Pimp My Genocide

The prostitution of the G-word for cynical political ends has given rise to a grisly new international gameshow.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Genocide, it seems, is everywhere. You cannot open a newspaper or switch on the box these days without coming across the G-word.

Accusations of genocide fly back and forth in international relations. This week the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague cleared Serbia of direct responsibility for genocide in the Bosnian civil war in the mid-Nineties, though it chastised Belgrade for failing to prevent the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. The International Criminal Court, also in The Hague, indicted two Sudanese officials for ‘crimes against humanity’ in relation to the conflict in Darfur.

Last week, a United Nations official said the spread of the Darfurian conflict into eastern Chad means that ‘Chad faces genocide’, too. ‘We are seeing elements that closely resemble what we saw in Rwanda in the genocide in 1994’, said the head of the UN refugee agency (1). Meanwhile, to the concern and fury of Turkish officials, the US Congress is set to debate a resolution that will recognise Turkey’s killings of a million Armenians from 1915 to 1918 as an ‘organised genocide’ (2). This follows the French decision at the end of last year to make it a crime in France to deny the Armenian genocide.

On the domestic front, too, genocide-talk is widespread. Germany, current holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency, is proposing a Europe-wide ban on Holocaust denial and all other forms of genocide denial. This would make a crime of ‘publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising…crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes [as defined in the Statute of the International Criminal Court].’ (3) In some European countries it is already against the law to deny that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews. Under the proposed new legislation it would also be against the law to question whether Rwanda, Srebrenica and Darfur are genocides, too.

Why is genocide all the rage, whether it’s uncovering new ones in Africa and Eastern Europe, or rapping the knuckles of those who would dare to deny such genocides here at home?

Contrary to the shrill proclamations of international courts and Western officials and journalists, new genocides are not occurring across the world. Rather, today’s genocide-mongering in international affairs – and its flipside: the hunt for genocide-deniers at home – shows that accusations of genocide have become a cynical political tool. Genocide-mongering is a new mode of politics, and it’s being used by some to draw a dividing line between the West and the Third World and to enforce a new and censorious moral consensus on the homefront. Anyone who cares about democracy and free speech should deny the claims of the genocide-mongers.

In international relations genocide has become a political weapon, an all-purpose rallying cry used by various actors to gain moral authority and boost their own standing. Anyone with a cursory understanding of history should know that the bloody wars of the past 10 to 15 years – in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur – are not unprecedented or exceptional. Certainly none of them can be compared to the Nazi genocide against the Jews, which involved the industrialised slaughter, often in factories built for the purpose, of six million men, women and children. Rather, the labelling of today’s brutal civil wars as ‘genocides’ by Western observers, courts and commentators is a desperate search for a new moral crusade, and it has given rise to a new moral divide between the West and the rest, between the civilised and enlightened governments of America and Europe and those dark parts of the world where genocides occur.

In some circles, ‘genocide’ has become code for Third World savagery. What do the headline genocides (or ‘celebrity genocides’, perhaps) of the past two weeks have in common? All of them – the Serbs’ genocide in Bosnia, the Sudanese genocide in Darfur, the Turks’ genocide of Armenians – were committed by apparently strange and exotic nations ‘over there’. Strip away the legal-speak about which conflicts can be defined as genocides and which cannot, and it seems clear that genocide has become a PC codeword for wog violence – whether the genocidal wogs are the blacks of Sudan, the brown-skinned, not-quite-European people of Turkey, or the Serbs, white niggers of the post-Cold War world.

Consider how easily the genocide tag is attached to conflicts in Africa. Virtually every recent major African war has been labelled a genocide by outside observers. The Rwandan war of 1994 is now widely recognised as a genocide; many refer to the ongoing violence in Uganda as a genocide. In 2004 then US secretary of state Colin Powell declared, on the basis of a report by an American/British fact-finding expedition to Darfur: ‘We conclude that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility.’ (4) (The UN, however, has not described Darfur as genocide.) Even smaller-scale African wars are discussed as potential genocides. So the spread of instability from Darfur into eastern Chad has led to UN handwringing about ‘genocide in Chad’. During the conflict in Liberia in 2003, commentators warned that ‘Liberia could be plunged into a Rwanda-style genocide’ (5).

The discussion of every war in Africa as a genocide or potential genocide shows that today’s genocide-mongering bears little relation to what is happening in conflict zones on the ground. There are great differences, not least in scale, between the wars in Rwanda, Darfur and Liberia; each of these conflicts has been driven by complex local grievances, very often exacerbated by Western intervention. That Western declarations of ‘genocide!’ are most often made in relation to Africa suggests that behind today’s genocide-mongering there lurks some nasty chauvinistic sentiments. At a time when it is unfashionable to talk about ‘the dark continent’ or ‘savage Africans’, the more acceptable ‘genocide’ tag gives the impression that Africa is peculiarly and sickly violent, and that it needs to be saved from itself by more enlightened forces from elsewhere. Importantly, if the UN judges that a genocide is occurring, then that can be used to justify military intervention into said genocide zone.

Hardly anyone talks openly about a global divide between the savage Third World and the enlightened West anymore. Yet today’s genocide-mongering has nurtured a new, apparently acceptable divide between the genocide-executers over there, and the genocide-saviours at home. This new global faultline over genocide is formalised in the international court system. In the Nineties, setting up tribunals to try war criminals or genocidaires became an important part of the West’s attempts to rehabilitate its moral authority around the globe. In 1993, the UN Security Council set up an international tribunal to try those accused of war crimes in the Former Yugoslavia. In 1997 the international war crimes tribunal for Rwanda got under way; there is also one for Sierra Leone. As Kirsten Sellars argues in The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, for all the claims of ‘international justice’, these tribunals are in reality ‘political weapons’ wielded by the West – attempts to imbue the post-Cold War West with a sense of moral purpose by contrasting it favourably with the barbarians in Eastern Europe and Africa (6).

The opportunistic transformation of ‘genocide’ into a weapon on the international stage can be seen most clearly in recent debates about Turkey. The Turkish state’s genocide against the Armenians in the First World War is surely debated more today than at any other time in history. That is because the Armenian genocide has been latched on to by certain governments that want to lecture and harangue the current Turkish regime.

Last year France passed its bizarre law outlawing denial of the Armenian genocide. This was a deeply cynical move motivated by EU protectionism on the part of the French. France is keen to keep Turkey at arm’s length from joining the EU, viewing the American ally in the East as a threat to its authoritative position within Europe. And what better way to cast doubts on Turkey’s fitness to join the apparently modern EU than to turn its refusal to accept that the massacre of Armenians 90 years ago was a genocide into a big political issue? At the same time, Democrat members of US Congress are attempting to dent the Bush administration’s prestige and standing in the Middle East by lending their support to a resolution that will label the Turkish killings of Armenians a genocide. This has forced Bush to defend the ‘deniers’ of Turkey, and given rise to the bizarre spectacle of a six-person Turkish parliamentary delegation arriving in Washington to try to convince members of Congress that the Armenian massacres were not a genocide (7). Again, movers and shakers play politics with genocide, using the G-word to try to hit their opponents where it hurts.

At a time when the West making claims to global moral authority on the basis of enlightenment or democracy has become distinctly unfashionable, the new fashion for genocide-mongering seems to have turned ‘genocide’ into the one remaining moral absolute, which has allowed today’s pretty visionless West to assert at least some authority over the Third World.

This reorientation of global affairs around the G-word has had a real and disastrous impact on peace and politics. When ‘genocide’ becomes the language of international relations, effectively a bargaining chip between states, then it can lead to a grisly competition over who is the biggest victim of genocide and who thus most deserves the pity and patronage of the international community. The state of Bosnia brought the charges of genocide against the state of Serbia at the ICJ, and is bitterly disappointed that Serbia was cleared. Here it appears that Bosnia, every Western liberals’ favourite victim state, feels the need to continue playing the genocide card, to prostrate itself before international courts, in order to store up its legitimacy and win the continued backing of America and the EU. One American commentator has written about ‘strategic victimhood in Sudan’, where Darfurian rebel groups exploit the ‘victims of genocide’ status awarded to them by Western observers in order to get a better deal: ‘The rebels, much weaker than the government, would logically have sued for peace long ago. Because of the [Western] Save Darfur movement, however, the rebels believe that the longer they provoke genocidal reaction, the more the West will pressure Sudan to hand them control of the region.’ (8)

The logic of today’s politics of genocide is that it suits certain states and groups to play up to being victims of genocide. That is one sure way to guarantee the sympathy and possibly even the backing of the West. This has nurtured a grotesque new international gameshow – what we might call ‘Pimp My Genocide’ – where groups strategically play the genocide card in order to attract the attentions of the genocide-obsessed international community. The new genocide-mongering means that certain states are demonised as ‘evil’ (Sudan, Serbia) while others must constantly play the pathetic victim (Bosnia, Darfurian groups). This is unlikely to nurture anything like peace, or a progressive, grown-up international politics.

Rather than challenge the new politics of genocide, the critics of Western military intervention play precisely the same game – sometimes in even more shrill tones than their opponents. Anti-war activists claim that ‘the real genocide’ – a ‘Nazi-style genocide’ – is being committed by American and British forces in Iraq. Others counter the official presentation of the Bosnian civil war as a Serb genocide against Muslims by arguing that the Bosnian Serbs, especially those forcibly expelled from Krajina, were the real ‘victims of genocide’ (9). Critics of Israel accuse it of carrying out a genocide against Palestinians (while supporters of Israel describe Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s occasional dustbin-lid bombs as ‘genocidal violence’) (10). This does nothing to challenge the hysteria of today’s genocide-mongering, but rather indulges and further inflames it. Genocide-talk seems to have become the only game in town.

The flipside of genocide-mongering is the hunting of genocide-deniers. New European proposals to clamp down on the denial of any genocide represent a serious assault on free speech and historical debate. Will those who challenge Western military interventions overseas to prevent a ‘genocide’ be arrested as deniers? What about historians who question the idea that the Turks’ killings of Armenians were a genocide? Will their books be banned? On the homefront, too, genocide is being turned into a moral absolute, through which a new moral consensus, covering good and evil, right and wrong, what you can and cannot say and think, might be enforced across society (11).

If you don’t accept the new global genocide divide, or the right of the EU authorities to outline what is an acceptable and unacceptable opinion about war and history, then step forth – and let us deny.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) Chad violence could erupt into genocide, UN warns, ABC News, 16 February 2007

(2) Turkey Intensifies Counter-Attack Against Genocide Claims, Turkish Weekly, 1 March 2007

(3) See ‘Genocide denial laws will shut down debate’, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) Powell declares genocide in Sudan, BBC News, 9 September 2004

(5) Liberia: Fears of genocide, Mail and Guardian, July 2003

(6) The Rise and Rise of Human Rights, Kirsten Sellars, Sutton Publishing, 2002

(7) Turkey Intensifies Counter-Attack Against Genocide Claims, Turkish Weekly, 1 March 2007

(8) See Darfur: damned by pity, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) Exploiting genocide, Brendan O’Neill, Spectator, 21 January 2006

(10) Mr Bolton gets a UN flea in his ear, Melanie Phillips, 24 January 2006

(11) See ‘Genocide denial laws will shut down debate’, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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