Genocide is the targeted killing of a specific group of people with the intent of exterminating the group in question. The term was initally coined by a Polish Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lempkin, in an effort to describe the systematic barbarism of the Nazi regime. He combined geno, an ancient Greek term meaning family or tribe and -cide, which is derived from the Latin word for killing. Genocide appears to be a uniquely modern problem. Although the pre-industrial era had as much violent conflict as the modern world, the notion that certain races or cultures should be completely eradicated from a particular geographical entity did not arise until the twentieth century.
The first genocide is generally believed to be the Armenian genocide (1915-1917), in which the government of Turkey attempted to systematically annihilate its Armenian population through starvation, massacres, and deportations. Although the atrocities committed against the Armenians were well documented by the United States, Germany, and Austro-Hungary, there were no serious attempts to stop the killing.
While the Holocaust is perhaps the most widely known instance of genocide in history, it is not the only one. Even though many survivors adopted the motto "Never again!" with regard to the atrocities committed in the Holocaust, there have been many instances of genocide that have occurred since World War II. Three of the most significant examples are briefly described below:
- Cambodian genocide(1975-1979) - Pol Pot, head of the Khmer Rouge party came to power in 1975, after overthrowing the corrupt pro-United States Lon Nol regime. Inspired by China's "Great Leap Forward," Pol Pot planned to radically restructure Cambodian society, by destroying the cities and creating a rural communist utopia. People from urban areas, known as "new people" were sent into the countryside, ostensibly to be "re-educated" as peasants. However, the Khmer Rouge's true intentions were to exterminate the "new people," for being ideologically suspect. Other targeted groups included Buddhist monks, Christians, the small Vietnamese community, the Cham (a Muslim minority group), and individuals with higher education. Before the fall of the Khmer Rouge, approximately 1.3 million people were killed, which was almost one third of the population of Cambodia at the time.
- There are several reasons why the United States did not intervene in the Cambodian genocide. The first is that the United States' unpopular foreign policy in the Indochina region prevented an intervention in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge came to power at the end of the Vietnam War, when there was a great deal of pressure for the United States to leave the region. Second, many American leftists (including Noam Chomsky and the human rights organization Amnesty International) dismissed the atrocities coming out of Cambodia as conservative propaganda against a "progressive regime." Many Americans were also tired of the constant barrage of news concerning Indochina and were disinclined to pay attention to the Cambodian genocide.
- Rwandan genocide (1994) - The Rwandan genocide occurred over the course of one hundred days in 1994, when more than 800,000 members of the minority Tutsi tribe were murdered by members of the majority Hutu tribe. The roots of this conflict go back to the fifteenth century, when much of what is modern-day Rwanda was ruled by the Tutsi tribe. Since the Tutsis were herdsmen and the Hutus were farmers, the tribal distinctions may have originally been used to designate different occupations; indeed, one could become a Tutsi by accumulating enough wealth to become part of the ruling hierarchy. Rwanda was colonized, first by the Germans and later by the Belgians, after the former's loss in World War I. The Belgians considered the Tutsis, whose physicial appearance was more European than the shortier, stockier Hutus, to be superior. The two tribes were classified as being different races and the Tutsis were treated better than the Hutus; they received higher quality educations and jobs from colonial administrators. This caused resentment from the Hutus, which sometimes led to violence.
- After Belgian rule ended in 1962, the Hutu majority took control of Rwanda. The Tutsis became scapegoats for the country's various economic and political problems. Some Tutsis fled to neighboring countries such as Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda. Some of these exiles, along with some Hutu allies, formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to overthrow the Rwandan government. By the 1990s, the RPF was engaged in guerilla warfare against the Rwandan government. Although a tentative peace treaty was signed between the rebels and the president, Juvenal Habyarimana, the environment was ripe for violence. When a plane carrying Habyarimana, the president of Burundi, and a number of high-ranking Rwandan officials was shot down by an unknown party, members of the Hutu majority embarked on a campaign of retribution that would lead to genocide. The presidential guard immediately began slaughtering members of the Tutsi political opposition. Impromptu anti-Tutsi militias formed within hours of the crash, encouraged by exhortations from government-sponsored radio broadcasts. Ordinary Hutus were encouraged to kill their Tutsi neighbors by promises of land, food, and money. In many instances, military officials forced civilians to take part in the killings. The genocide finally ended when the RPF overthrew the interim government that had encouraged the slaughter. It is estimated that over two million Rwandas were active participants in the genocide and more than 800,000 were murdered.
- The international community was largely apathetic to the Rwandan genocide; the United Nations pulled out its troops after ten peacekeepers were killed. The United States was wary of interfering in the affairs of another African country after a recent disasterous military operation in Somalia. The role of the French had also been criticed, as French soldiers in Rwanda reportedly trained anti-Tutsi militias and provided arms to the genocidal government.
- Darfur genocide (2003- ) - Darfur is the western-most region of Sudan, a country in the northern part of Africa. Darfur is inhabited by a variety of ethnic groups, that are influenced by local customs and the surrounding Arab culture. Hence, it is not correct to describe the conflict as a war between Arabs and black Africans, as both sides would be considered "black" by Western standards. Rather, it is an ethnic conflict between tribes that have adopted Arab culture to varying degrees and have different lifestyles based on their respective occupations; the Arabic-speaking population is primarily composed of nomadic tribesmen, whereas the Fur people are farmers.
- The ethnic group that identifies as being Arabic controls the Sudanese government. Two rebel groups - the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Liberation Movement - accused the government of bias against the non-Arab population and mounted an armed insurrgency. In response, the government launched an assault on the rebels and the civilians who were members of the guerillas' ethnic groups (the Fur, Zaghawa, and Masaalit). State-backed militia groups, known as Janjaweed, were formed with the purpose of carrying out these operations. The tactics employed by the Janjaweed include mass killings, rape, and the deliberate destruction of villages in the Darfur region. The Darfur crisis has created a humanitarian disaster in Africa; almost two million people have become homeless due to the destruction of their communities, and thousands are dying every month because of starvation, lack of adequate medical care, and harsh weather conditions stemming from being forced to live in the desert.
A reoccurring theme in each of these accounts of genocide is that many of the Western powers that were in a position to stop or at least stem the impact of genocide, chose to do nothing. Individuals who are concerned about preventing and ending genocide should learn from the example of Harold Hirsch and the individuals who were involved in organizations such as German-Jewish Children's Aid become aware of human rights violations, educate others in your community about these issues, and lobby government officials for increased action on behalf of victims of genocide.
BBC News. "Rwanda: How the genocide happened." BBC News Home Page. April 1, 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1288230.stm (accessed July 22, 2008).
Hoile, David. "The Darfur Crisis." The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council Home Page." http://darfurinformation.com/index.asp (accessed July 22, 2008).
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "Darfur." Holocaust Encyclopedia. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?lang=en&ModuleId=10007221 (accessed July 21, 2008).
United States Holocaust Museum. "What is Genocide?" Committee on Conscience. http://www.ushmm.org/conscience/history/ (accessed July 21, 2008).