Reviewing The Politics of Genocide

When President Obama released his National Security Strategy (NSS) in May he included an emphasis on the United States and the international community upholding the UN endorsed “Responsibility to Protect,” a concept which declares the moral imperative to protect peoples and nations from genocide and mass atrocities, by military means if necessary. It also calls for the end of impunity.

“Those who intentionally target innocent civilians must be held accountable, and we will continue to support institutions and prosecutions that advance this important interest,” states the NSS, even while later admitting that the United States refuses to hold itself to the same standard by refusing to officially be party to the International Criminal Court, currently the main vehicle for prosecuting alleged crimes against humanity.

Charges of genocide, ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities are just the latest in the list of imperial alibis Washington uses to promote its narrow foreign policy objectives of resource accumulation and global hegemony. This effectively fills the vacuum first created by the end of the Cold War, the subsequent near-disappearance of the use of state communism, and then later with the Bush administration’s ineffective brand management of the “Global War on Terror.”

The Obama administration’s predisposition toward humanitarian intervention, and the popularity the concept has taken in liberal circles, makes Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s new book The Politics of Genocide (published by Monthly Review Press) a timely and indispensable read.

Herman and Peterson challenge conventional narratives concerning so-called genocides and mass atrocities in countries such as Darfur, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia – places supported for intervention by actors across the political spectrum (left, liberal, and right). The book uses a framework established by Herman and Noam Chomsky in the early 1970’s for a study they penned about U.S. mass killings in Vietnam entitled Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact and Propaganda. In it, Herman and Chomsky establish four categories of bloodbaths: “Constructive,” “Benign,” “Nefarious,” and “Mythical.” Herman and Peterson adopt these categories for The Politics of Genocide, where the authors use case studies to similarly illustrate how “U.S. officials, with the help of media and establishment intellectuals [produce] a stream of propaganda to divert attention away from U.S.-organized and -approved violence, and onto that of its enemies.”

Herman and Peterson’s first target, classified as a “Constructive Genocide,” is the U.S.-U.K. led sanctions against Iraq after the first Gulf War, something the authors label as “perhaps the largest genocidal act in the last thirty years.” These sanctions prevented Iraq from repairing its infrastructure which had been deliberately destroyed during the war’s massive bombing campaign.

According to a joint study carried out by the World Health Organization and UNICEF in 1999, these sanctions were responsible for the deaths of approximately 500,000 children under the age of 5, “more children than died in Hiroshima.” Dennis Halliday, the first UN Coordinator of Humanitarian affairs in Iraq resigned in 1998, having labeled the effects of sanctions “genocide.” But Herman and Peterson point out that “Iraq’s hundreds of thousands of victims were unworthy of official notice and therefore of no interest to the establishment media and intellectuals.” The authors reveal the media bias towards U.S. based-crimes by tabulating newspapers’ use of the word genocide for the Iraq sanctions regime and comparing it to cases in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur. The table notes the estimated deaths per theater and the number of instances newspapers use the word genocide to describe the conditions of the locality to show the ratio of deaths to genocide usage. In Iraq the rate was 10,000 deaths to 1 use of the word genocide with 80 instances (with an estimated 800,000 deaths from the sanctions). Meanwhile Kosovo, with an estimated 4,000 deaths, genocide usage has a ratio of 12 to 1 with 323 instances.

The other “constructive” genocide the authors use is the more recent U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, where well over a million Iraqis have died. The invasion was illegal, a clear violation of the UN Charter that ensures force can only be used when authorized by the Security Council, while the authors also point out that under Nuremberg (which Obama cites in his NSS) the invasion would be classified as a “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” So the authors ask where were the R2P advocates in calling out for sanctions or military intervention to protect Iraqi civilians from mass atrocities. (The Bush administration even brazenly announced that it would execute a “Salvador option”, where it would employ the use of Death Squads to pacify the country as it had done during the Cold War in El Salvador in the 1980’s.)

One of the “Nefarious Genocides” that Herman and Peterson dissect is Darfur, “the 21st Century’s First Genocide.” Darfur is an “acceptable” focus on villainy for reasons including that its government is run by Muslim Arabs, there is oil in Sudan, and China has become a principal business partner of Khartoum. Herman and Peterson call it “the most successful propaganda campaign of its kind this decade.” Quoting Steven Fake and Kevin Funk, authors of The Scramble for Africa: Darfur Intervention and the USA, unlike “[e]fforts to halt Western-backed humanitarian catastrophes, such as the bloodbath in Iraq, or the Israeli occupation, [which] fail to attract corporate funding or sympathetic pledges from the Oval office,” Darfur activism thrives because it is “largely rooted in establishment-friendly ideals such as Western ‘purity of arms’…and the use of force in this case by self-designated benevolent Westerners to save darkskinned vicitms from their Arab tormentors.”

But while the deaths and suffering in Darfur is horrendous, it does not constitute genocide. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon commented that the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.” In fact, the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, established by the UN Security Council with US support, ruled that the violence and killings carried out by Sudan’s Government did not amount to genocide. Furthermore, the authors point out that more than three times as many people died in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 than in Darfur. Another African theatre where the authors argue genocide has been politicized and distorted, and which may shock some readers, is Rwanda. “To a remarkable degree, all major sectors of Western establishment swallowed a propaganda line on Rwanda that turned perpetrator and victim upside down,” write Herman and Peterson.

The authors reveal the role current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a U.S.-backed (and trained) former military officer of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), of fomenting the violence that spiraled into epic proportions between April and July in 1994. The RPF, formerly a wing of the Ugandan army (where Kagame formerly served as intelligence director) took part in the Ugandan invasion of Rwanda in 1990, displacing several hundred thousand Hutu farmers.

Herman and Peterson point out that noticeably missing was any kind of action by the UN Security Council, which took swift action when Iraq, no longer of use to Washington, invaded Kuwait that same year. The RPF has also been accused of carrying out the assassination of former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana in 1994, an act that many believe triggered the Hutus’ bloody response. It should also be noted that Kagame has come recently under fire for arresting and detaining an American lawyer who had filed a lawsuit against Kagame in Oklahoma City accusing the president of the former president’s assassination, and who has been representing a Rwandan and Kagame opponent against trumped up charges of genocide. Further evidence Herman and Peterson use to dismantle the simplistic, yet politically useful perpetrator-victim narrative includes International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda testimony and rulings.

As for “Benign Bloodbaths,” the authors turn to Israel as one of their examples. From Israel’s invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982, which resulted in approximately 15,000 to 20,000 deaths, to its recent assault on Gaza in late December 2008 which caused destruction “ten times greater than an earthquake,” Washington’s strongest ally in the Middle East enjoys the ability to commit war crimes and what could be considered acts of genocide with impunity from justice and serious scrutiny in the media. Herman and Peterson turn their attention to treatment of the Goldstone Report as an example to support their argument. The report found that the Israeli onslaught was a form of collective punishment and that it caused “the destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses.” The authors note that “there was no one within the establishment prepared to argue that Gaza Palestinians also possess a right to defend themselves or that other states bear a ‘responsibility to protect’ a civilian population being collectively punished by policies that amount to a Crime Against Humanity.'” The other “Benign Bloodbaths” the authors cover, for which Washington bears responsibility, include East Timor, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Finally, the “Mythical Bloodbath” addressed is the Račak massacre, where Kosovo Serbs allegedly massacred dozens of ethnic Albanian civilians on January 15, 1999. The authors argue, with the aid of cited testimony, reports and articles, that this massacre never happened, and that the media storm it created provided a pretext for Washington and NATO to launch air strikes in former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia territory. One of the more interesting figures responsible for manufacturing the “massacre” whom Herman and Peterson write about is William Walker, “a veteran U.S. administrator of Reagan-era wars in Central America” who helped cover-up the Jesuit murders in El Salvador. Walker served as an official for the Organization of Security Cooperation of Europe in Kosovo at the time and was the first to report the “massacre” to then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

I would have liked this slim, yet very informative book to use this definition and apply it on a case-by-case basis to specifically determine whether the atrocities that they scrutinized qualified as genocide or acts of genocide. Instead the book often relied on comparing the magnitude and treatment of the aforementioned atrocities to show that those committed by Washington or U.S. client states were downplayed or whitewashed (and were largely more egregious), while the ones committed by U.S. enemies or targeted states were exaggerated and manipulated in order to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives and maintain our woeful global status-quo regarding international peace and justice. But the book clearly shows the politicization of the term genocide and the dangers and contradictions behind humanitarian intervention and the “responsibility to protect.”

“Just as the guardians of ‘international justice’ have yet to find a single crime committed by a great white northern power against people of color that crosses their threshold of gravity, so too all of the fine talk about the ‘responsibility to protect’ and the end of impunity has never once been extended to the victims of these same powers, now matter how egregious the crimes,” Herman and Peterson astutely point out.

Until we address and correct these inadequacies, biases and contradictions within the global hierarchy, international justice system and current human rights regime history will continue to be littered by the corpses of the innocent, whether genocide is the goal or the alibi. This book can be used as a reference by activists and policy makers to help us right these wrongs. We can’t afford to wait.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at UpsideDownWorld.org. He can be reached at Cyril@upsidedownworld.org. Read other articles by Cyril.