Modernity and civilization offer no shield against future genocide

What has changed, and what have we learned from previous genocides? Very little. As long as we put our short-sighted political interest above human lives, we prove we have leaned little from history and are condemned to repeat it time and again. We must hold up the mantra of “never again”, and act before it’s too late.

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By Dr. Alon Ben-Meir

The phenomenon of genocide has baffled historians for many generations. The question that has been and continues to be asked is what goes through the minds of leaders, however despotic and ruthless, to conclude that committing genocide against their real or perceived enemies will provide them with salvation that only the extermination of other people would bring? And what does that say about us as human beings, who have failed to adopt “never again”, sworn to in the wake of World War II, as the mantra to guide us in preventing the occurrences of genocides?

It seems that we settled on the notion that modernity and civilization, and international laws that prohibit crimes against humanity, will be enough to prevent future genocides. To the contrary, modernity is where genocide reached its pinnacle, enabling countries to murder on an assembly line, such as the genocide committed by Germany against the Jews. Obviously, this notion is completely misguided, as is evident by the genocides in Kosovo, the Sudan, and Rwanda that were perpetrated nearly five decades after the conclusion of the second World War.

The various motives that prompted previous leaders to commit such large-scale genocides have not changed, as xenophobia, racism, discrimination, and intolerance remain very much a part of human society. Even a cursory review of what is happening around us at the present, from China to America, suggests that the roots of genocide have not been eradicated. Indeed, as long as we continue to see each other from the prism of a different religion, different color, different race, or different ideology, and blame others for our plight, the prospect of future genocides still looms high.

The genocides that occurred over the past 110 years were motivated by different rationales but led to similar horrifying consequences.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks advocated for the formation of an exclusively Turkish Muslim state. The policy of “Turkey for the Turks”, and rejection of any nationality that did not subscribe to Islam, led to the decimation of nearly 2.5 million Pontic Greeks and Armenians. In Rwanda, genocide was perceived as the only way to break out of a historical cycle of discrimination and oppression of the Hutu majority by the Tutsi minority.

The Germans believed that they belonged to a superior race—Aryan—while the Jews belonged to an inferior race that threatened to contaminate and pollute German society and culture. Serbia adopted a strong exclusionary ideology, proclaiming that Serbia was for Serbians and that other nationalities should leave or be eliminated. Finally, in Sudan, competition for scarce resources and north Sudan’s takeover of the southern Sudanese, the majority of whom are non-Muslim and non-Arab, sparked genocide there.

Methods of extermination

The states that perpetrated genocide by and large used similar methods to exterminate their enemies. Against the Pontic Greeks, the Ottomans employed massacres, death marches, summary expulsions, arbitrary executions, rape, and forced conscription into labor battalions.

The Serbian military’s effort to reassert control over the region was accompanied by atrocities such as the destruction of over 500 villages and killing of an estimated 15,300 civilians. Twenty thousand women were raped, and thousands disappeared. Serbia’s response to NATO’s intervention was to drive out all the Kosovar Albanians, pushing nearly 1.2 million refugees into neighboring Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

The Turkish policy of exterminating Armenians was carried out under the guise of deportation. Massacres were carried out through mass burnings: 80,000 Armenians in 90 villages were burned in stables and haylofts. Thousands were killed by drowning – women and children would be placed onto boats that were capsized in the Black Sea. Turkish physicians also contributed to the planning and execution of the genocide. All in all, nearly 1.5 million Armenians were extinguished.

In Germany, the Extermination of the Jews, the “Final Solution”, began with mobile killing groups called Einsatzgruppen. They gathered Jews town by town, marched them to huge pits, stripped them, lined them up, and shot them with automatic weapons. Immediately following the Wannsee Conference in 1942, Jewish men, women, and children were methodically killed with poisonous gas. More than six million Jews perished over a period of four years.

In Rwanda, an unofficial militia group called the Interahamwe was mobilized; at its peak, this group was 30,000 strong. In addition to brutal mass killings, systematic rape was also used as a weapon of war during the genocide.

The Darfur genocide began in 2003 with the mass murder and rape of people living in Western Sudan, carried out by the Janjaweed, a government-funded group that continued attacks until 2010. The Janjaweed are ethnic Arab militia groups, which would follow government attacks from the air with scorched-earth campaigns, burning villages, and poisoning wells.


Strong pan-Turkish and pan-Islamist propaganda began to appear in the Ottoman press in early August 1914, which alienated and intimidated non-Muslims; the Ottomans believed that the Christian Pontic Greeks were tainting the population and threatening the integrity of the Muslim-majority nation-state. Ottoman authorities created a propaganda campaign, claiming that Armenians were a threat to national security, in part because of some Armenians’ support of Russia in the ongoing World War. Because most Turks were illiterate, anti-Armenian propaganda was primarily disseminated in the sermons of Muslim mullahs and by town criers, who labeled Armenians as spies, infidels, and traitors. The promotion of Islamism was critical, as it was the central ideology behind the Armenian and Greek genocides.

One of the major tools of Nazi propaganda was a weekly newspaper, Der Stürmer (The Attacker), which proclaimed at the bottom of the front page of each issue, “The Jews are our misfortune!” The newspaper regularly featured cartoons of Jews in which they were caricatured as hooked-nose and ape-like. The Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, headed by Joseph Goebbels, employed art, music, theater, films, books, radio, educational materials, and the press. Propaganda encouraged passivity and acceptance of the impending laws against the Jews. Nazi films portrayed Jews as subhuman, wandering parasites, infiltrating Aryan society.

Milosevic’s propaganda campaign was based on the Nazis’ techniques, with the added power of television. To weld the population together, official propaganda drew on the sources of the Serbian mystique, that of a people who were the mistreated victims and martyrs of history, and that of Greater Serbia, indissolubly linked to the Orthodox religion. Serbian television and radio’s repetitive use of pejorative descriptions against Croats, Bosnians, and Albanians quickly became part of common usage.

Hutu extremists in Rwanda also used the media to their benefit. Local officials and government-sponsored radio stations called on ordinary Rwandan civilians to murder their neighbors. Radio was utilized to provide the location of specific Tutsis to be targeted. Radio was also used to justify the genocide; radio hosts discussed discrimination the Hutus suffered under the Tutsis.

In the Nuba Mountains and southern Sudan, crimes against humanity were justified by characterizing victims – Christians by and large – as ‘infidels’ (kafir). In Darfur, with a mostly Muslim population, a different kind of rationalization for slaughter was required. The regime categorized Darfuris as infidels by connecting them with Judaism, and emphasized that the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massalit were non-Arab; the Zaghawa tribe in particular was portrayed as having Jewish origins. All the tribes were then seen as generally non-Muslim and therefore evil, sub-human, and unable to be trusted.

Measures to prevent future genocide

As we have witnessed, the concept of “never again” that was coined in the wake of the Holocaust and embraced as the mantra for future generations to prevent genocide failed to materialize. Acts of horrifying genocide occurred time and again during the past three decades; Rwanda, Sudan, and Kosovo provide telling examples. What is necessary then is to create awareness, especially among the young generation, about the horrors of genocide that human beings are capable of inflicting on others, and stop pretending that modernity and civilization provide a natural shield against future genocides.

The fact that the current young generation is becoming increasingly less aware of genocides that occurred even two decades ago is extremely worrying. For example, less than 35 percent of Americans are aware there was an Armenian genocide. In Britain, 800 students from 15 schools were asked if they had any knowledge about genocides that occurred since the Holocaust; 81 percent could not name any modern genocide, only 13 percent knew about the Rwandan genocide, 5 percent knew about the atrocities in Bosnia and Cambodia, and a mere 2 percent knew about the Darfur genocide.

There are several measures that all nations ought to take to prevent future genocide, albeit not a single or a combination of such measures can ensure that genocide will never happen again. Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant and do whatever it takes to prevent mass killings.

First, it is crucial that the study of genocide in general be offered as a course that all middle and high school students should be required to take. There is no doubt that learning the history, psychology, motivation, and methodology used to effect mass executions is a necessary step that would help prevent future genocide. In this regard, listening to the stories and experiences of genocide survivors in a classroom setting is critical because unlike reading about genocide (which is vital), sharing the experience of what a survivor has endured, especially when describing the horrifying consequences, humanizes victims and leaves an indelible mark in the minds of the students. In addition, it is necessary to provide books, other printed materials, and videos produced specifically for those age groups to see and feel the level to which human beings are capable of descending.

Second, it is essential that communities hold symposiums and town hall meetings to discuss mass killings with speakers who have personally experienced or are noted authorities on genocide. These should be held on the anniversaries of various genocides, coinciding with public awareness campaigns to ensure that these atrocities are remembered. Organizations focused on educating about and preventing genocide, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Enough Project, should lead the way in holding such events, given their credibility and expertise on the issue of genocide. Inviting the press to cover such events will remind people that we are living in a time when such atrocities can still happen, and that each and every one of us must assume a role, however small, to promulgate knowledge of the unfathomable acts that sadly are still a part of our nature as human beings.

Third, acknowledging that mass murders have in fact occurred, and taking certain measures to prevent it from ever happening again, such as the case with Germany, can go a long way to prevent history from repeating itself by creating a process of reconciliation to heal the wounds. As such, we must not allow countries like Turkey (including its Ottoman predecessors), who committed unspeakable atrocities against the Greeks and Armenians in the wake of World War I, to deny its crimes against humanity with impunity. Even now, Turkey under President Erdogan refuses to acknowledge Turkey’s historic crimes. Every country should follow France’s and Germany’s footsteps and pass laws that make the denial of the Pontic Greek and Armenian genocides a crime punishable by jail time or fine, or both.

Fourth, it is imperative that the UN or EU (preferably the EU to prevent political jockeying), create a commission to monitor conflicts within or between countries that could lead to genocide. Preventive measures can take place to avert such conflicts from escalating. That is, early intervention could certainly de-escalate tension and mitigate conflicts. For example, early intervention in Rwanda could have prevented the genocide against the Tutsis.

There were clear signs that the tension between the two sides was building up; UN peacekeeping forces commander General Roméo Dallaire notified his superiors in New York that genocide was imminent in a memo now known as the “genocide fax”. The fact that nearly 800,000 were slaughtered within a 90-day period was not a spontaneous outburst, but clearly a premeditated scheme that had been in the works for a long period of time.

Finally, in the age of unprecedented social media that allows us to reach millions of people in a few minutes, it should be fully utilized to create greater awareness about genocides. However controversial the use of social media may be, its overwhelming pervasiveness cannot be ignored, and its power must be used to create public awareness about past genocides that would help prevent future gross violations of human rights.

On the same note, companies like Facebook, whose platform was used to incite genocide in Myanmar, and Twitter, which was groundbreakingly used by ISIS to promote its ideology, must be held responsible and be proactive in removing content inciting hatred and violence.

The civil war in Syria that has so far led to the deaths of over 600,000, five million refugees, and as many internally displaced, by definition is not a genocide. However, indiscriminately bombing towns and villages from the air to kill tens of thousands of innocent people is still akin to genocide. When such atrocities can take place both in Syria and in Yemen with little to no effort to stop them, it suggests how inept and indifferent the international community has become, which allows such horrifying carnages to take place.

It is these types of gross human rights violations that are happening with impunity by the perpetrators, along with the ongoing genocides against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and Yazidis, Kurds, and Christians by ISIS, that raise serious questions about our ability to address such horrific crimes. We can, if we only will it. But we are still unwilling to rise and take whatever measures necessary to prevent such atrocities.

What has changed, and what have we learned from previous genocides? Very little. As long as we put our short-sighted political interest above human lives, we prove we have leaned little from history and are condemned to repeat it time and again. We must hold up the mantra of “never again”, and act before it’s too late.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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