Our failure to recognize past genocide makes it a present threat

“We won’t go!”
“We won’t go!”
Image: AP Photo/Dar Yasin
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“Genocide” is a scary word.

It is of course terrifying for victims (potential or actual), as well as survivors. But it is also, it seems, scary for governments, which too often refuse to recognize when genocide happens or even the signs that it could happen again. In the past few days the world has witnessed distressing evidence that genocide did happen, that it is happening, and that it will happen again. Yet there’s been little response.

The promises of “never again” feel as hollow as they’ve ever been.

Forgetting the past

Only three of the genocides that have occurred since the UN adopted the 1951 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide have officially been recognized: in Cambodia, under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979); in Bosnia, during the Bosnian war (1992-1995); and in Rwanda, against the Tutsi minority (1994).

But those are only some of the genocidal mass killings that have taken place in recent decades. There was also East Timor (1970s), Bangladesh (1971), Guatemala (1982-1983), Iraq (1986-1989), Tibet (1998), Darfour (2003, and ongoing), the ISIS’ genocide of the Yazidis (2014), the killing of Nuers in South Sudan (2017), of Christians and Muslims in Central African Republic (ongoing), of Uighurs in China (ongoing), and of the Rohingya in Myanmar (ongoing).

And it’s not just the recent ones that the world refuses to acknowledge. Germany has yet to fully accept responsibility in the genocide of the Harare in Namibia in 1904-1908. And Turkey, which killed 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, still refuses to call the mass killing a genocide. And while the US Congress recently voted to recognize the Armenian genocide, the administration of US president Donald Trump on Tuesday stood by an earlier statement made by the president in which he called it “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century,” but stopped short of using the word “genocide,” illustrating how politically sensitive the century-old conflict is for Turkey and the United States.

For decades, Turkey has, as former UN ambassador Samantha Power once put it, “bullied” the US into not recognizing the Armenian genocide, investing great resources in lobbying against recognition in the United States, threatening economic retaliation and to weaken their support to US troops in Iraq.

Denying the present

This widespread inability to recognize, and condemn genocides of the past isn’t just bad for the purpose—as Power puts it—of “truth-telling.” Falling short of applying the correct label to the most heinous of crimes, and treating its perpetrators accordingly, makes humanity more lenient towards it in the present.

Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her work as a democratic activist. Yet last week in front of the UN Court of Justice in The Hague she refused to acknowledge the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority that’s been rendered stateless by Myanmar and is considered one of the most vulnerable populations in the world.

Tens of thousands of Rohingya have so far been killed at the hands of Myanmar’s Buddhist military. More than a hundred thousand have been corralled into detention camps. Whole villages have been burned to the ground. Many have been forced to flee to Bangladesh, where conditions are little better. Suu Kyi, who once risked jail and exile to campaign for better human rights in Myanmar, has stayed silent.

The plight of the Rohingya has colonial roots. Though the Rohingya have been living in what is now Rakhine state for more than a thousand years, many other Muslims were brought in as laborers, primarily from Bangladesh, by the British in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These laborers and their descendants were not Rohingya, but were assimilated by proximity. When the military took power in the 1960s it denied any Muslim in Rakhine recognition as part of a minority, claiming they were all migrant workers.

A 1982 citizenship law then caused violence to spiral beyond control. The military government recognized some 135 minority groups in Myanmar, but the Rohingya were not one of them. They were instead accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Systematic ethnic- and religious-based violence against the Rohingya followed.

As of today, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled the country and tens of thousands have been killed.

Compromising the future

It follows that failing to see the genocides that are happening in turn makes us blind to the signs announcing the ones in the making.

Myanmar’s history, for instance, is now the template for what is happening in India. The Indian government last week passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which provides a path to citizenships for non-citizens from Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Afghanistan who lived in India before the end of 2014. But only those that identify as followers of the following religions: Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians. Muslims are not included.

Beginning in 2015, the Indian government, led by Hindu nationalist Nahendra Modi, compiled the ominously named National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC was introduced with the goal of identifying illegal immigrants (which home minister Amit Shah refers to as “infiltrators”). Many of those so-called immigrants had been living in the country for a half century. But they were denied citizenship because they weren’t able to provide the required documentation to prove it.

Some of the 1.9 million people not included in the NRC were Hindu, which is where the CAA comes in. It gives them a path to become citizens. No such luck for the Muslims. Shah, also a Hindu nationalist, promised during this year’s national elections to extend the NRC to the whole country, using outright genocidal language. He called the people who would fall outside the NRC (mostly Muslims) “termites in the soil of Bengal,” and promised that the government would “pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.” 

Though the government insists that Muslims have nothing to fear, its supporters have taken the NRC and CAA as a green light to  ”kick Muslims out of India” and “halve India’s population, without any effort,” proving the fear of widespread ethnic violence isn’t misplaced.

Meanwhile, camps are being built to jail the nearly two million people (again, mostly Muslims) left out of the NRC. History has taught us what happens next.