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The politics of genocide and memory 

The forsaken promise of «never again»

content warning: genocide

Unfortunately, history gives few examples of people who learn the lessons of their own history.”

Time for Outrage by Stéphane Hessel

Stéphane Hessel, resistance fighter, diplomat, and co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wrote these words discussing the aptitude of humans to forget their history and repeat past errors. Following the Second World War, the concept of “never again” emerged as an international commitment to prevent genocide. However, since then, this expression has needed to be invoked too many times. 

History has shown that the international community has stood by, again and again, as genocide unfolds. Since 1945, there have been more than 50 instances of such crimes against humanity, according to scholar Barbara Harff. Genocides have caused more civilian deaths in this period than all civil and international wars combined. This represents a massive failure on the part of the international community, which committed itself to the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of  Genocide, adopted in 1948. 

As genocide happens again and again, “never again” has become an empty slogan, a lost promise, or an unattainable ideal. The international community seems to have little power to fulfill its promise to prevent genocide. From Bangladesh to Darfur, humanity is still struggling to meet its commitment. Many have argued that this is in part because of a misunderstanding about how to define genocide and what genocide prevention looks like. 

Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin first coined the term ‘genocide’ in 1944. It consists of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. Under the 1948 convention, genocide is an internationally recognized crime where acts are committed with the intent to destroy — in whole or in part — a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. These acts fall into five categories: 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. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has repeatedly stated that the Convention embodies principles that are part of general customary international law. This means that whether or not states have ratified the Genocide Convention, they are all bound as a matter of law by the principle that genocide is a crime prohibited under international law. The ICJ has also stated that the prohibition of genocide is a peremptory norm of international law (or ius cogens) and consequently, no derogation from it is allowed.

However, trying to build an exhaustive list of genocides is an impossible task. Too many times has either disagreements, disregarded evidence or political agendas come in the way of recognizing a genocide for what it is. 

Rapidly, the use of the term genocide or the lack thereof has thus become a political tool. Sadly, recent events in Gaza have exemplified the debate over the use or not of the term genocide. Marie Lamensch, the Coordinator of  Program and Outreach of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Study, explained in an interview with the Daily why the term genocide is a source of political contention: 

“Genocide doesn’t happen in one day. It’s a process that takes time. It’s not like the murder of one person, it is something usually that is organized at least a few years in advance because it requires such an apparatus. […] For example, during the Rwandan genocide, France and the US, refused to use the term genocide because they knew what kind of an impact it would have on people’s minds and they thought, “oh if I use the term genocide that means I have to do something. I have to act. So that is why it is often politicized.””

In the intricate realm of the politics of genocide, the term itself has transformed into a multifaceted tool shaped by geopolitical interests, influencing its application and reception on the international stage. This selective usage, often witnessed when powerful nations refrain from labeling the actions of allies as genocide while readily condemning adversaries, has the potential to erode the credibility and universality of the term. For instance, the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar, widely acknowledged as ethnic cleansing and genocide by human rights organizations, exposes the hesitancy of certain governments with economic and political ties to Myanmar in employing the term “genocide”.

Moreover, political leaders strategically wield the term as a rhetorical instrument to rally public support or condemnation, as observed in the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, where the United States’ declaration of genocide in 2004 was perceived as a calculated political move to exert pressure on the Sudanese government. Lamensch commented on the impact of using the term genocide saying that while “in 2003, in Darfour, for example, it did lead to concrete action. But, for example, now there is a genocide going on once again in Sudan. Now nobody’s talking about it when it’s a clear case of genocide.” The UN has reported that since April 2023 more than 9000 people have been killed and 5.6 million have been forcibly displaced. The fact that ten years ago similar disturbingly violent events were unraveling and recognized as genocide and now no one even dares to mention it clearly shows the political motivations of the international community at the time. In addition to being a geopolitical issue public opinion also matters in the denunciation of genocide. “So it’s a double standard because they are African people, it seems far away from us. So it’s also a case of probably racism” Lamensch told the Daily

Instances of denial emerge when governments accused of genocide vehemently reject allegations, exemplified by the Turkish government’s persistent denial of the Armenian genocide, framing the events within a broader wartime context and asserting that the term “genocide” was misused. 

Lastly, the term’s impact extends beyond legal ramifications, influencing public perception and historical memory. In the case of the Uyghur genocide allegations, the term “genocide” is not only a legal designation but also a potent tool that resonates in the public consciousness, shapes diplomatic engagements, guides international responses, and contributes to the long-term historical narrative. Lamensch explained how genocide recognition shapes geopolitics:

“It can bring important tensions between geopolitically as well not to recognize a genocide. If you look at China currently committing grave human rights violations against the Uyghur in China […] the Canadian government has not recognized a genocide, but the parliament has. One of the reasons that a lot of governments refuse to use kind of the word genocide for what’s happening in China, even though there’s growing evidence that genocide is taking place, is because they know that if you use that term, there’s going to be consequences for the country.” 

The ongoing debates surrounding the term underscores its significance in framing discussions on human rights, accountability, and the global responsibility to address alleged atrocities. 

The collective acceptance that certain acts of genocide are “genocide” while others are “ethnic cleansing,” “civil war,” and “ethnic conflict” showcases the role played by a collective understanding when defining something as a genocide. That collective understanding exists in collective memory, which refers to the shared memories, experiences, and interpretations of a group or community. It is a form of cultural memory that transcends individual recollections and becomes part of the broader identity and consciousness of a societal group. 

Genocide and collective memory are inextricably linked, given that the process of memory construction is inherently political. Memory is a site of power construction, where power relations, dynamics of oppression, and political discourses are shaped. Collective memory is mobilized at different stages of a genocide. It is first mobilized during a genocide by the perpetrators and the victims. The perpetrators manipulate collective memory to justify their actions, asking the population to justify the massacre according to widespread historical narratives of oppression, marginalization, or exclusion. As genocide is prepared through the diffusion of genocidal intent and messages, perpetrators are able to influence collective perceptions through propaganda and hateful messages.  In the case of the Rwandan genocide, the government had been encouraging the population to participate in the genocide through continuous broadcasting of hateful ideology on state radios. Radios congratulated citizens for killing Tutsis and encouraged those who hadn’t to partake in the action. Lamensch explains that “in order to accept that the government is going to kill this many people, you have to start hating the other.” 

Collective memory is notably mobilized post-genocide as a site of power construction, where perpetrators can find consequences or absolution for their acts, while victims can find recognition or face the risk of their experiences being questioned and discredited. Thus, post-genocide, there is an immediate interest in shaping the narrative. It is easier for perpetrators of genocide to frame their actions as non-genocidal if the international community did not refer to their actions as “genocide” during the genocide. Moreover, it is also easier for them to be absolved if there are few survivors left to advocate for international recognition of genocide. 

Therefore, the recognition of an event as a genocide shapes the experiences of perpetrators and victims. It also influences collective memory. Almost everyone still remembers the Holocaust  as a horrifying genocide perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis against the Jews during World War II. The Holocaust has done irreparable harm to Jews across the world and has caused severe intergenerational trauma, PTSD, and cultural damage. Recognizing the Holocaust as a genocide creates a collective space of memory where the atrocities committed against the Jewish population are rightfully remembered. 

Lamensch explained that recognition of genocide within collective memory is also essential for victims: “I know it’s just a recognition and it’s very symbolic, but that symbol is important for the victims because at least it doesn’t deny the death of their family members. So I think that’s something very important for the families and for the victims.” She then added that “even though the Armenian genocide took place more than 100 years ago, a lot of Armenians are still fighting for that kind of recognition. The government of Canada has recognized it, but a lot of governments have not.”

However, many populations who have experienced genocide do not benefit from the existence of a collective memory acknowledging their experiences. As genocide aims for the complete elimination of one group, the elimination of said group’s culture, history, language, or customs is often a part of the process. Fostering spaces of collective memory helps to keep these elements alive. When collective memory does not accurately recall a genocide due to the political manipulations of perpetrators or the international community, the desired impact of the genocide continues as affected populations are not supported in their recollection processes.

Lamensch also mentioned our collective duty of remembrance. She mentioned that the presence of a Holocaust museum in Montreal and the fact that from now on, in Quebec the study of genocide was going to become mandatory in curriculums was a crucial aspect for each one of us to uphold this universal responsibility of memory. She explained: “I think that’s one way that you prevent hate and anti semitism and different forms of hate, islamophobia because we always say that genocide begins with words. Because in order to accept, for example, that the government is going to kill this and this many people, you have to start hating the other. So there needs to be a lot of hate speech for someone to start seeing the other as a threat. So that’s also something that kids should learn at school. How does genocide happen and what does it mean?”  

Lastly, collective memory also plays a crucial role in preventing genocide. When genocide is collectively condemned and remembered, it allows for a reflection on the power dynamics that leads to such extremes and for a reflection on what can be done to prevent them from happening in the future.