Genocide is a highly controversial word. Why? It is more than just a concept or a tool for historical, political or moral analysis. Rather, it has legal consequences and is therefore treated like Pandora’s Box. In order to get rid of these legal consequences, the term “ethnic cleansing” is often used, which in turn is an inhuman euphemism as it is a term to speak of systematic mass murder without having to use the word genocide. “Ethnic cleansing” is present in some UN documents, but has neither a clear and formal definition nor a legal status.
Concentration Camp in Sachsenhausen, Germany
Until 1821 Guatemala was a Spanish colony. The country experienced almost four decades of civil war between 1960 and 1996. At around 60%, the country has the largest indigenous population in the world. It is rare for the minority to rule over the majority. The gap between rich and poor, between the Ladinos and Mayans on the one hand and the former occupiers on the other, is large. The Mayas and Ladinos (a cultural rather than ethnic identity) were exploited and discriminated against by the Latinos for decades; natural disasters and the country’s poor economic situation hit them hardest.1
‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.’ – Primo Levi1
As a rule, four groups are always involved in genocide: the perpetrators, the victims, the bystanders and the rescuers.
Photo: Thomas Matthias
East Timor, also called Timor Leste, is part of a small island in the Indian Ocean, surrounded by Australia and Indonesia. And if you allow yourself a short trip there by Google Maps, you first believe to have arrived in paradise with white beaches and turquoise blue water. But the small country has a terrible story to tell, because the road to independence was long and bloody.
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.
Photo: Survival International / starved Aché-Indian, shortly after she was captured and brought out of the forest into the ‘reserve’, Paraguay 1972
In science, especially in the field of genocide studies, there is an intense discussion as to whether the crimes committed in the course of colonialism fall under the concept of genocide. The ‘situation coloniale’ in (but not just) Africa was marked above all by massacres, deportations, oppression and forced labour, as well as the destruction of soil, livelihood and cultural and social institutions of indigenous people. The violent crimes against the Herero and Nama in German South West Africa (known as Namibia) as well as the Aborigines in Australia and the indigenous peoples in North America are mostly classified as genocide.
Picture: creative commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/43/Africa1898.png
In the face of today’s crises around the world, military intervention often appears to be the only solution when people are killed, tortured and terrorized. However, more often one gets the feeling that ‘the Security Council […] is no longer a guarantor for legitimacy under international law, but only for failure to render assistance’.1 But if one briefly puts aside the anger, the lack of understanding and the feeling of powerlessness, then one must ask oneself whether it is actually legally and morally justified for states to intervene in the affairs of other states. Is it okay to intervene? And are we obliged to do so?
In the winter of 1932/33 Stalin starved the Ukrainian people to death in order to undercut any attempts at independence. Ukrainians call this event Holodomor – ‘death by hunger’.
The Holodomor has not much in common with the Holocaust, however, Raphael Lemkin described it as genocide. He noted that at first it wasn’t planned to exterminate the entire Ukrainian population, but the intellectual, political and religious elite, which was relatively small and therefore easy to eliminate. In the 1920s and 1930s, many teachers, writers, artists, thinkers, clergymen and politicians were arrested, deported or even liquidated.
‘This isn’t just a case of mass murder. It’s a case of genocide, of destruction, not just of individuals, but of a culture and a nation.’ – Raphael Lemkin
At first glance, climate change and genocide seem to have nothing in common, but if you combine them with the keywords “scarcity of resources” and “living space”, you get a bigger picture. If one follows the apocalyptic predictions, then the earth will be uninhabitable in a relatively short time. But even the more conservative studies predict that millions of people will be affected by global warming. Climate protection will thus become one of the greatest challenges facing humanity – especially in relation to genocide.
Genocide and crimes against humanity are two concepts in international law; created in response to the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis against the European Jewry. Hersch Lauterpacht shaped the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’ and Raphael Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’. But what is the difference between these two?