Revisiting UN’s Role in Genocides
When the Genocide Convention was passed by the United Nations in 1948, the world said, “Never again.” Since then Genocide has happened over and over in different part of the World.
The term “genocide” was coined and campaigned by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin after the holocaust. He formed the word “genocide” by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with –cide, derived from the Latin word for killing.
On December 9, 1948, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention establishes “genocide” as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.” It defines genocide as:
[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Genocide is a slowly progressing process that ends in a heinous crime against humanity. I would like to stress the words “slowly progressing”. Genocide is different from sporadic insurgencies. It is a calculated crime perpetrated by people with the intent to cause serious damage to groups that they believe should be annihilated. I would further like to stress the word slow progressing to emphasize my arguments that if the right actions are taken the Rightful way; Genocide can be prevented.
The conditions that develop in a country, before the mass atrocities begin; go through several steps which are classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination and denial. The actual killing, which fast escalates to mass killing, happens during the extermination phase. Each of these stages have scope of intervention to prevent it from escalating.
Throughout my discussion in this article, I shall use the example of the genocide in Bangladesh in 1971. I will use this as an example, not only because I have been through some personal experience during the genocide of Bangladesh, but also because this devastating human malady could have been prevented. I shall also make references to the genocide in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, which killed about 3 million people. The discussion on past genocide can help provide insight to prevent developing ones. For example, the events in Myanmar with the Rohinga population rings very similar to some experiences Bengalis had to go through prior to 1971.
The Genocide in Bangladesh
The genocide in Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan, began on 25 March 1971 with the launch of Operation searchlight, as West Pakistan began a military crackdown to suppress Bengali calls for self-determination. The circumstances of the Bangladeshi genocide were similar to those of several other genocides. The Bengalis were ethnically and linguistically distinct from West Pakistanis. A minority—in this case, Hindus—was thought to be undermining national unity. This minority was identified with a foreign power, India, a nation that had fought two wars against Pakistan. [ The Genocide Debate Politicians, Academics, and Victims by Donald W. Beachler]
There was reluctance by the USA and UN to call the mass murder genocide because according to them it did not fall totally under the jurisdiction of Genocide. We know that similar word crunching happened in the case of Rwanda and Cambodia.
However, the Pakistani army had instructions about whom they should kill. The specific targets were
- The Bengali military men of the East Bengal Regiment, the East Pakistan Rifles, police and para-military Ansars and Mujahids.
- The Hindus
- The Awami Leaguers — all office bearers and volunteers down to the lowest link in the chain of command.
- The students — college and university boys and some of the more militant girls.
- Bengali intellectuals such as professors and teachers whenever damned by the army as “militant.”
3 Million People were killed and 500,000 women raped during the genocide in Bangladesh.
Are Genocides unnoticed?
Genocides generally happen in countries where there is serious lack of rule of law and where the governance is undemocratic and they are weaker states. In such cases do the mass atrocities in those ‘poor countries’ go unnoticed by the major political powers. Let us take the case of Bangladesh. Was the International community unaware of the atrocities that were happening in Bangladesh? The answer is ‘NO’. Mr. Archer Blood, The US Counsel General posted in Dhaka, sent several telegrams to Washington describing the atrocities. One of them was “. . . Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities . . . we have not chosen to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which, unfortunately, the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state . . . We, as professional public servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interest here can be defined and our policies redirected.”
Among the documents that were declassified in 2002 about the Bangladesh genocide there is a handwritten note from President Nixon saying “To all hands: Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time.”
proves that President Nixon and the administration were aware of the atrocities done by West Pakistan but deliberately chose to ignore them.
One word from President Nixon would have dissuaded Pakistan from killing Bengalis. Gary J. Bass, the writer of The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide; wrote is his article “The ‘selective genocide ‘for The National Post… “Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the brilliant White House national security advisor, were driven not just by such Cold War calculations, but a starkly personal and emotional dislike of India and Indians. Nixon enjoyed his friendship with Pakistan’s military dictator, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, known as Yahya, who was helping to set up the top-secret opening to China. The White House did not want to be seen as doing anything that might hint at the breakup of Pakistan — no matter what was happening to civilians in the east wing of the country.
In the article we read by Samantha Powers, it is also evident that the US and the UN mission could have played a role that could save many Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The major political states did not care.
Unimportant populations; Collateral damage: The common civilian who gets killed is nothing but collateral damage when it comes to political priority for powerful states. I use the term ‘unimportant population’ with an equal amount of frustration and sarcasm. In the case of Bangladesh the priority was that Yahya Khan was a broker for a US-China relationship, In the case of Rwanda, it was the cost of deployment of additional forces. The US were unwilling to spend money like they had in Somalia. The feeling expressed about Rwandans was …“these people do this kind of things to themselves from time to time”. In the case of Cambodia, the people were unimportant in relation to the US prestige after Vietnam War. Moreover, the cold war power struggle between USA, USSR and China played a role in the case of both Bangladesh and Cambodia. Those who got killed were as mentioned earlier…“those people”. Unfortunately, United Nations also has to play along with the powerful nations due to the power structure of the UN. Time and again developing countries have expressed concern about the overt power of powerful nation-states like the USA, in UN. This will remain a fact unless more innovative power balance can be devised that is acceptable to all member states.
Problem UN faces
The U.N. is an association or a club of nation states, and thus is not an apolitical organization. Some powerful members of this club also enjoy the privilege of a powerful tool called Veto. On the other hand, many suppressive governments wave the flag of Westphalian sovereignty whenever anyone challenges their “domestic jurisdiction.” As mentioned ironically by Leo Kuper, in his book ‘Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century’ that some states might even believe that they have “sovereign right to commit genocide.”
In the case of Bangladesh genocide, The Secretary-General sent several messages to the Pakistan Government. He also suggested sending an envoy, which was not accepted by the Yahya Government. The only way the UN could act was to respond to the humanitarian problem faced by the Bangladeshi refugees who took shelter in India. UN implemented a massive humanitarian assistance program in the border regions. In the case of Cambodia, the regime of Pol Pot was overthrown by Vietnam forces and the people were liberated from suppression. Political pressure prevented the UN from accepting the new government. As a result, the ousted regime continued to have a place in the UN and the only place Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime had a flag flying, was in New York.
Is there no way out?
Analyzing the genocides that happened in the 70s and the 80s there are valid reasons to feel that United Nations has not been very effective as an International Body. However, it is an undeniable fact that United Nations is a necessary body to maintain a semblance of world order. The conflicts that United Nations could not prevent are the ones we hear about. I sincerely believe there could be many conflicts that have been avoided because United Nations initiated negotiation.
Increased Ethical role of UN
The role of the United Nations has become much more important and relevant in present times. Therefore, It is imperative for United Nations to look inward and outward to become the organization that fulfills the mandate of its existence, which was, Never Again to Genocide.
The definition of Genocide, as stated in the UN convention is not fully inclusive. In article 2, the crime of Genocide is defined that it is a crime with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a group. Further elaboration of group mentions national, ethnic, racial or religious groups. Other possible groups are not included. Thus if other groups were targets of the massacre, it would be difficult to persecute. One such important element could be political groups. If a systematic attack is conducted on a population because of their adherence to a political group it may not be regarded as genocide. In the case of Bangladesh, The Pakistan Army was specifically targeting people, especially young men, who were thought to be supporters of the opposition Awami League.
In the case of Cambodia, the people in the cities were blamed for being bourgeoisie, thus they had to be brought to the level of a proletariat. Individuals wearing glasses were perceived to be upper class and persecuted. At the current time, the incidences in Syria and Libya are increasingly becoming terrifying. It is probably time to ask the question if the concept of gender needs to be included in the definition of Genocide too. Some persecution by ISIS and Boko Haram are exclusively targeted towards women.
If a process of redefining Genocide is undertaken by UN, it will provide an opportunity for the International organization to look at Genocide more inclusively when there is the question of justice. An inclusive definition of Genocide will also be able to predict future full-scale genocide and prevent genocide from becoming mature coercive actions.
Reform of Security Council:
In the cases of genocides discussed, it is evident that the balance of power of Nation States, particularly the members of the Security Council, makes a difference. It is being strongly felt that United Nations and in particular the UN Security Council needs reform. The issues being discussed are the increase in the number of general members in the Security Council by members from underrepresented continents and regions. This increase in number could bring more perspective to discussions and help in resolving matters in a more informed manner. The increased number will also mean increased responsibility for more members.
On the question of acting responsibly, some members showed frustration during the General debate in 2014 about the Veto imposed in the case of Syria. The suggested reform was that, there should be a restriction on the use of the Veto in situations of mass atrocity.
Empowering the Office of The Secretary-General
The Office of the Secretary-General needs more mandates. Merely creating offices for Responsibility to Protect ( R2P), or appointing advisors on genocide will not be enough.
The Office needs more flexibility to act quickly and decisively when genocide threats develop. The option of deputing a special envoy should be used as often as human rights violation is reported.
There is a strong recommendation from various corners that different agencies working on different development and strengthening issues could have coordinated programs as a unified One UN program. This would not only make the activities cost-effective by reducing some duplication, some funds could be freed up to do more innovative preventive programs towards peacebuilding.
Oftentimes, the UN organizations working in different regions, particularly developing countries assume a bureaucratic method of operation. This not only precludes their coordination with other UN agencies, it makes them removed from local organizations, which are a trove of information. The UN organizations need to collaborate with local organizations, particularly in times of peacebuilding and more specifically during times of humanitarian efforts. We are aware how UN Aid was manipulated by Rwandan perpetrators of Genocide. The UN forces are questioned about their role in Darfur too.
As mentioned earlier, genocide does not flare up in a day. We need a United Nations which proactively implements policies and norm-setting initiatives to prevent and avert Genocide. If that does not happen, it will lose the respect of the world population and continue to act as a bureaucratic office manned by aspiring and retired politicians.
Christina Rozario, Development program specialist, educator, orator