24 Apr 2019

Text (in Cooperation with Survival International) & Translation: Corinna

#Cultural genocide

The scientific understanding of genocide is mostly based on the Holocaust model: mass murder, concentration camps and the immediate and violent destruction of the victim group. But there is also a kind of genocide that lasts for decades or even generations. We are talking about cultural genocide. The victims are slowly and apparently imperceptibly wiped out by destroying their livelihoods, banning the practice of their culture, language and religion and depriving them of the means to feed themselves and to administer their affairs.[1]

Photo: Survival International / starved Aché-Indian, shortly after she was captured and brought out of the forest into the ‘reserve’, Paraguay 1972

#Indigenous people

The best-known victims of this type of genocide are indigenous people. Indigenous people, often referred to as ‘natives’, are the descendants of those who first settled a land or region. They depend on this land for survival, as it is often the centre of their psychological, physical and spiritual survival.[2]

Examples of indigenous people are the Inuit in Canada, the Aborigines in Australia, the Indians in North America and the Pygmies in Central and West Africa. By driving indigenous people off their land and forcing them to adapt to the mainstream society, governments are committing cultural genocide. Progress can kill: Most indigenous people forced to adapt suffer from diseases of civilization, mental disorders, suicide, violence, misery and poverty.[3]

“The genocide that destroyed the indigenous people of North America continues on its destructive path. We see entire peoples being wiped out as industrial society continues its fatal march forward. Across South America, indigenous people are stealing their land and resources, leaving death and disease behind. We must now act so that other indigenous people are not the next to fall victim to ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’.” – Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International

Many people think that indigenous people are ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’ and therefore not equal people.[4]  By importing ideologies, traditions, values and belief systems, the destruction of indigenous culture is seen as inevitable. This destruction is not marked by a sense of hatred, but by a sense of superiority. It is assumed that the ideology and race of the repressor is superior to the ‘uncivilized man’. Indigenous people are dehumanized and placed outside the moral community. They are seen as an obstacle to progress.[5]

Photo: Survival International / Aché-Indian, shortly after she was captured and brought out of the forest into the ‘reserve’, Paraguay 1972

#Cultural genocide = genocide?

Is the creeping extinction of a people by diseases and repression comparable with the cruel and bloody mass murders in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or Serbia? Does cultural genocide constitute the ‘crime of all crimes’?

Many genocide experts understand genocide as systematic and targeted mass murder. However, Raphael Lemkin, originator of the genocide term, refers in his definition to eight dimensions of genocide: the political, social, cultural, economic, biological, physical, religious and moral destruction of a group. Most attention was paid to the aspects of physical, biological and cultural destruction. Cultural destruction pursues the elimination of all institutions and characteristics of a group. This goal is often achieved by banning traditional practices as well as art, literature and music, eliminating language, destroying religious institutions and attacking the intellectual elite of the affected group. National cultural assets, libraries, archives, museums, galleries, etc. are closed, confiscated or even destroyed.[6]

The first drafts of the UN genocide definition also included cultural genocide as a criminal offence, but after lengthy discussions it was removed from the Convention. Some diplomats argued that cultural genocide is a genocide of its own and that the closure of libraries cannot be equated with gas chambers. As a compromise, the UN Convention not only covers the act of killing, but also recognises the infliction of systematic physical and psychological harm, the transfer of children to another group and the prevention of births as characteristics of genocide.[7]

Some scholars and courts, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, use cultural genocide to prove the specific intent of genocide. Thus, the deliberate destruction of a culture during a mass murder proves the intention to wipe out the group completely. Furthermore, culture helps to identify the group of victims and thus to determine whether it falls under the Genocide Convention as a protected group. In most cases, only history, language and culture can define a race or ethnicity.[8] However, especially with regard to indigenous peoples, the spirits differ on the intention: should the victim group be wiped out or ‘only’ assimilated?[9]

Photo: Survival International / Guarani- Relatives grieve for a deceased family member. The Guarani have one of the highest suicide rates in the world and many leaders have been killed by gunmen in land disputes.

#Genocide – hot and cold

Most people argue that the physical destruction of indigenous peoples is not intended. However, the repressor accepts the extermination of the self-sufficient peoples by destroying their livelihoods in an informed and approving manner. How does one distinguish the intention of destruction from oppression?

Therefore, Kjell Anderson has developed the model of hot and cold genocide:

#hot genocide

In the case of the hot genocide, the perpetrators have a real hatred for the victims. They are seen as a threat to the livelihood of the perpetrators. This hatred is the source and legitimation of killing. Physical violence is used to completely destroy the victim group. Racial hatred is the main motive and the complete extermination should be completed within a few months or years.[10]

#cold genocide

A cold genocide is less emotional. The perpetrators are not driven by hatred and the victims are not seen as a threat, but as inferior. Perpetrators make the living conditions of the victims more difficult, rob them of their land, destroy their culture or deport them. The group of victims is slowly disappearing, destruction seems inevitable. Social Darwinism is used as a defence. The destruction of the group can drag on for years or even decades. The main motive is greed for natural resources and the pursuit of power over other people.[11]

Whether genocide or crimes against humanity, the 350 million or so indigenous people worldwide are at risk of total extinction. If you want to take an active stand against this destruction or learn more about indigenous people, visit the website of Survival International, the global movement for the rights of indigenous people, and support their work.

Photo: Survival International /Many Guarani men are now working on sugar cane plantations planted on their ancestral land, Brazil.


#Anderson, K. (2015) „Colonialism and Cold Genocide: The Case of West Papua“ in Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal 9.2 (2015), S. 9 – 25.

# Nersessian, D. (2005) „Rethinking Cultural Genocide under international law. Human Rights Dialogue: “Cultural Rights”“. Available at: https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/archive/dialogue/2_12/section_1/5139.html/:pf_printable (Accessed: 23.12.2015)

# Survival International (2019) https://www.survivalinternational.org/

[1] Anderson, K. (2015) S. 18
[2] https://www.survivalinternational.org/info/terminology
[3] https://assets.survivalinternational.org/documents/1438/progresscankill.pdf
[4] Anderson, K. (2015) S. 9
[5] Anderson, K. (2015) S. 10 / 11
[6] Nersessian, D. (2005)
[7] Nersessian, D. (2005)
[8] Nersessian, D. (2005)
[9] Anderson, K. (2015) S. 9
[10] Anderson, K. (2015) S. 19 /20
[11] Anderson, K. (2015) S. 19 /20

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