Why Genocide?

By Edwords, Fred | The Humanist, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Why Genocide?


Edwords, Fred, The Humanist


OVER THE PAST fifteen years United Nations tribunals have addressed genocide issues associated with conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. The most recent development in this connection is the arrest on July 18, 2008, of Radovan Karadzic, a man who had been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on charges that he, "acting individually between 1 July 1991 and 19 July 1996, or in concert with others," committed acts of "genocide; crimes against humanity; violations of the laws or customs of war and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949." Four days before this, on July 14, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court pursued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir on ten counts of "genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes" allegedly committed in Darfur since July 1, 2002.

That such legal actions can prove effective is demonstrated not only by the media publicity generated worldwide but by a recent track record of prosecutorial success. For example, Jean Kambanda was sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and related crimes committed while he was prime minister of Rwanda in 1994. This action was taken by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda on September 4, 1998. Of special interest is the fact that Kambanda pleaded guilty to the offense. And the tribunal has so far completed twenty-one trials, resulting in the convictions of twenty-eight people for various crimes in connection with the Rwandan genocide.

So the machinery for indictment, arrest, trial, and conviction is not only in place but its reach and influence are expanding. This is because the world has grown increasingly impatient with both nations and individuals that commit such crimes.

With the existence of such worldwide interest in stopping genocide, the question naturally arises: why do mass killings and genocide occur in the first place? What could possibly motivate human beings to visit such inhumanity, such extreme levels of violence and murder, upon their fellow humans--even a portion of the population of their own country? How do people get past normal human empathy and the natural promptings of conscience so as to even be able to carry out such horrors?

Are such people mad? That would be a difficult case to make, given the large number of human beings who have, throughout history, abetted mass killings and genocide.

Are they driven by poverty and competition for scarce resources necessary for survival? Such a reason may explain a number of examples, but it can't explain the European and American war on the Indians of the Western Hemisphere or many other conquests.

Is it due to lack of education? Not necessarily. Leading up to World War II and the Nazi genocide, Germans were among the most highly educated people in the world.

Is it due to the power of an absolutist ideology: be it religious, philosophical, or political? Such has been used to explain the Muslim conquests of the Middle Ages, the Christian Crusades and Inquisition, the French Revolution's "Reign of Terror," and the pogroms of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin. But it doesn't explain all the mass killings and genocide associated with history's many wars of pure conquest. Consider the actions of the consul Marius during the Roman invasion of Numidia in North Africa in the year 107 BCE. In Jugurthine War (translated by John Selby Watson), Chapter 91, the Roman historian Sallust calmly relates what the Roman army did after the town of Capsa surrendered without a fight:

   The town, however, was burned. The Numidians,
   such as were of adult age, were put to the
   sword. The rest were sold, and the spoil divided
   among the soldiers. This severity, in violation of
   the usages of war, was not adopted from avarice
   or cruelty in the consul, but was exercised because
   the place was of great advantage to [the enemy],
   and difficult of access to us, while the inhabitants
   were a fickle and faithless race, incapable of being
   influenced either by kindness or terror. … 

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