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Genocide: what can we learn from history?

US president Joe Biden has accused Russian forces of committing acts of “genocide” in Ukraine. Here, historian Donald Bloxham explains the meaning of the term and asks what we can learn from genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia and beyond. He also considers why the international community has failed to halt mass atrocities in all but a few cases…

Training of young Rwandan Hutu on the road to Kigali, 27 June 1994
Published: April 13, 2022 at 8:31 pm
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Genocide is at least as old as recorded history, according to the Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term during the Second World War. Lemkin was not solely concerned with the murder of European Jews by the Nazis and in his definition referred to cases from history – for instance the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE and, in the Middle Ages, the Crusaders’ actions against the Cathars and the wars of Genghis Khan. The instances of genocide and related atrocities in modern times – from the the Holocaust to Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur – indicate that we have not learned how to rid ourselves of the scourge, even though we know more and more about the circumstances that cause it.

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During revolution, as state and social structures are re-shaped, groups deemed to impede the revolutionary agenda are susceptible to destruction, as happened after the 1917 Russian Revolution or after the Khmer Rouge triumphed in Cambodia in 1975. Threats to the territorial integrity of a state by regional independence movements may trigger genocide, as seen by the Pakistani military’s actions in what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971.

War is a particularly potent context for genocide, as military conflict enhances feelings of group solidarity and xenophobia, and violence in the military sphere can extend to other spheres. The sense of a country’s existence being under threat may also stimulate attacks on groups perceived to be involved in the threat. Even the Nazi regime, despite its persecution of Jewish people from 1933 onwards, did not become genocidal until it was at war.

The acquisition of new territory can also raise the threat of genocide. For example, the indigenous Native American and Australasian peoples were dispossessed and killed, or had their way of life destroyed, by European settlers. In lands of expanding white settlement, the frontier societies, acting with the tacit consent of their own governments, perpetrated mass murder, as in Tasmania or California in the 19th century. The settler example shows that it is not only “totalitarian” states that have perpetrated genocide. Few political systems have shown themselves immune to fostering the destruction of other groups.

What is the definition of genocide, what does it mean?

According to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide comprises “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”. This is not the only definition of genocide in existence, but it is especially important in law and politics.

Contrary to a common belief, the Convention does not create a legal obligation for external intervention in ongoing cases of genocide. The fear that acknowledging the existence of an ongoing genocide might create such an obligation was palpable during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. A US Defense Department discussion paper of 1 May 1994 noted the concern of the Legal Division of the State Department that a “Genocide finding could commit USG [the US government] to actually ‘do something’”. Ten years later, however, the-then US Secretary of State Colin Powell was surer of his ground. After stating that genocide had indeed been committed in Darfur and that the Sudanese government and the janjawiid militia were responsible, he asserted that “no new action is dictated by this determination”.

At the same time, ‘genocide’ has become an important political mobilisation slogan irrespective of the strict legal issues involved. Claims of genocide by both Russia and Ukraine in the present conflict are evidence enough of this. The evocative, moral force of the ‘G-word’ explains the vigour with which states including Myanmar, Sudan, China, and Turkey contest its applicability to events with which they are concerned.

Rwanda

In Rwanda’s genocide in 1994, up to 800,000 people were murdered, mostly Tutsis but also some politically moderate Hutus. Genocide began shortly after the assassination of longstanding Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana on 6 April. That event was the latest in a radicalising sequence which included the crisis of legitimacy of Habyarimana’s single-party Hutu regime amid economic downturn in the later 1980s; the introduction of political pluralisation; and a war in 1990–93 between the Rwandan army and the Uganda-based majority-Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

Pluralisation, the war, and the resulting Arusha Peace Agreement – according to which political power was to be shared between Rwandan political parties and the RPF – all threatened the place and privileges of Hutu elites who used the war and the assassination to propagandise about a “Tutsi” threat to all Hutus.

These elites used their influence in Rwanda’s security services and violent militias established during the war to orchestrate the murder of political opponents and genocide against the Tutsi minority

States turn a blind eye

The 1990s saw horrific mass crimes committed in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and yet, despite some Nato intervention in the latter, it was clear that some countries were not interested in “the lessons of history” or even the evidence before their eyes. In 2000, the Canadian government established an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty to examine when the international community should intervene in the affairs of states where civilian populations were under attack. The Commission found that it was not a want of information about violations of international humanitarian law that impeded action, but problems in translating data into policy and the determination to act.

General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian who commanded the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda, emphasised the overriding significance of determination when cabling his superiors in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in January 1994 about the likelihood of a slaughter of Tutsis. Requesting guidance, he signed off with peux ce que veux – “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. As he watched the genocide of the Tutsi unfold from April, his soldiers neutered by the terms of their peacekeeping mandate, Dallaire’s verdict would come to mirror that of James Gow (professor of international peace and security at King’s College London) on the international community’s failures during much of the murderous dissolution of the former Yugoslavia: a “Triumph of the lack of will”.

Canadian General Roméo Dallaire
Canadian General Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda, 15 April 1994. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Liaison/Getty Images)

Since Dallaire had first-hand information about the build-up of arms under extremist Hutu elements in the Rwandan governing structure and the likely deployment of the weapons in mass murder, it might be thought that whether or not anything could be learned from history was an irrelevance. By mid-April what need was there for, say, historical education about the Holocaust as ethical stimulus for international action against genocide when a predicted campaign of mass violence was underway?

What the historical record does highlight is the failure of the international community to halt mass atrocity in all but a few cases. Despite increasing concern with genocide and related matters from the late 20th century, less has changed than the authors of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention and UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the organisers of any number of Holocaust and genocide memorial initiatives, would have wished.

Kofi Annan observed of Darfur that ‘we have learned nothing from Rwanda

Shortly after the Rwandan genocide, neighbouring Zaire (from May 1997 the Democratic Republic of Congo) witnessed possibly the most deadly conflict anywhere since the Second World War. Millions of deaths occurred from 1996–2002. The situation in this vast state was always liable to be ignored by advocates of intervention elsewhere.

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Though atrocities aplenty were committed, there was no outright instance of genocide to rally around. Most parties to the conflict were criminally culpable, including Uganda and the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan regime that had come to power by defeating the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, thus removing ‘easy’ distinctions of perpetrator and victim. The waters were muddied further by the presence of multinationals tapping Congo’s mineral resources.

In July 2005, Kofi Annan, the then Secretary-General of the UN, observed of the situation in Darfur that “we have learned nothing from Rwanda”. The conflict in Darfur in western Sudan, whose most intensively violent phase was from 2003 to March 2004, had its origins in the historical neglect of the region and clashes over land between different groups. Sudan’s government, which identified as Arab, gave carte blanche to armed Arab militias (janjawiid) to attack civilian communities in Darfur associated with insurgent forces. These were primarily the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa peoples. A brutal “counter-insurgency” campaign that deployed scorched-earth tactics resulted in at least 200,000 deaths along with the displacement of more than two million people.

Armenian genocide

At least one million Armenian Christians died in 1915–16 as a direct result of the policies of the ruling faction in the Ottoman empire, the Committee of Union and Progress. Many were murdered outright, especially by paramilitary forces, Ottoman gendarmes and some elements of the Ottoman army. Multitudes also perished amid the terrible conditions of privation, exposure, exhaustion, and abuse that prevailed in mass deportations marches from the Armenians’ ancestral homelands in and around Anatolia (roughly today’s Turkey) to the deserts in today’s Syria and Iraq.

The immediate radicalising context for this slaughter was the empire’s existential struggle in the world war. The longer-term context was the territorial decline of the empire; as it lost extensive lands, especially European ones with large Christian populations, its political elites developed a pronounced hostility towards and suspicion of Christian populations in the remaining areas. During wartime, with the rump empire aligned against external powers who had periodically posed as protectors of the Ottoman Armenians, and with a government suffused with ethno-religious chauvinism, genocide was the way of solving the ‘Armenian question’ for good.

Bosnia

Around 100,000 people were killed and far more forcibly expelled – ‘ethnically cleansed’ – during the 1992–25 conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The major perpetrators were Bosnian Serb military and paramilitary forces operating with the assistance of the Yugoslav People’s Army, which was controlled by the leaders of the Republic of Serbia, the preponderant political force within the rump state of Yugoslavia.

The war began after Bosnia followed the erstwhile Yugoslav Republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia and declared independence. One of the major drivers of Bosnia’s drift towards independence had been fear of dominance within rump Yugoslavia by Serbia, which was under the stridently nationalist leadership of Slobodan Milošević.

Now Serbia-backed Bosnian Serb forces followed a pattern established in Croatia in 1991. They murdered, terrorised and expelled non-Serbs in order to carve out expansive, homogenously Serbian territories that would remain politically close to the Serbian Republic. Where Croats had been the major victims of anti-civilian violence by Serb forces in Croatia, Muslims were the major victims in the dismemberment of Bosnia – around 65,000 in number, both soldiers and civilians.

At points, albeit on a smaller scale, Bosnian Croat forces also targeted Muslims in abortive pursuit of a Croat political entity in Bosnia. In 1994–45 Croatian forces then linked arms with the Bosnian army to provide the increasingly successful ground-force operation against Serb forces that was the vital complement to the expanded Nato bombing operations in summer-autumn 1995. At the same time, victorious Croatian forces within independent Croatia ‘cleansed’ Serb civilians from formerly Serb-held territory there.

When does humanitarian intervention occur?

In response to the humanitarian failures in the 1990s and early 2000s, in 2005 the UN adopted the principle of the “international community’s… Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) civilian populations “from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” in states that are incapable of or unwilling to exercise that responsibility themselves. The UN Security Council is the only body that may authorise interventions in accordance with R2P.

Clearly, intervention still may not occur despite the instance of the enumerated atrocities. Even given Security Council authorisation, which is by no means guaranteed, concern about losses can determine whether an individual state will contribute to UN military intervention forces, as opposed to peacekeeping forces with their different and generally less perilous mandate. Changing international norms may help stimulate action. So too the ‘CNN effect’ of visual exposure to human suffering can stimulate action, as was the case in 1995 with coverage of atrocities in Bosnia. But the idea of sacrificing citizens of one state to save those of another can deter politicians.

America’s provision of troops in Somalia in 1992–94 seemed to substantiate post-Cold War claims of a new humanitarian order. The intervention occurred against the backdrop of the collapse of the Somali state into warlordism and famine. Its remit was securing humanitarian relief by any means necessary. After initial optimism, Washington’s looming realisation of the complexity of circumstances on the ground and the combat deaths of 18 US troops in the battle of Mogadishu – losses magnified by the widespread broadcast of the soldiers’ bodies being dragged through the streets – were enough to force American withdrawal.

Some states are so powerful as to have effective impunity to commit mass atrocities and to lend that impunity to others

‘Mogadishu syndrome’ haunted the US through the Rwandan genocide and the crises in the former Yugoslavia. It helps explains why mainly air power, with its minimised risk to Nato personnel, was deployed against Serb forces in Bosnia in 1992–95 and against Serbia in the Kosovo crisis in 1999. The refusal to commit ground troops for armed engagement with Serb forces was one of the factors facilitating mass murder and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in the years up to the summer of 1995.

Moreover, though the widespread use of aerial bombardment in 1999 was important in forcing Milošević’s Serbia into accepting a settlement of the Kosovo issue, it had also been heralded by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as a way of stopping Serbian violence against Albanian Muslims in Kosovo. In fact, in the absence of ground forces, aerial attacks initially prompted an expansion of Serb atrocities, including ethnic cleansing.

In reality, intervention during mass atrocity, and especially the most comprehensive, boots-on-the-ground armed intervention, tends mainly to occur when intervention is consistent with the narrower economic or political interests of those intervening. There is an obvious and instructive discrepancy between the west’s determined and costly deployment of troops and material in the ‘war on terror’ and its response to mass death in Africa and beyond.

Over Rwanda, Dallaire was correct about the absence of will, but will tends to track self-interest in international affairs (and not just them). For the US or the UK there were just not enough interests at stake in a small African country. Conversely, when India invaded East Pakistan in 1971, its action against the murderous Pakistani military dovetailed with Delhi’s desire to weaken its neighbour and competitor Pakistan.

The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in late 1978 saved many Cambodian lives, but it was driven by the external hostility of the Khmer Rouge regime and the goal of establishing a pro-Vietnamese government in Phnom Penh. This is to say that in both the India-Pakistan and Vietnam-Cambodia cases some of the consequences of armed intervention were humanitarian even though the motives were not principally humanitarian.

It may be that, in general, this sort of confluence of particular motive interests and humanitarian consequences is the most that can be expected in terms of intervention during mass atrocity. Such a scenario means inevitably selective, inconsistent intervention leading to charges of double-standards. Double-standards are not to be ignored, but alleging or identifying them does not constitute a compelling argument against action in any given instance where that action is merited on the facts of the case and realistically possible.

The wrong sort of intervention

If one limits one’s attention to the lack of will, one is apt to think only of acts of omission, ie what was not done that might have been done in this or that case. Thinking of acts of commission brings a range of different scenarios into view; scenarios involving pro-active behaviour that is anything but humanitarian.

One example of such behaviour is the vast industry of arms provision to regimes guilty of gross human rights abuses. Other examples include technical or intelligence assistance to such regimes or international diplomatic cover for them. In different permutations the US – the power to which so many look for leadership in international humanitarian affairs – was culpable of all these things during, say, its support of the Suharto regime that murdered hundreds of thousands of Indonesian leftists in 1965–66, or its support of brutal right-wing dictatorships in Latin America during the Cold War. While the Clinton administration was propounding intervention in Kosovo, it was downplaying mass human rights abuses in Angola owing to commercial interests.

Some states are so powerful as to have effective impunity to commit mass atrocities and to lend that impunity to others. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, the USA, France, the UK, and China – have special power to act in such a way as to thwart collective action in the form of ‘substantive’ UN resolutions. Their vetoes can be used to protect their allies and themselves against actions resulting from largescale human rights abuse and infringements of international law. China’s and Russia’s diplomatic protection of North Korea is but one example. I invite readers to research the long list of other instances.

The Clinton administration downplayed human rights abuses in Angola due to commercial interests

As to interventions in the affairs of other states and peoples, imperial interventions have historically been far more frequent than humanitarian ones. Imperial impulses and cynical great power politics are clearly still with us – they never left. Furthermore, interventions of a solely self-interested character have often been justified on humanitarian grounds. This was the case during the late 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’, but it was also present when the Blair government presented its case for invading Iraq. The 2003 invasion harmed the cause of intervention that could more genuinely be called humanitarian.

Political games

Humanitarian concern has been alternately used and discarded for domestic and foreign policy agendas, as illustrated in the longer view by the history of the southeastern Balkans and the Ottoman empire. In the 1820s, Britain only supported Greek rebels in their campaign for independence from the “Ottoman yoke” when a range of economic and strategic concerns shifted the overall calculation. Previously the hope, again grounded in strategic priority, had been for a restoration of Ottoman control whatever the humanitarian concerns. After Greek independence, successive British governments returned to their policy of supporting Ottoman territorial integrity.


Listen: Eugene Rogan answers listener questions on one of history’s most powerful and long lasting empires


Half a century later, during the Bulgarian uprising against Ottoman rule in the ‘eastern crisis’ of 1875–78, Ottoman irregulars carried out mass slaughter of Bulgarians, razing whole villages and towns. As an opposition figurehead at the time, British politician William Ewart Gladstone’s forceful denunciation of these atrocities was designed as much to attack the Tory government and strengthen his position and that of his party domestically as to inspire action against the Ottomans responsible for the massacres. The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli cynically downplayed news of the atrocities as “coffeehouse babble”, and both statesmen ignored the mass atrocities perpetrated against Balkan Muslims.

At the close of the crisis, Britain contrived to limit Ottoman losses, fearing Russian expansion in eastern Turkey in an area that might threaten Britain’s communications with India. This involved paying lip service to non-enforceable reforms for vulnerable Armenian Christians while ensuring Istanbul’s sovereignty over the same people.

During the First World War, London was wary of highlighting the mass murder of those selfsame Armenians in case raising the issue antagonised Muslims in the British empire – or at least this was the case until it was calculated that there was profit in publicising the killing to encourage American entry into war.

In more recent times, British governments have continued to take the line of least resistance in international affairs and refuse to challenge Turkey’s denial that Turkey’s predecessor state committed genocide. The same was true with the USA, whose strategic interests long aligned with Turkey’s, until both Houses of Congress passed a resolution on recognition of the genocide in 2019 and President Biden used the ‘G-word’ in 2021 on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, 24 April.

US president Joe Biden
US president Joe Biden. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Public condemnation

Public opinion was vociferous in contesting the US and UK-led justification for “acceptable intervention” in Iraq, as were other states on the UN Security Council. Many protestors took to the streets in demonstrations across Europe based on their suspicion about the real intentions behind the invasion.

The historical record shows growing international concern regarding abuses of human rights, and domestic public opinion has helped to shape this agenda. The evidence of Kosovo in 1999 and Ukraine in 2022 shows that when ordinary people are alerted to the cause of refugee crises, they will respond with a sympathy transcending calculations of national interest.

The public can be kept in the dark, or misinformed, or their attention directed only to issues that power – including media – elites deem useful for their purposes, just as law can be subverted or circumvented by those with the will and influence to do so. At the same time, highlighting injustice and suffering in one case can bring both justified attention to that case and a heightened sensitivity to roughly similar cases elsewhere.

While it would be naïve to expect moral consistency in the attitudes of the UK or any other state to atrocities permitted in different places across the globe, the pressure for consistency, and the associated charge of hypocrisy, can still be a powerful tool. In some situations this can be pressure to do less – eg stop selling arms to criminal regimes – in the name of ‘do no harm’, while in other cases it can be pressure to do more.

Making a difference: people power

While states have put narrow interest first, and inter-state organisations have been hamstrung by internal disagreement, some individuals and groups have provided leadership. During the Second World War, independent MP Eleanor Rathbone fought to persuade the British government to put resources into rescuing Europe’s Jews at a time when the focus was on military victory. Rathbone’s aid to refugees culminated in the establishment of the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror in 1943.

Journalists, too, have turned the spotlight on ‘unfashionable’ atrocities. John Pilger, for instance, was influential in raising awareness of Indonesian crimes in East Timor and the collusion of the US and China with the Khmer Rouge for years after its genocides in Cambodia.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group, and, in Britain, the AEGIS Trust, have campaigned for action against gross human rights violators. A variety of aid agencies and charities, including Oxfam, CARE, and Médecins sans Frontières, have offered help to the victims.

Donald Bloxham is Richard Pares Professor of History at the University of Edinburgh. Among his publications are Genocide on Trial: War Crimes Trials and the Formation of Holocaust History and Memory (Oxford University Press, 2001); The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians (Oxford University Press, 2005); and The Final Solution: A Genocide (OUP, 2009). He has also written on the history and ethics of the discipline of history, with publications including Why History? A History (OUP, 2020) and History and Morality (OUP, 2020). He is currently completing a book on extreme political violence worldwide since 1945.

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This article was originally written for BBC History Magazine in 2008 and has been updated following the outbreak of war in Ukraine in 2022

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