Roger W. Smith: Teaching About Genocide

Roundup: Talking About History

Roger W. Smith, in the Chronicle of Higher Education (July 30, 2004):

[Roger W. Smith is a professor emeritus of government at the College of William & Mary and a former president of the Association of Genocide Scholars.]

For 20 years, I taught a course on genocide: What is "genocide," why does it happen, who is responsible for it, and how could this ultimate crime be prevented? I told students that genocide -- intentional acts to eliminate in whole, or in substantial part, a specific human population -- had claimed the lives of some 60 million people in the 20th century, 16 million of them since 1945, when the watchword was "Never again." Genocide has, in fact, been so frequent, the number of victims so extensive, and serious attempts to prevent it so few, that many scholars have described the 20th century as "the age of genocide." Some have wondered if genocide is not itself a product of modernity, the dark energy of civilization.

But what my students wanted to know was: Why had the nations of the world, and particularly the United States, which they thought of as both powerful and just, not prevented the killing of millions of innocent people? Where was American power and moral commitment when a million Armenians were being slaughtered in Turkey in 1915, six million Ukrainians starved to death by Stalin in 1932-33, two million Bengalis murdered by Pakistan in 1971? What was America doing when still more millions were killed in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, not because of what they had done, but because of who they were? And, of course, there was the much-discussed question of whether more could have been done to prevent the Holocaust.

My students also wanted to know why it had taken the United States 40 years to ratify the Genocide Convention, which the United Nations endorsed unanimously in 1948, with strong U.S. support. The convention defined genocide and declared it a crime against international law. Why, as soon as the United States finally did ratify the convention, in 1988, did it support Saddam Hussein's regime despite evidence that the dictator had committed genocide against the Kurds in Iraq in 1987-88?

Today we continue to hear about genocide. As before, however, few Americans pay much attention. What is happening in Sudan? In Congo? With indigenous peoples in many other regions? Can you tell me? My students' questions -- and my own -- are increasingly important to all of us, both morally and politically.

Unfortunately they are not easy to answer. Sometimes the response hinges on factual information, but more often on judgment, an assessment of competing responsibilities, and context. At the outset we can reject claims that relieve all bystanders, whether states, organizations, or individuals, of responsibility for attempting to prevent or mitigate genocide. One argument, coming from perpetrators, is that victims of genocide (although the term is avoided) bear responsibility for their own destruction, having brought it upon themselves through provocation. Genocide is strictly an internal matter, this argument goes. Outside powers should mind their own business. Two immediate objections arise: First, provocations, when they exist at all, stem from a minority of the group of victims. Most of those who will be killed are innocent. Second, genocide is seldom without international consequences, ranging from a vast outpouring of refugees, with the need for large amounts of humanitarian aid, to regional instability and war.

A recent article in the Journal of Genocide Research provides a chilling variation on the argument about the responsibility of victims. In "Provoking Genocide: A Revised History of the Rwandan Patriotic Front," Alan J. Kuperman states: "In most cases of mass killing since World War II -- unlike the Holocaust -- the victim group has triggered its own demise by violently challenging the authority of the state." Kuperman adds that he does not use provocation to excuse genocide. Nor does he deny that there is an international responsibility to prevent genocide. But the obligation takes a bizarre turn: Intervention by third parties should not be directed against those we perceive as perpetrators; they, after all, are only defending themselves. Rather, intervention should be aimed at changing the behavior of the victims. In other words, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the international community should have ignored the Hutu preparations for genocide and focused, instead, on the intended Tutsi victims. The upshot of that Alice in Wonderland argument is that the victims become the perpetrators.

Claims are also made that genocides are inevitable, the result of ancient hatreds, conflict over scarce resources, or the advance of progress. A version of the inevitability thesis that found favor with some international planners in the 1960s was that genocide is simply a byproduct of development, and benefits to the surviving group outweigh the costs to the group that is decimated, or perhaps eliminated. Over the years that argument has been applied not only to the elimination of indigenous peoples (the Yanomami in Brazil, the Chittagong Hills tribesmen in Bangladesh), but also to the destruction of the Armenians in Turkey, which, we are told by some historians, paved the way for a more unified and stronger nation, one allied with the United States during the cold war.

Genocide, however, is never inevitable: It is always the result of choice. And surely lives are not interchangeable.

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