Genocide: Never Say ‘Never Again’

Man’s inhumanity to man 

Makes countless thousands mourn! 

— Robert Burns

Never again.  This phrase of renown has echoed through the last 75 years of history.  After the insidious actions perpetrated by the Nazi government in Germany, the refrain of ‘never again’ echoed throughout the world.  

Years of appeasement by the powerful nations of the world allowed Hitler and the Nazis to accumulate such power that they were able to establish and implement a systematic method for exterminating an entire race of people.  The deaths of millions of Jews in concentration camps shocked the world.  

The subsequent Nuremberg Trials represent one of the most significant actions towards human rights in the post-World War II era.  The winning side of the war, the Allied Powers, established accountability for how a government treated human beings.  In 1948, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whereby nations recognized the inherent rights of human beings.  The UDHR, however, was a declaration, and not a binding document according to international law.  

Decades later, the United Nations created the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The treaty recognizes that citizens of signatory nations will receive fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, freedom from torture and slavery, due process, self-determination, equal protection under the law, and the inherent right to life.

In addition to these measures, the UN General Assembly approved Resolution 260 (in 1948), written by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.  The UN resolution defined genocide and established punishments for this crime.

The United Nations and the international community created policies and a rallying cry for never allowing genocide to happen again, but it has failed miserably in preventing genocide.  The nations of the world either lack the power or the wherewithal to act on behalf of people who cannot help themselves.  

The late 20th century 

In 1988, then dictator Saddam Hussein ordered commander (and cousin) Ali Hassan al-Majid to utilize military power to destroy the Kurdish population living in Iraq.  Al-Majid had settlements destroyed, inhabitants deported or shot, and other regions poisoned with chemical weapons.  By the fall of that year, most of the Kurdish population had been driven away, killed, or otherwise driven underground.  Hussein’s forces only relented because they believed they had eliminated enough of the male Kurdish population to prevent the group from resisting Hussein’s rule.  The Iraqi military destroyed more than 4,000 villages, nearly 2,000 schools, hundreds of hospitals and clinics, along with numerous mosques and Christian churches.  Human rights groups believed at least 50,000 people died in concentration camps, however the number may as high as 182,000.  

Hussein and al-Majid eventually paid for their crimes, but not because of the international community’s actions.  The Iraqi dictator and the members of the Ba’ath Party were executed after the American-led Second Gulf War in 2003.  Until the ‘regime change’ in Iraq, the international community seemed to have no problem in letting the actions of Hussein go unpunished.

In 1994, the small African nation of Rwanda was embroiled in the a civil war between the majority Hutu group, and the ethnic minority known as the Tutsi.  The Hutus perpetrated acts of violence against the Tutsi that left nearly 800,000 dead while over 500,000 women were raped, all in the span of a few months.  

Remains from mass graves in Rwanda

The Rwandan genocide was particularly disturbing in its speed and brutality, where Rwandan military personnel hacked people to death with machetes and forced civilian Hutus to participate in the killing, offering the Hutus additional food or money to kill Tutsis.  The violence was so severe that mass graves are still being found.

During the genocide, the United Nations authorized a peace keeping force to maintain some actions, but the mission itself was limited in its scope and by the time it received the necessary authority to take real action, the genocide ended when the Hutu backed government collapsed.  Decades later, and very few perpetrators have been tried, let alone convicted and punished.

In the 21st century, we have seen a continued genocide in the Sudan, where state sponsored militias harass, forcibly relocate, rape, and kill villagers in the Darfur region.  The government in the Sudan responded to violence in Darfur with military force and arming multiple paramilitary groups, which escalated into a genocide against the inhabitants of Darfur.

The nationalistic makeup of the nation, ethnic differences, and religious diversity also made various people targets of various militia groups.  Accounts vary about the number of deaths, but most experts put the number at near 500,000 with countless more victims of various forms of violence.  The descriptions of the use of rape as a means of ‘ethnic cleansing’ are deeply disturbing. 

Former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been convicted on corruption charges and currently awaits trial for crimes associated with genocide.

The violence in the Sudan has not stopped and now, neighboring Ethiopia is experiencing a similar wave of genocide in the Tigray Region, where the native Tigray people face the same horrible violence the world continues to ignore. 

Ongoing genocide 

In 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad faced widespread criticism for economic woes, widespread unemployment, corruption, and a host of other problems (brought on by his own ineptitude).  Assad responded to large scale demonstrations with a violent crackdown, sparking a civil war which is considered ongoing.

Assad’s regime represents a minority rule in Syria, and the opponents of this government largely come from the majority Sunni Muslims living in the area.  In the last 10 years, the Syrian military has engaged in systematic killing of civilians who did not take up arms in the civil war.  

Syrian refugee resettlement

The reports of violence against civilians reads like so many of the other genocides the world has seen:  forced relocation, unlawful detentions, rape, and summary executions.  The Assad government also used sarin gas on innocent civilians, which prompted the infamous ‘red line’ from the Obama administration and former Secretary of State John Kerry.  For a very brief moment, it seemed that Western intervention might be a possibility, but Assad sidestepped that disaster by promising not to use chemical weapons again.  He didn’t cross the ‘red line,’ and seemed content to kill people through conventional weapons.

Though the US backed the Syrian rebels, it lacked the strength of a more direct involvement and the Assad regime has reestablished control of most of Syria.  Moreover, the suffering of the Syrian people has not ended.  More than 500,000 Syrians have died and millions more were displaced in a refugee crisis that saddled Turkey with 3.6 million (of the 6.7 million) people they lack the means to help.  (Incidentally, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands were the only Western nations to step up in any significant way.)

China currently is in the midst of a genocide against the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang province.  The Uyghur people are one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities in China, and they are a Turkic people with a predominantly Muslim religious background.

Fears of extremism caused the Chinese government to take drastic measures against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang.  Police surveillance looked for ‘signs of extremism,’ such as men growing beards, or abstaining from alcohol.  These individuals were targeted and later, placed in detention centers where ‘reeducation’ occurs.  

In these camps, the Uyghur people are forced to sing songs praising Chinese communist government, learn the Chinese language, write self-critical essays, and other strategies designed to eliminate Uyghur culture and religion.  Attempts at resistance by detainees have been met with verbal and physical abuse.

Demonstrators take part in a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Berlin to call attention to China’s mistreatment of members of the Uyghur community i.

Beatings with metal prods or whips have been described as common.  Prisoners have received electric shocks.  Doctors forcibly placed IUDs in women to prevent pregnancy and injected them with various medications that would halt or significantly alter their menstrual cycles.  Forced abortions, rapes, and deaths have been commonly reported by those who have escaped from their captors.  Human rights groups estimate that around 2 million Uyghurs are living in concentration camps.  A current report of the crimes of the Chinese government can be found here.  There is no doubt of the Chinese government’s intent to destroy these people and stamp out their cultural presence.

What’s the international community doing?

The United States, Great Britain and other allies in Western Europe have called out the Chinese government for their actions through the UN’s Human Rights Council, but it appears unlikely that any direction action will come from the UN, considering that China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and could veto any serious resolution against it.  The likelihood of the General Assembly acting in any significant way seems equally unlikely.  

Newly minted Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other American diplomats have strong words for the Chinese about their persecution of the Uyghurs, but the matter has already complicated talks between the two major powers of the world.  Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, exchanged not so pleasant words in Anchorage, Alaska last week.

The meetings between the United States and China opened in a spicy exchange, where Yang noted the US needed to stop attempting to force democracy on nations when Americans don’t have much confidence in it.  He also claimed the US was the ‘champion’ of cyber attacks and critiqued the history of human rights in America.

Blinken responded, “That system [rules based diplomacy] is not an abstraction. It helps countries resolve differences peacefully, coordinate multilateral efforts effectively and participate in global commerce with the assurance that everyone is following the same rules. The alternative to a rules-based order is a world in which might makes right and winners take all.  And that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.” 

In terms of diplomacy, these are strong words from both sides for an opening day salvo.  Diplomacy is a significant means of conducting business, but while the United States and other nations attempt to push China off of its current course, people are suffering in Xinjiang.  

The common theme amongst these genocides is that the world can act in a punitive fashion after the damage is done, but we are not preventing genocide.  The phrase ‘never again’ seems pretty hollow when we consider that these terrible acts have long been known to the world.  

International activity in combatting genocide responds too slowly, and the situation will not change any time soon.  Why not?

Effective deterrents do not exist.  In past instances where political leaders faced trial or some form of accountability, their comeuppance did not happen until many years after the fact, if at all.     Moreover, if anyone is held accountable, it’s often not the rank and file of a political, military, or paramilitary group who engage in the violence.   When people know they will not face accountability for their actions, they will commit evil acts of violence.

There are no incentives to intervene.  The instability and death from these genocides often takes place in lesser developed nations where more advanced nations lack any motivation to act.  Any nation must justify a military response to their own people, and these nations have decided that it’s simply not worth it to put their armed forces in harm’s way.  For many nations, they lack the personnel to even risk an intervention.  The only way to sell this to the citizens of a nation is to appeal to their humanity.  It isn’t working.

For instance, imagine being an American diplomat in the 1990s, attempting to sell the American people on the idea of intervening in Rwanda.  Citizens in more developed nations like the United States look at the economic decision making involved and decide the risk is greater than the reward.

Regional powers often prevent action.  Major powers within regions of the world often benefit from the political turmoil which results from a genocide.  For instance, the madness of the Syrian Civil War benefited Russia.  The Syrian government purchased arms from the Russians and allowed their comrades to maintain a military base within their borders.  Russia had no reason to want to see Bashar al-Assad removed from office.  It was also a tangential benefit that maintaining Assad’s government thwarted a policy goal of the United States.  

In cases such as the persecution of the Uyghur people, China is the regional power.  Their military strength, economic potency, and permanent seat on the UN Security Council make it unlikely anyone involved in their genocidal actions will answer for their crimes.  

Poor policy choices from the past.  Intervention by the major powers of the world might happen if so many poor interventions had not occurred in the past.  For instance, the United States’ actions in invading Iraq in 2003 proved to be a foreign policy mistake that tarnished our reputation and used up any political capital.  The false pretenses which led to the invasion and subsequent violence after the removal of Saddam Hussein destroyed the credibility of the American government to effectively intervene in the future.  

Any desire to help people in need have been met with skepticism.  Policy disasters like the Second Gulf War require decades to fix, if they can be repaired at all.  In the case of the Syrian Civil War, American opposition to Assad was criticized as an excuse to once again involve itself unnecessarily in the affairs of a Middle Eastern nation.  

National sovereignty matters.  One of the important facets of any nation’s existence is their own sovereignty, the power to make and enforce their own policies without outside interference.  No nation in the world is truly willing to cede their ability to govern their own people to international law.  Despite conventions, treaties, and other resolutions designed to establish a coherent body of rules, it’s mostly lip service.  This is particularly true of major world powers such as the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, et al.  They will not allow other nations to dictate policy to them.  Their own right to rule as they see fit trumps the opinions of the world.   

These add up to one inevitable conclusion:  the international community lacks the will to act.  And maybe, for the foreseeable future, this isn’t going to change.  Until then, we should stop the talk of ‘never again’ when it seems to be happening far too regularly.  We talk a good game about deploring genocide, but actions (and inaction) tell us everything we need to know about our priorities.  

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