic exploitation of the colony and its peoples. In these circumstances, genocide is less likely to occur although, as Jean-Paul Sartre has argued (1968), the imbalance in the power relationship between the colonizer and the colonized is frequently maintained by the practice of genocidal massacre.

There were a number of spectacular examples of this in Africa during the colonial period. In the Belgian Congo, the quota system for the harvest of wild rubber imposed upon the inhabitants by the personal administration of Leopold II was genocidal in impact rather than intent. The devastation it wrought upon the peoples of the region led, in 1907, to the Belgian Parliament humiliating their own monarch by the formal annexation of the Congo, thereby replacing Leopold’s authority with their own.

A clearer and more unambiguous case is the response of German authorities to the uprising among the Herero people of Namibia in 1904. Initially successful because of the group’s numerical superiority, the Herero rebellion soon faced a counterattack under the command of General Lothar von Trotha. The general so disposed his forces as to drive the Herero into the waterless Omaheke desert, within which they were contained until they perished of thirst and exposure. In 1903, there were eighty thousand Herero; a few years later, a scant fifteen thousand remained. This was a clear attempt at colonial pacification through genocide, and was followed up by a similar assault on the Nama people, of whom over half were slaughtered between 1907 and 1911.

Just as the process of colonization generated genocidal conflicts, so did decolonization. In many cases, colonial borders were drawn by the colonial powers without regard to the cultural and religious identifications of the subject populations. As these colonial boundaries have persisted beyond the colonial period, genocidal civil conflict has frequently been the result. In the Sudan, a bitter genocidal conflict between the Arab Muslim north and the Christian/ animist Bantu south persisted for many decades, and was noted for an attempt by the north to subjugate the south by the imposition of permanent famine conditions. A similar state of affairs now prevails between ruling northerners and the peoples of Darfur in western Sudan.

Genocide and the Nation-State

The problem that decolonized regions face, and that has resulted in genocide, is the need for colonial territories to reinvent themselves as nations. The nation is the ideal form of post-Enlightenment state, created in Europe to redefine polities that had been created by centuries of dynastic competition. The nation-state emerged after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 and was affirmed by French Revolution, which first embodied and articulated a clear nationalist principle. Nations construct themselves through a matrix of linguistic, religious, and cultural identifiers.

Inherent Genocides

Sometimes those identifiers are inherent. The most obvious of these is heredity, or “race.” It was a particular concept of race used by the Nazis to construct their peculiar vision of Germany. They used it, more specifically, to seek to eliminate all Jews. The Holocaust has a particular standing in the history of genocide since the victims were defined biologically, and so could not thwart the Nazi perpetrators by conversion. It also meant that the perpetrators were compelled, by the logic of their own vision, to slaughter all of their victims. The most sophisticated technology (for its day) was employed: railways to transport the victims; gas chambers to kill them en masse. Alongside that, more rudimentary technologies were also employed: shooting; starvation; exhaustion; disease.

The Nazi vision of a biological utopia led them also to target groups other than Jews. Famously, they sought to slaughter all the Roma and Sinti (“Gypsies”) despite their Aryan origins. They also targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and (what Nazis thought of as) similar groups of adherence, although in these cases, it was possible to escape death through a denial of the relevant identity. Alongside these directed policies was also the genocidal policy adopted in Poland which led Raphael Lemkin initially to devise the term. The Nazis were ultimately responsible for the deaths of an estimated 5 to 6 million Jews, including 3 million Polish Jews; as many as 3 million Soviet prisoners of war; up to 2 million Christian and other (non-Jewish) Poles; somewhere between a quarter to 1.5 million Roma and Sinti (Gypsies); 200,000–300,000 people with disabilities; 100,000 Communists; 10,000–20,000 homosexuals; and up to 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Nazi policies have rarely been imitated, although it is arguable that the ethnic identifiers used in the genocides in Burundi and, later, Rwanda, are of a similar type. The situations in these states are more or less identical to one another. Both are postcolonial states; both were occupied by the Germans, and then, as mandatory power, by the Belgians, who continued the German policy which privileged one ethnic group, the Tutsi, usually in a minority, at the expense of the other, the Hutu. This has resulted in a postindependence history of mutual massacre. Between 1972 and 1975, at least 100,000 Hutu were killed in Burundi by the (all-Tutsi) army; in 1994, approximately 1 million Tutsis were murdered in Rwanda by Hutu Interehamwe militias. The Rwandan genocide at least was a last-ditch attempt by Hutu hardliners to prevent the implementation of a compromise peace (the Arusha accords) reached with the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front. Along with ethnic Tutsi, the victims included moderate Hutus, the Hutu president who had signed the accords, Juvenal Habyalimana, the prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and other supporters of ethnic compromise.

Adherent Genocides

Nation-building can also result in what might be called adherent genocides. This occurs particularly in cases where the nation is aligned with a particular religious or ideological view. A prime example of this is the Terror during the French Revolution, when as many as twenty thousand people were executed because they either were, or identified with, members of the old French aristocracy. In the same way, the late Ottoman state, struggling to redefine itself as ethnically Turkish, and deeply mistrustful of the Christian Armenians straddling the Russian border, slaughtered over 1.5 million Armenians during the latter half of 1915. It was possible for Armenians to escape death, through conversion to Islam, and some accepted this road to survival, thus rendering this a genocide more based on adherent than inherent qualities.

The most notable case of adherent genocide is the Soviet Union under Stalin. Stalin routinely used genocide as a tool of state control, attacking both social classes (kulaks) and ethnic groups (notably the Ukrainians and Tatars) through a combination of massacre, deportation, and enforced famine. There is no accurate estimate of the total number of Stalin’s victims although it can reasonably be assumed that there were in excess of 30 million.

In the late 1970s, a peculiar case of adherent genocide occurred in Cambodia. There, a militant Stalinist regime led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, sought to reimagine the country as a series of peasant collectives. Any person not meeting the state’s definition of a Cambodian peasant was liable to be slain: intellectuals (often perceived simply as people who wore spectacles), the Muslim Cham people, Buddhists, and all non-ethnic Cambodians. Over 1.5 million people were killed before the slaughter was brought to an end by the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime at the hands of the intervening Vietnamese.

Genocide Denial

One ongoing feature of the historiography of genocide is the unwillingness of many perpetrator states, or their successors, to accept the fact that genocide has occurred. The Turkish state, for example, has long denied the fact of the Armenian genocide, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. Neo-Nazis and various sympathizers deny the Holocaust, and colonial successor nations are frequently unwilling to acknowledge the more sordid deeds committed by their pioneers. It is both embarrassing at a time when new nations are seeking to construct more heroic foundation narratives, and it is legally problematic since it opens up the possibility of prosecutions, lawsuits, and compensation claims.

Genocide in the Future?

The 1990s were a particularly bloody decade. The breakup of the former federated republic of Yugoslavia resulted in a series of Balkan wars and two converted genocidal assaults, one on the Bosnian Muslims, the other on the Albanians of Kosovo. These, together with the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, resulted, first, in the creation of the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and, later, in the 1998 formation of an International Criminal Court for Genocide and Major Human Rights Violations. The latter formally came into operation in 2002; it provides the first international standing court through which both survivors and bystander communities can seek redress from perpetrators. As of 2010 it has 111 member countries, although China, India, Russia, and the United States have not joined.

The conditions that generate genocide still exist in states and parastate organizations (that is, liberation and paramilitary organizations), although a number of early warning systems are in place to try and detect potential genocides before they occur, and there is greater opportunity for judicial redress after the fact. Despite the fact that the Genocide Convention demands external intervention to prevent it, there must first be a willingness to recognize and name genocide wherever it occurs, and this is not always freely forthcoming.


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