Earlier this year in the run up to the release of the anti Islam ‘film’ Fitna by the Dutch maverick right-wing politician Geert Wilders, the leading Dutch political scientist Job van Amerongen warned the left liberal chattering classes against stirring up hysteria, that Wilders was leading the Dutch back into the darkest days of the extermination of the Dutch Jewish community in World War II.
In particular van Amerongen criticised in his comment in the Dutch ‘quality’ morning paper De Volkskrant on 4 February the Labour Party mayor of Amsterdam Job Cohen for making the claim that not since Auschwitz the fear for and the mistrust of ‘the other’ has been so enormous in the Netherlands.
This was the typical kneejerk reaction of making sweeping historical comparisons to invoke the understandable ‘never again’ sentiment, but was in fact another example how in recent years the unique historical character of the Holocaust was being blurred, wrote van Amerongen.
He added that he had detected a growing resentment among those who came to remember their family members at commemorations for the victims of the German occupation of the Netherlands against the increasing presence of representatives of campaigning groups who wanted to highlight some current situation of repression somewhere in the world because of such easy historical comparisons.
Even though he did not say so, van Amerongen could have easily referred to Dutch ‘Save Darfur’ campaigners as this year ‘Save’ or ‘Dream for Darfur’ made a concerted effort to dominate Auschwitz and similar commemorations, including that of the ‘Rape of Nanking’ by the Japanese Imperial Army in a lame effort to appeal to the wider Chinese public, to draw attention to Darfur and the ‘genocide Olympics’ in Beijing.
I share van Amerongen’s misgivings about making easy but lazy comparisons between the unique and in reality incomprehensible enormity of the industrial scale of the Shoah by Nazi Germany and current humanitarian emergencies.
I also share his fear that the blunting of the unique historical character of the above is diminishing our understanding of what actually constituted genocide during WWII.
But I fear too it is hampering our understanding what is actually currently happening not only in Darfur but also in the neighbouring wider regions of the Sahel, Horn and Rift Valley and Great Lakes where some humanitarian emergencies are designated by this new blanket and in effect bland definition as ‘genocide’ and others are not.
What is, however, more worrying is that as such genocide has not only become a kind of journalistic shorthand to describe out of laziness or ignorance all ethnic conflicts, war crimes and crimes against humanity etc, but also that the ‘commentariat’s’ laziness and ignorance among the wider public opinion and politicians can be manipulated for political reasons.
Such designation as ‘genocide’ can make all the difference not only whether one particular humanitarian emergency gets all the world’s (media) attention, like Darfur but not Somalia despite the fact that the humanitarian indices are worse for the latter, but it also will decide whether either of these emergencies will be deemed serious enough to warrant (armed) humanitarian intervention or not.
And the decision whether or not to intervene backed up by the arms of the ‘international community’ in the form of increasingly more often than not combinations involving the UN, EU, Nato and regional bodies like AU and some times an ad hoc ‘coalition of the willing’ etc appear to be made not on the basis of the assessment of the particular humanitarian emergency but whether the majority opinion in especially Nato and the EU regards such intervention desirable for political, security and/or economic reasons.
In response to Nazi Germany’s effort to exterminate European Jewry and Roma communities and Japan’s war crimes the newly established UN dominated by the five ‘Great Powers’ adopted the obligation of genocide prevention as its very first human rights document. It didn’t specify how this related to the principle of national sovereignty—but the silence on this point carried heavy implications.
However, this noble obligation is under threat by political manipulation to justify either ‘regime change’ of a country’s government portrayed as ‘evil’, against the UN charter, or by political manipulation of the principles of peacekeeping by mutual consent between warring parties in international and intra national conflicts; missions such as UNMIS, cannot or should not become a vehicle for military intervention by stealth and proxy and neither should UNAMID.
The world’s attention was drawn to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur in early 2004 by opportunistically invoking the vista of Rwanda ten years earlier. This was politically manipulated to accuse the government of Sudan of committing genocide of the ethnic ‘African’ groups in Darfur with the help of its local allied ‘Arab’ tribal militia.
The global ‘brand’ of the ‘Janjaweed’ as Sudan’s answer to the Waffen SS was created and the demand for intervention, if not direct than indirect through first AMIS and now UNAMID has been made ever since.
In his When victims became Killers Mahmood Mamdani has masterly dissected how the genesis of a separate genos for Hutu and Tutsi was created as a perception and how circumstances eventually led to Rwandan genocide, but he explained also how this perception prevented by and large a proper understanding of Rwanda 1994.
Not unlike how the perceptions of ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ in Darfur today is popularly misunderstood and manipulated; it is also interesting to note that the situation in the eastern DR Congo, which has its roots directly in the Rwandan conflict does not get, or is deemed not to warrant, the same attention in contrast.
Even worse is, when earlier this year violent incidents in Kenya following the disputed elections looked like ‘Rwanda’, the supporters of Kibaki and Odinga accused each other of committing genocide.
‘Genocide’ has truly become a term of vulgar political abuse. This will not only prevent a better understanding of these conflicts but is also the greatest gift to the Holocaust deniers.
Pieter Tesch is a freelance journalist and historian and acting chief executive of the Sudan Cultural Society of Britain and Ireland (SCSBI).