This article was last modified on November 15, 2010.

Empire Strikes First: Subjectivity of Genocide

What is genocide? The term is actually quite modern, having been coined in reference to the Holocaust in the 1940s. Today, the word is used more loosely to refer to the systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group on a mass scale. Recent uses include the Rwandan genocide (popularly portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda), and the word has even been used to refer to events before its creation, such as the Armenian genocide during World War I. The definition seems quite clear, and these three examples are hardly debatable. But could its overall usage be largely political and subjective?

That accusation is precisely what is set forth in the newest book from finance professor Edward S. Herman and independent, Chicago-based journalist David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, published in 2010 by Monthly Review Press. They make the claim, with plenty of statistics on their side, that if you are a Western superpower or an ally of said superpower, your crimes will largely go unreported and unpunished. Needless to say, the only superpower in the West happens to be the United States of America. Are we looking away while our allies kill thousands or even millions of innocent people?

Let us compare the current popular cause celebre with America’s most recent military escapade. “Genocide” was used by newspapers to describe the situation in Darfur 90 times as often as for the US invasion of Iraq, though between 2003 and 2009, more than three times as many innocent people died in Iraq. Our cause is deemed noble, though, making the “collateral damage” of civilians and children acceptable to journalists’ palettes.

The Congo, likewise, has suffered nearly twenty times as many deaths as Darfur for twice as many years, though the attention again falls on Darfur. Herman and Peterson suggest this is because the United States is allies with those responsible for the Congo killings, Rwandan President Paul Kagame (2000-current) and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (1986-current). If the number of deaths is divided by the times the word “genocide” appears in the press, the Congo received only one genocide mention for every 317,647 deaths. In comparison, when the Albanians of Kosovo were being killed, the press called it a genocide for every time twelve people — a mere dozen — were killed. Why did Kosovo get branded the more newsworthy genocide? Is it because ethnically they appear white rather than black?

Over 4 years, 33,000 Bosnian Muslims died. Over 13 years, US sanctions on Iraq lead to 800,000 deaths (which Madeleine Albright called “worth it”). Sanctions killed 24 times as many people as in Bosnia in three times as many years, yet the Bosnian deaths were referred to as a genocide 6 times as often. Killing children with forced poverty is apparently not as cruel as simply shooting or bombing them.

Turkey has killed 30,000 Kurds, destroyed 3500 villages and created three million refugees. In the same time period, Iraq under Saddam Hussein killed about 20,000 Kurds. Turkey’s actions were called “genocide” fourteen times compared to 132 for Iraq. Furthermore, Iraq’s treatment of the Kurds merited twenty-four front page stories, whereas Turkey received only one. Iraq received a free pass at the time because they were our ally — we (Ronald Reagan and Donald Rumsfeld) even sold them the chemical weapons used for eradication — but Turkey still gets a free pass today, as well as getting a pass on the Armenian genocide until recently. Being an American ally gets you off the hook from bad press and potential trials, especially if we need to use your airstrip.

Indonesia, our ally, killed 200,000 people in East Timor, a larger percentage of the population than Pol Pot killed in Cambodia around the same time. Cambodia was rightly condemned for their “killing fields”, but it took many years for the tragedy in East Timor to be made public. Military reports show that top-ranking American military officials, such as Admiral Dennis Blair, were fully aware of the situation and turned a blind eye. Blair was later nominated to be President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, and was called out about his role in Indonesia. He testified that, “In our conversations with leaders of Indonesia, both military and civilian, we decried and said that the torture and killing that was being conducted by paramilitary groups and some military groups in East Timor had to stop.” Contemporary reports contradict this claim, but regardless Blair was confirmed as the new DNI (and forced to resign a year later).

Interestingly, even if America’s role in so-called genocides was taken seriously, the International Criminal Court has no authority to pursue alleged war crimes committed by Iraq or the United States, according to ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Campo. Despite repeated complaints of offenses considered war crimes — targeting of civilians, excessive attacks, willful killings, and inhuman treatment of civilians — a country cannot be prosecuted by the ICC unless they have willingly acceded to its authority. Neither Iraq nor the United States has done so.

The book and its authors have been attacked by Professor Gerald Caplan, a Canadian history professor who specializes in African history and the Rwandan genocide. He claims that Ed Herman is a “crackpot” and that the book denies that the Rwandan genocide ever took place. This assessment is particularly interesting because Caplan is in general agreement with them on the other topics covered, holds similar political views and has been published by the same ideological periodicals, including The Nation. I feel, however, that he mistakes the point of the book. No one would deny that Tutsis were killed in Rwanda, especially not Herman and Peterson. What they allege is that the killings received more coverage than any other massacre in recent history — the word “genocide” described the event a record 3,199 times, more than double the times that Darfur was spoken of in he same terms. The point is that proportionately Rwanda received excessive coverage as a “genocide” — not that it did not deserve such coverage, but simply that other greater massacres did not get similar press.

“Those who intentionally target innocent civilians must be held accountable, and we will continue to support institutions and prosecutions that advance this important interest,” states the National Security Strategy released by President Obama in May. Of course, we must not include America in this promise, at least not as long as we refuse to sign on to the International Criminal Court. With the wanton killings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and now Yemen, it would not be in our best interest if we intend to stay true to our word.

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