Grappling with the issue of historical genocide recognition

Grappling with the issue of historical genocide recognition

In 2020, during the 60th anniversary of Congo’s independence, the Belgian city of Ghent removed a bust of King Leopold II as part of a decolonisation project.

(AFP/Matteo Cogliati/Hans Lucas)

Is it a weapon of war between states? A trend emerging out of the rise of identity politics? An attempt to draw lessons learned, to prevent history from repeating itself? An ethical obligation with meaningful consequences?

Genocide is one of the most difficult crimes, under international law, for experts to define and for its perpetrators to accept. In recent times, we have, however, seen an unprecedented series of direct accusations together with explicit recognition of genocide, a crime, according to the Rome Statute of 1998, defined as the systematic and deliberate destruction (total or partial) of an ethnic, racial, national or religious group carried out by a government. This definition does not satisfy everyone, given that, for example, it does not specify what ‘partial destruction’ may refer to, does not include social or political groups as victims – for which the lesser-known term ‘democide’ has been reserved – nor does it contemplate acts against the environment that could entail serious risks of survival for a given group.

It is a crime that not only includes killing and causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group, but also acts that directly affect their living conditions, such as destroying their homes or forcing them to abandon them, denying them food or health care, preventing their reproduction through policies of forced sterilisation or decreeing forced relocations to other territories.

This is how genocide has been construed since Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1944 and how it is defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The International Criminal Court is the judicial body now in charge of prosecuting and judging these crimes, although it has only actually opened one case of genocide since it began operating in 2002 – against the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir (deposed in 2019), for his responsibility in the successive massacres, between 2003 and 2008, of the local population in Darfur by the Sudanese armed forces and local militias backed by Khartoum.

This case is one of a short list that only goes as far back as the 20th century and, according to UN criteria, only includes the Armenian genocide (1915-1923, during the Ottoman Empire), the Holocaust (1941-1945, Nazi Germany against the Jews), the Samudaripen (1941-1945, Nazi Germany against the Roma), Cambodia (1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge government against its own people), that of Rwanda (1994, the Hutu government against the Tutsis), that of Srebrenica (1995, the Bosnian Serb government against the Bosnian Muslims) and that of the Yazidis (2014, the jihadist group Da’esh against this non-Muslim Kurdish minority in the north of Iraq).

It is a list that others consider to be incomplete, whether it be because it does not go further back than the 20th century or because it does not include more recent cases, such as those accusing the ultra-nationalist Burmese government of responsibility for the massacre of the Rohingya minority as of 2017.

Back on the international agenda: driven by ethics... and interests

Among the various factors that have led to this issue being put back on the international agenda, there is perhaps none more significant than the Black Lives Matter campaign. The public reaction in the United States to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a policeman, in May 2020, has been echoed in many other countries, accelerating a process that, combined with other motivations, has, for example, led to Germany finally acknowledging, on 28 May 2021, its responsibility for the massacre of at least 60,000 Ovaherero and 10,000 Nama in Namibia between 1904 and 1908. Similarly, France has just apologised for its “overwhelming responsibility” (to quote President Macron) in the Rwandan genocide, whilst Belgium expressed its “deep regret”, last year, for the abuses committed during the reign of Leopold II in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. More recently, on 1 July 2021, the mayor of Amsterdam apologised for the city’s role in the slave trade during the colonial era.

Viewed from a positive angle, this growing trend also seems to reflect a clear attempt to tackle the worrying rise of supremacist groups and parties in many Western societies. The aim is to curb populist dynamics that continue to feed the most deplorable racist instincts making coexistence in a globalised world so difficult. Nevertheless, we should not forget, as a counterpoint, that reference to the crime of genocide is also still being utilised as an instrument of international relations, used by one government to chastise another, as illustrated by the Biden administration’s decision to formally recognise the Armenian genocide, in the context of its growing differences with Ankara.

In this same search for the reasons behind this seemingly sincere multiplication of apologies and acknowledgement of historical responsibilities there are, of course, other motives that have much more to do with geopolitical and geoeconomic interests than ethics and sincerity.

Accordingly, as competition rages for the conquest of markets, with the economic structures of many global and regional powers hard hit by the crisis, it is easy to see how such apologies are aimed, at the very least, at averting a break in the ties with former colonies, which are increasingly aware of their own potential and more assertive in their demands regarding the abuses they have suffered. A good example of this is what is happening with African cultural and artistic heritage, considering that, according to the findings of a report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron in 2018, between 90 and 95 per cent of these riches are currently outside the continent (in other words, in the public and private hands of a few Western European countries). This is why Germany, for example, announced its commitment to return the impressive ‘Benin bronzes’ to Nigeria, now Africa’s leading economy.

The same Germany, in an attempt to back its declarations admitting responsibility for the genocide in Namibia with action, made the crass mistake of offering – without prior negotiation – €1.1 billion (around US$1.3 billion) to the Namibian government (to fund development projects over a period of 30 years). The amount was immediately rejected by local communities – which saw it as an attempt to buy their approval for a paltry amount and have demanded compensation to the tune of hundreds of billions, which Berlin, in turn, has rejected. This is just one example among many (the Netherlands also offered aid packages to Indonesia for similar reasons) that shows how difficult it is to set a specific amount of compensation that would really help to overcome a trauma of this magnitude.

Added to the drive to preserve ties with former colonies is, increasingly clearly, the fear that anti-Western sentiment will be exploited by those not carrying this colonial past with them. The most obvious example here is China, which has already become the main investor and trading partner of many African and Asian countries. In its bid to consolidate its hegemony vis-à-vis Washington, Beijing is taking advantage of the resentment built-up within societies and governments that have suffered contempt and abuse from the West to promote its interests.

Clearly, and seen from the West’s perspective, it is an issue being used by all involved to secure the best possible outcome from a reading of a past that is rarely a source of pride. Its focus is on a present and a future that seeks to preserve, at the lowest possible cost, a status quo threatened by growing awareness among the victims’ heirs and competition from new external actors that are seizing the opportunity to gain ground in the eternal contest for global or regional leadership. For now, however, we are still seeing much more talk than action.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin