Monday, January 31, 2005

Food for Thought

Seeing HOTEL RWANDA recently has caused me to do some reading about the Rwandan genocide, giving me an opportunity to consider what such incidents, including the ongoing genocide in Darfour, Sudan, mean in a post-Holocaust world.

I am currently reading Philip Gourevitch's We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. It is a sort of history of the genocide and the aftermath from the point of view of people subsequently interviewed by Gourevitch, with Gourevitch's commentary included.

Gourevitch notes that, after the Holocaust, the UN signatory nations pledged to stop genocide in the world whenever it happens. But the West not only failed to respond to the genocide in Rwanda, but several nations, including the US, actually obstructed with efforts to do anything. I had known that the US had failed to act in Rwanda, but until reading this book, I never fully realized that the US, seeking to stay out of Rwanda after the failure in Somalia, kept anyone else from calling the genocide "genocide" in order to avoid having to fulfill its obligation under the anti-genocide treaty.

I thought perhaps that Rwanda, like Somalia, was just too chaotic a situation for the US to do anything about. But it turns out that Rwanda is a very small nation, about the size of Vermont, which wasn't under the control of a bunch of warlords like Somalia. General Dallaire, the Canadian commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, who was ordered not to interfere while the genocide took place, estimated that he could have stabilized the country and ended the genocide with only 5000 troops. The US didn't even have to provide the troops; it only had to allow other countries to do so.

Expressing an insight I have read in many texts dealing with the Holocaust, Gourevitch writes:
The West's post-Holocaust pledge that genocide would never again be
tolerated proved to be hollow, and for all the fine sentiments inspired by the
memory of Auschwitz, the problem remains that denouncing evil is a
far cry from doing good.
[emphasis mine]

Many try to claim that Rwanda was just another case of Africans killing Africans. They say the US and the West can't intervene everywhere.

If the Rwandan genocide were just Africans killing Africans, then the Holocaust would be just another case of Europeans killing Europeans. And the same would go for Yugoslavia, where the Clinton administration chose to intervene rather than sit on the sidelines. But there is a difference between the many conflicts and civil wars all over the world and events like the Holocaust, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. Gourevitch points out that what make genocide different than mass murder is the idea behind genocide: To wipe a category of human beings from the face of the planet. Genocide is a thought crime that is carried out through mass murder. The difference is the intent of the perpetrators.

And that is why Rwanda wasn't just Africans killing Africans. There was a difference between Rwanda and Somalia, and the US State Department knew it. That's why the State Department fought so hard to avoid using the word "genocide:" using that word would have incurred obligations the US was striving to avoid. Knowingly striving to avoid.

The next time you reflexively think of a country, the US or any other, as good, think of what Gourevitch said and think again. Remember, "denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good."

And, more to the point, that denouncing genocide is a far cry from actually doing something to stop it. While we spend billions on a misguided war in Iraq, genocide continues in Darfour.

And yet the US, a self-proclaime force for good in the world, does nothing.

A far cry, indeed.


At 6:34 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Your comments are well-placed, and I do not disagree with your conclusions -- particularly since I've not read the book of which you speak, and (aside from having seen the movie HOTEL RWANDA) I know next to nothing about the atrocities that took place in Rwanda. And, as usual, my post is not a contradiction of anything you said, rather an excuse to side-step a little to a different issue.

The question I have is this: How does one, exactly, ascertain that "genocide" has taken (or is taking) place? Or, more broadly, how does one establish the definition of such words?

Here is the reason I ask: a UN commission recently decided that the abuse taking place in Darfur, while horrible, does not constitute genocide. It is interesting that Colin Powel considered it so, but the UN is more conservative on the matter -- but that is another matter. Of course, there are political issues that make the motivation for backing a particular finding complex, but aside from these motivations, I wonder how one comes to such a conclusion objectively.

The UN, apparently, defines genocide as "an attempt to systematically destroy a nation or ethnic group." While I can't disagree with this definition, I am not entirely sure it clarifies things on a legal level. Since there are treaties involved binding the participants in that treaty to certain courses of action based on such findings, clarity on the matter would seem to be very important -- particularly when military involvement in another country is being considered.

The commission apparently found that there were certainly "crimes against humanity" in Darfur, that abuse was "widespread and systematic" (emphasis mine), that certain members of the government and the militia acted "with genocidal intent," but it is not "genocide." The report concludes that the crimes committed can and should be considered war crimes and that they may be "no less serious and heinous than genocide."

So, as far as I can tell, leaders intended to commit genocide, did commit atrocities that were just as bad as if it had been genocide, but it was not genocide. If one removes the political ramification of the word from the equation, this is an utterly baffling finding. Of course, the political implications of the word, particularly coming from the UN, make the finding more understandable, if also more disappointing.

However, my real point is that we must be very careful with language. You have appealed to readers of your blog to be careful using the word "evil," and I totally agree. I would also caution people to be careful using the word "terrorism," as I still have yet to hear a definition for the word that makes sense, and matches how it is used by the US and others. That isn't to say that there wasn't genocide in Rwanda, or in Darfur (in fact, I tend the believe so), or that the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center were not terrorism (what else were they, if not that?). I am less concerned with casual usage of these words than I am about their casual (careless?) definitions.

When definitions are vague, they are left open to be used as manipulating factors in political and public debates. We have seen this time and time again with the word "terrorism." The way President Bush uses it, the word has little meaning beyond "people whom we oppose." The US is fighting a "war on terror," and I, as a US citizen, don't know what terrorism is ... I don't know what, exactly, we are fighting, who qualifies as a "terrorist", or how that term differs from simply the word "enemy."

Your point here shows the other side: when the definition is vague, we can use the slack to get out of treaty obligations. Presumably the nations that signed the treaty did so because they believed that actions that constitute genocide (whatever that is) are severe enough that the world should be involved in helping bring a stop to it. When we turn around and use a specific aspect of the treaty (e.g., play in the definition) to justify inaction, or to qualify it, we undermine the intent of the treaty, in my opinion.

These are serious words, with serious consequences. I believe we have an obligation to define them clearly, use them only when we truly believe they apply, and behave accordingly when we come to that conclusion. I am glad the UN established a commission to consider the matter, and that they investigated and documented the atrocities -- that was the right thing to do -- but their finding makes me wonder what the definition of the word really should be to make it clearer. Their comments leave me confused about what we believe "genocide" is, exactly.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

The "acts of genocide" excuse didn't originate with Darfour. It originated with Rwanda. The US State Department, eager not to become involved, refused to label the events in Rwanda "genocide," thereby requiring a response under the UN Genocide Convention, and instead weaseled out by calling the events in Rwanda "acts of genocide."

No one was fooled then, or now. A reporter tried to pin a State Department spokesperson down on this one by asking, "How many 'acts of genocide' does it take to become a genocide?" The answer: As many or as few as we want.

Thereby, the US and the UN eviscerated the Genocide Convention and gave Hitler a posthumous victory over his victims and survivors, who can no longer feel that all those deaths at least meant nothing like that would ever happen again. In 1946, the US and the UN said, "Never again." In 1994, the US and the UN said, "Again, if that's what you really want."

Gourevitch, as I noted in my original post, contends that genocide is a *thought* crime. That is to say, that it is the *intention* of those acting that defines genocide. Genocide requires only the *intent* to wipe a nation or ethnic group from the face of the Earth. By this definition, there can be no "acts of genocide" without genocide. They would be one in the same. As soon as a group begins killing another group with the intention of wiping that group out, it is genocide. End of story.

The idea that there are degrees of genocide is crazy. If genocide is only genocide if it is successful or succeeding, as you posit the UN to possibly think, then the Holocaust was not genocide. And if the Holocaust isn't genocide, nothing is.

That's what Gourevitch thinks. I agree. It's nearly impossible to disguise genocide. Even Hitler, with all his attempts, failed. The West knew about the camps and his plans as early as 1941. The UN and the US knew that a genocide was happening in Rwanda and what is going on in Darfour. As soon as you see "acts of genocide" you know there's a genocide going on. The only reason to claim differently is to avoid responsibility.

No one was fooled during Rwanda and no one is fooled now. Defining terrorism, as you note, is legitimately very difficult. I have not heard anyone present a workable definition either, other than the old saw once used with porn: "I know it when I see it."

But genocide isn't like that. Everyone, even the UN and the US, know what genocide is. It's not a good-faith disagreement in those cases. It's an attempt by the UN and the US to obfuscate the issue.


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