Uses of genocide: Kenya, Georgia, Israel, Sri Lanka

Martin Shaw
9 February 2009

The accusation of "genocide" nowadays seems to accompany almost any episode of political violence and armed conflict around the world. In the last year alone, it has been used in Kenya (where both main parties invoked it during the post-election violence of January 2008); South Ossetia (where both Russia and Georgia hurled it at the other in the war of August 2008); the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where Congolese warlord Laurent Nkunda claimed that he has been protecting Tutsis from Hutu génocidaires; Sudan's western province of Darfur, over Khartoum's support for the actions of the janjaweed militias; Israel, after its assault on Gaza; and Sri Lanka, in relation to the renewed army offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) in the north of the island.


Among openDemocracy's articles on genocide:

David Hayes, "Thinking of Cambodia"
((17 April 2003)

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on"
(6 July 2005)

Gérard Prunier, "Darfur's Sudan problem"
(15 September 2006)

Carne Ross, "The United Nations and genocide"

(1 November 2006)

Peter Balakian, "Hrant Dink's assassination and genocide's legacy" (29 January 2007)

Anthony Dworkin, "The law and genocide: Bosnia, Serbia, and justice" (2 March 2007)

Keith Kahn-Harris, "The seductions of denial"
(13 September 2007)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Anna Husarska, "Kenya's displaced people: a photo-essay" (5 February 2008)

Joost R Hiltermann, "Halabja: the politics of memory"
(14 March 2008)

The very familiarity of the charge - and the above list is not exhaustive - inspires a degree of scepticism, in that it reflects too a rhetorical and polemical urge that may be indiscriminately expressed. At the same time, the very normalisation of "genocide" in current discourse raises the question of when indeed it is actually happening and should be recognised.

The word and the thing

In each case where the accusation is flung, protestations and counter-charges follow. When, for example, Arab commentators and even the president of the United Nations general assembly (Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, Nicaragua's foreign minister) argue that Israel's brutal assault on Gaza constituted genocide, this is seen as a case of double-standards on the part of those who ignore or downplay far worse violence in (for example) the DR Congo, Kashmir and Darfur - or who ignore Hamas's indiscriminate targeting of civilians.

But this very "relativisation" is double-edged, for becoming involved in a "whataboutist" contest at all is also to accept that there is a scale of comparison between different cases of violence committed against civilians. Even in accusing the other side of atrocities that may amount to genocide - as combatants in Kenya, Sri Lanka, South Ossetia, and Israel-Palestine do - is to engage in an argument about its possibility.

Above these rhetorical divides, western governments and the United Nations are usually very reluctant to acknowledge genocide, whatever the evidence. This is largely because of the implied duty to "prevent and punish" imposed by the UN genocide convention of 1948: to acknowledge would be to take responsibility.

During the massacres in Rwanda in 1994, the United Nations and the United States held rigidly to the idea that this systematic, large-scale and virulent killing campaign involved no more than the "excesses" of a "civil war". After violence erupted in Darfur in 2003, the UN's international commission of inquiry presented compelling evidence that something very like genocide had been perpetrated - before shying away from this conclusion.

But it is not only official bodies that avoid using the word "genocide"; campaigning NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and many conflict-research and advocacy bodies, also do so if they can. They know the controversies it provokes, and that wielding it will only complicate their relationship with governments.

This negative attitude towards "genocide recognition" helps explain why euphemisms like "ethnic cleansing" or the neutral-sounding, responsibility-absolving "humanitarian crisis" have gained such prominence. The evasion is regrettable: after all, there is an international law of genocide, and it is a meaningful analytical concept, so the term should be used when it applies. Moreover, it doesn't just apply to enormous episodes of mass-murder like Rwanda in 1994. Its use is justified too in regard to smaller-scale episodes of killing - known as "genocidal massacres" - where people are slaughtered because they belong to a particular group; and to cases where the aim is to destroy a society even without killing all its members (for example, using the murder and rape of a few to terrorise the rest of the population into leaving).

Thus, the superficiality of much "genocide" propaganda notwithstanding, there was indeed genocidal violence in the aforementioned cases. In Kenya, elements of the Kenyan opposition responded to the stolen election of December 2007 by attacking sections of society aligned with the vote-rigging regime, using the murder of hundreds to drive out half a million people from the Rift valley; in South Ossetia, local militias with Russian backing responded to the Georgian attack of 7-8 August 2008 by attacking Georgian civilians in the disputed enclave, killing and burning villages to force others to flee. Both these campaigns aimed to destroy specified civilian populations, and so should be considered genocidal.

openDemocracy is pleased to offer readers special access to the History Today archive

Discover the history behind this story... >> Genocide & Historical Debate William D. Rubinstein ascribes the bitterness of historians’ arguments to political agendas.>> Cambodia: Coming to Terms with the Past Ben Kiernan points out the progress, and difficulties, in recovering history and justice after genocide.>> Rethinking the Armenian Genocide Donald Bloxham focuses on the issue of great power involvement in this complex historical issue .

The logic of war

Yet there are two complications in these cases. First, to apply the adjective "genocidal" does not in itself settle the moral and political debate about such episodes. The Kenyan regime of Mwai Kibaki was guilty of vote-rigging, the Georgian regime of Mikheil Saakashvili of a brutal attack on the civilian population in order to gain control of a breakaway region. Neither had committed genocide - but they had committed political and military crimes, which were indeed the catalyst for genocidal violence against the sections of the population who were identified with them.


Martin Shaw is professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sussex. A historical sociologist of war and global politics, his books include War and Genocide (Polity, 2003), The New Western Way of War (Polity, 2005), and What is Genocide?
(Polity, 2007).
His website is here    
Also by Martin Shaw in openDemocracy.

"The myth of progressive war"
(11 October 2006)

"Genocide: rethinking the concept"
(1 February 2007)"

The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide
(28 February 2007)"

The genocide file: reply to Anthony Dworkin
(6 March 2007)"

My Lai to Haditha: war, massacre and justice
(16 March 2008)"

Israel's politics of war
(19 January 2009)

Second, genocide is criminal by definition while politics and war are not; but in the real world, "political" and "military" actions are often equally outrageous both to morality and law.

This is directly relevant to the campaigns of Israel and Sri Lanka. In neither case does it appear that these countries' governments have aimed to destroy the "enemy" society (Palestinians, Tamils), and in this sense their actions are not genocidal. In both cases, governments are fighting "wars" to destroy autonomous political agents, rather than to destroy the surrounding populations. But both campaigns have had drastic impacts on civilian populations: the Israeli and Sri Lankan military have targeted enclosed areas containing large civilian populations - in the process killing and wounded hundreds, forcing tens of thousands from their homes, and trapping hundreds of thousands.

The logic of such operations is twofold. First, the Israeli and Sri Lankan governments regard the populations (Palestinians, Tamils) as hostile because the latter are seen as supporting the armed groups (Hamas, Tigers). So although the ostensible target of the assault is a defined enemy rather than a population, a latent goal is indeed to punish an entire people for their assumed sympathies. 

Second, attacking armed groups based in areas with large civilian populations inevitably causes great loss of life and suffering for civilians. In these circumstances, fine rules of engagement which are supposed to avoid civilian harm in fact protect them little (if at all). Any protestations of regret - such as Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert's over the "harming of uninvolved civilians, for the pain we caused them" when announcing the ceasefire on 17 January 2009 - can only be seen as hypocritical.

These consequences underline the fact that wars like Israel's and Sri Lanka's can simultaneously be not in themselves genocidal yet still have disturbing commonalities with genocide. To punish a people for perceived support of an insurgent group, or in order to prevent them from supporting it, is not the same as to destroy a people; but it still makes a civilian population the target of armed aggression. To distinguish genocide from war does not mean that there are no connections between them.

So when some of the advocates or defenders of Israel's actions in Gaza (or in earlier cases) try to defuse criticism by emphasising that its wars are no worse than many others, and of course not genocidal, they really prove the opposite of what they intend. To put Israel's wars on a par with the brutal campaigns against "secessionists" in Sri Lanka, India and Russia serves precisely to highlight how harmful to civilian populations such ("counterinsurgency") wars generally are. Moreover, when counterinsurgency becomes genocidal - as in Darfur - this is an accentuation of the general violence of such wars towards whole populations, not a wholly separate development.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations are in early February 2009 again protesting about the shelling of civilian facilities (this time a crowded pediatric unit); of hundreds of thousands of civilians confined to a district under bombardment; of traumatised victims of violence; of ceasefires ruled out because they would advantage the insurgents, of international media excluded. Yesterday Gaza, today northern Sri Lanka. This may not be in itself genocide - but that makes it no better for the civilian victims.

A clear distinction

There is a necessary footnote to this discussion, on anti-semitism and political responsibility. The Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Jewish racism in Britain, reports that anti-semitic incidents rose eight-fold in the month after the Israeli assault on Gaza began. Similar phenomena are evident in other European countries.

Israel's violence offers a pretext for pernicious anti-semitic abuse, threats, and violence (an echo of how al-Qaida's attacks have exposed British Muslims to anti-Muslim abuse, threats, and violence). There is a vital lesson here, which Jonathan Freedland articulates in relation to Israel: "It is perfectly possible to condemn Israel's current conduct and to stand firmly against anti-Jewish prejudice. And it's about time liberals and the left said so."

Most left-liberal criticism of Israel is not motivated by anti-semitism, but it is clear that there are many on the streets who fail to make the distinction between the Israeli state and individual Jewish people. Those who speak publicly on these issues should be clear always to do so, and to oppose with vigour any attempts to confuse it.

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