The Crime of Genocide: Experience from World History

The famous French writer Jean Paul-Sartre once wrote, “The fact of Genocide is as old as humanity.” Genocide Scholars trend to find the link of genocide in the mythology (like Homer’s Iliad), religious scripts (like Bible’s incident of Noah) and even in unrecorded history (legends and folklore). The history of heroic deeds is full of genocidal massacres from where people only remember the victory not the common woe. Probably for this reason, Adolf Hitler once pronounced before his army, “Now whoever remembers Armenians?” In reality, the crime of genocide had been momentum after the dawn of colonial expansion.

Genocide, the term which we understand right now, is quite different what we used to understand in daily life. Even though, the concept of massacre on large scale was prevalent and conspicuous throughout the history, the name of genocide was a novelty. And, its recognition as a crime followed by its coining up. The step was taken by the Polish (later on American) Jews Jurist Rafael Lemkin who after decades of trial and error coined up the term “genocide” in his celebrated book “Axis Rule in Occupied Nazi” (1944). He was moved by the Armenian genocide which occurred during World War I. Immediate international recognition was the 1946 UN General Assembly No 96(I) where it was declared that genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings. Later on, 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was adopted to deal with this crime, which once said to be the crime of the crimes. Now, more than 8 international legal documents and more than 80 domestic laws has criminalized genocide.

In reality, we very often confuse between war crimes, crimes against humanity and war crime. Though these three has some elements in common, they have some distinctive features too. Crimes against Humanity means the committing a list of prohibited acts as a part of state policy or organizational policy. War crime means the violation of certain aspects of laws of

armed conflict (covered by International Humanitarian Law). According to the Convention of 1948, Article II:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It includes [Article III] within its ambit conspiracy to commit genocide; direct and public incitement to commit genocide; Attempt to commit genocide and complicity in genocide

In that sense, genocide is a very special type of crime and though the rest of the two can share some elements of genocide, without the Mens Rhea, the crime cannot be proved. That’s why the international community takes utmost pre-caution in terming any incident as genocide whether in international media or United Nations General Assembly or Security Assembly.

Genocide was/ still is the heinous arm of the colonial aggressors or despotic rulers. Most of the countries of the world, more specifically colonized world have witnessed genocide. When European superpowers reached New World following the discovery of Critobal Colon, it was not a barren land as they declared it terra nua. Rather, it was a land inhibited by millions of people which they now recognized Native Americans. Use of biological weapons in those areas is still unprecedented. The Residential schools of United States and Canada and the lost generations of Australia (See the film Australia) were other methods of genocidal strategy. The Spain occupied America also witnessed genocide with sword and germs.

In Africa genocide followed in two ways. Slave trade was the initial form. I consider this as the first step of genocidal strategy. The second step was followed by the Berlin Conference of 1884. Before 1870, 10% of the Africa was under European rule. But in 1890, it became 90%. In this point, nothing needs to explain the genocidal steps taken by them. Some of the incidents are Congo Robber Terror, Heroro and Nama Genocide, etc. Not being confined to this, they created such an environment that is promoting genocidal massacres to the date.

In Europe, there are many unrecorded genocides. But, the first remarkable one is Armenian Genocide which occurred during Turkish Secular Pashas. The Second one is Jewish Holocaust and Anti-Aryan genocide under the leadership of German NAZI party. The second one is very important because for this genocide, the international trial mechanism was set up. The last remarkable genocide in Europe was Yugoslav genocide in the post-cold war era.

Though the Communist rules of China and Soviet Union ascended the power with the promise of overall social development and prosperity, they resorted to measures which culminated into mass killings and deaths. Gulag, concentration camp and projected famine of Ukraine were some aspects of genocide under Soviet Russia. China also followed similar strategy. Millions of people died in these incidents. Similar Events occurred under the communist regimes in East Europe.

Asian ancient history has similar type of undiscovered genocides. But in the last century some events caught the eyes. It starts with the famines under the British regimes (one in 1773 and other in 1943). Under the Japanese occupation during World War II, also witnessed genocides in different parts of Asian of which Nanjing genocide is mostly mentioned. Later on, when India were divided into two parts, estimated 20’000-2’000’000 people were killed or murdered. The consequent riots should be counted. Unfortunately, this land again witnessed genocidal massacre in 1971 when we, the people of Bangladesh, were victims. Even though there are some controversies about the death figure, the number ranges from 1’000’000 to 3’000’000. At the same time, Indonesia also witnessed a politicide in 1970s in its own land and its occupied territory of East Timor. Its neighboring country Cambodia also witnessed a more devastating form where one-fourth of its people died under the rule of Khemer Rouge. Genocides was also seen in China occupied, India occupied Hyberabad, Israel occupied Gaza, etc. The Saddam Regime of Iraq or Khadaffi Regime of Libya or present Asad Regime of Syria, Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its subsequent regimes and occupations, Post Revolution Iran, US-Vietnam war, etc are other example of Asian genocide.

As I have mentioned earlier, the Europeans have created the environment of genocide in Africa. The most concentrated area is Great Lake Area where devastating human sufferings have been witnessed in Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Congo, etc. Other genocide infested areas are Sierra Leon. Ethiopia, Liberia, Chad, Central Africa Republic, Sudan, etc. The blood victims of genocide never stops in Africa.

In contemporary Latin America, genocide was taken as a resort in the name of national security doctrine. In Nicaragua, Columbia, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, etc most the incidents of the genocides was resorted to secure the despotic and authoritarian regimes of those countries.

The issue of justice of the victims of international crimes is frequently pronounced but hardly implemented. In the accounts of M Cherif Bassiouni, 1948 to 2008, 92-103 million people died, but only 687 people were tried for those incidents. But, the perpetrators were more than 1 million. This is the reality of international criminal justice. The first trial of international crimes was considered by the trial of Peter von Hegenbach in 1474. During American Civil War, a confederate soldier Henry Wirz was tried in 1865. After the end of First World War, the trial of criminals of War like Turkish Generals, German Kaiser, etc was said to take place. One Leipzig Tribunal was also set up. But, for different political reason, it did not take place. But, the perpetrators of Second World War were not enough lucky. Rather they faced trial in different international and national tribunals like International Military Tribunal of Nuremburg, International Military Tribunal of Tokyo, Control Council 10 and different national courts of Europe and Asia. But, there was no trial of genocide, rather the trial of crimes against humanity, a crime of similar nature.

Even though there has been a comprehensive international law documents on genocide, but it has no implementing mechanism. It has also encountered some problems due to cold war. This years have been called lisping years of human rights. In those years, Bangladesh was in the front lines for the trial of genocide what was occurred in its own land. Following Yugoslav genocide and Rwandan genocide, two international tribunals was formed under the auspices of United Nations named International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Subsequently, some mixed tribunals like Special Tribunals for Sierra Leone, Extraordinary Chamber for Cambodia, Extraordinary African Chamber, Special Crimes Tribunal for Timor-Leste, etc was mention worthy. In domestic level Iraqi Supreme Criminal Tribunal, International Crimes Tribunal, Bangladesh, Control Panel 64 of Kosovo, Bosnia War Crimes Tribunal, Serbia War Crimes Tribunal, etc were mention worthy. In particular, Supreme Court of Israel’s trial of Adolf Eichmann is mention worthy.

Another pathway to ensure justice for crimes like genocide is truth and reconciliation commissions. The prime target of these types of commissions is to establish the truth and reconcile the law level perpetrators with rest of the community. Right now, about 4o such truth commissions have worked for this purpose.

The issue of justice is not limited to trial and punishment, rather the establishment of truth and preservation of memory from the lapse of time or against denial of the perpetrators. Various museums or monuments all over the world are serving this purpose too.

In the fine, I would like mention about Bangladesh Genocide. In the historiography of Genocide, this has an obvious place. But, as a matter of sorrow, this has not discussed as loudly as that of Cambodia, Rwanda or Sierra Leone. The research materials on this topics is still very less. They used to rely on some documents of International Commission of Jurist or some foreign journalists or some researchers. Time has come to add arsenal to this area. It is a technique of denial of génocidaires, when they create smog over the figure of the death. My position is that 300’000 or 3’000’000 does not matter. What matters is that those people were killed for nothing. In this regard, we can quote the infamous statement of Stalin, “When one person dies, it is an incident, when few people dies it is an accident and when a million dies, it is a statistics.” The point is who will count the number of death when the people are running for saving their life and limited or no national or international media is allowed?

One of the aspects of modern genocide is intelectualicide which has been seen in Armenia or different countries of Latin America. I think, the Pakistani Army has used the worst form of it on the same day before 44 years. This has not only direct impact of the life of the person or fate of his/her family, but also the fate of the newly independent country.

On the issue of justice of Bangladesh Genocide, I have mentioned earlier that Bangladesh has taken the bravest move during cold war era by demanding justice for her people. The promulgation of Collaborators Order, 1973 and International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973 are mention worthy. The recent trials carry out its legacy. But, I don’t consider that the circle of justice is complete only by trying the collaborators leaving all the perpetrators in impunity. I think this the right time to study, research Bangladesh Genocide and demand justice of the perpetrators of 1971 genocide on international level. I would like to thanks University of Dhaka to establish the Centre for Genocide Studies for the purpose.


-Quazi Omar Foysal

Lecturer, Department of Law, Daffodil University

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