Picture: 123RF/Phanom_M
Picture: 123RF/Phanom_M

To learn about genocides is to reach into unending layers of horror, and to recoil from human nature.

These awful episodes have been perpetrated throughout and beyond recorded history, but genocide is a new word, synthesised in the lead-up to the 1946 Nuremberg trials by leading international lawyer Raphael Lemkin, from the Greek genos (race or tribe) and the Latin for killing, cide. Lemkin believed there needed to be a word to fit a definition of heinous killings intended to destroy a group. The parallel thinking of another brilliant legal mind, Hersch Lauterpacht, held that mass, systematically planned murders were, foremost, crimes against identifiable individuals and, collectively, against all humanity.

Despite disagreement over definitions, their work pioneered the 1948 UN’s Genocide Convention, "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group". Lauterpacht’s particular focus was adopted 50 years later in the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court and, in terms of the treaty’s article 7, finally codified crimes against humanity.

Human nature

Our sensibilities may rage against this, but Friedrich Nietzsche insisted that a destructive craving for power is programmed into our nature. This was Sigmund Freud’s conclusion, too. "The slaughter of a foe gratifies an instinctive craving," he wrote to Albert Einstein in foreboding correspondence in 1931.

Still, fathoming human psychology does not entirely prepare for the unfathomable. An early British genocide stands out as particularly repugnant and disturbing, typifying the colonial takeover through the force of sword, gun, and hangman’s noose. On the island of Tasmania, from 1804, colonists began a campaign to exterminate the indigenous population. Unspeakable atrocities occurred under the guise of "black-catching", a form of patrol for released English convicts known as bushrangers, and a bloodsport for settler-farmers. Tasmania’s 10,000-year-old civilisation was obliterated in 70 years.

Ignorance and forgetting

Such nefarious chapters are not altogether lost to history — but, too often, they are set aside in a comfortably numb, acquiescent collective amnesia, such as the Thanksgiving and Columbus Day holidays, celebrated with a conspiratorial national silence which whitewashes the continent-wide dispossession and accompanying annihilation of 10-million native North Americans.

The US shamefully withheld ratification of the Genocide Convention for 40 years, aware of its implications in the context of African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights. The bigger picture, however, was captured by Martin Luther King Jr in 1963: "Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race … We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population."

But we need to go back further, and widen the lens again, to grasp the scale of human devastation in the Americas. In the 350 years following Columbus’s 1493 landing in the Caribbean, 100-million aboriginal people died as a result of the invasion by Europeans and the actions of their descendants. David Stannard’s American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (Oxford University Press), describes the rolling subjugation as "far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world".

Scale, suffering, and new forms

Numbers play a paradoxical role in seizing us — or washing over us. We identify evil through a subconscious ranking of the scales of slaughter. So the 6-million of the Holocaust force consideration and awful recognition; the 6,000 Tasmanians less so. Yet, even mass counts blur, and fail to convey the suffering: we need to reflect upon individual victims to comprehend the agony, such as Truganini, the last Tasmanian. She died in captivity in 1876 without a single compatriot throughout her last five years.

We may also remember Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni activist hanged by the Nigerian government in 1995 for protesting against the decimation of his Niger Delta homeland by the rapacious oil industry, whose 60-year presence in the delta is proof that violence can be inextricably woven within corporate strategies and spreadsheets. This is a different sort of genocide, one against people and Mother Earth alike, elucidated by activist-historian Dan Gretton in his multifaceted book I You We Them (Heinemann): "We need to forget about corporate social responsibility … we’re talking about individual responsibility of people who work in corporations … especially in a time of climate catastrophe. The planet isn’t dying, it’s being killed, and the people killing it have names and addresses."

In ways Lemkin could not have foreseen, this challenges definitions beyond the articles of the UN Genocide Convention. Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes has theorised a "genocidal continuum" which includes "small wars and invisible genocides", encompassing cultural oppression such as China’s attritional occupation of Tibet, the ruinous excesses of unfettered capitalism, and institutionalised racism and sexism.

Before we dismiss her conflation, we should consider our own roles, everyday actions, or the way we follow common conventions while insulating ourselves from the suffering of others. "Monsters exist," wrote Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, "but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common man, the functionaries, ready to believe and act without asking questions."

Moral questions

Genocides are vile to contemplate and inevitably defy comprehension, so minds close in hypocritical, cognitive dissonance which turns the cheek on diabolical crimes.

"Where is the outraged conscience of the world?" Lauterpacht demanded in 1946. The evidence of the past 75 years is that it has been further eroded.

There are genocides for every letter in the alphabet, many of them very recent. After Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Iraq; in Myanmar yesterday, Syria today, ongoing in eastern Congo, feasibly in Kashmir tomorrow: cycles of repetitive violence have anaesthetised the global public against even clear-cut atrocities.

But a deeper attention fatigue and malaise is at play, driven by harshening inequality and capitalism’s demand for endless growth, warped by post-truths, and amplified by media technologies. Essayist John Berger says the human faculty of compassion is fragile.

History must be rewritten when wrong

National, institutionalised denial and myth-making have eroded truth, or shaded responsibility by conflating supposed provocation by victim groups with perpetrator violence.

Or there are attempts to erase genocidal actions from history.

The 1845-1851 Irish famines underscore intentional strategies to obliterate a neighbouring population deemed contemptible. England’s government policy was to deliberately stoke the starvation. "God has sent the famine to teach the Irish a lesson," said assistant treasury secretary Sir Charles Trevelyan. London’s famine plot killed 1-million, and a further 1.3-million Irish abandoned their country in an unprecedented wave of desperate emigration. Ireland is the only European nation with a smaller population now than 150 years ago. Yet the famine is entirely absent from Britain’s school history curricula. England’s national narrative steers clear, in unrepentant ignorance.

Time does not easily change perspectives

Turkey still denies the Ottoman Empire’s extermination or expulsion of up to 2-million Armenians between 1915 and 1923. "Who remembers the Armenians?" said Adolf Hitler of the international community’s silence, which he interpreted as licensing his own plans. Mainly since 2015, dozens of countries have started to remember, and formally acknowledge the events as a genocide. The Vatican finally did so on June 24 2016. The next day, Turkey’s official response was vehement, President Recep Erdogan slating Pope Francis’s words as a mark of "Crusader mentality".

Thus, even centuries-old slaughters rebound and are relevant today. The past never dies; it always demands a reckoning.

Elusive justice

But in law, definition is key, and the prosecution of genocide or crimes against humanity has proven politically and procedurally fraught. "Those involved in such killings tend not to leave a trail of helpful paperwork," notes Philippe Sands in East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (W&N). And so, despite the "never again" mantra, the evil schemes of powerful leaders have persisted with impunity throughout the late 20th century and into current times.

History’s inexorable path, in hindsight

With hyper-aggressive nationalist politics, surging right-wing populism, and resentments of inequality, present conditions mirror those which fomented the "othering" of Europe’s minorities in the late-1920s and 1930s.

But if the road to the Holocaust was signposted, are we now better equipped to supersede the destructive forces shadowed within our hearts?

Realistically, no. In the gentle face of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, as she insists the ethnic cleansing of 40,000 Rohingya in Myanmar did not occur, chillingly refuting their plight — their very humanity — we see the appalling duality of human nature, an irreparable fault-line.

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