About a week before the outbreak of World War II Adolf Hitler met with his army commanders at his Bavarian Alps headquarters. At this meeting he spoke about exterminating the Poles by mercilessly killing men, women and children. There are some who say that this speech also included the rhetorical question: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’’
That statement has served as a warning and an illustration of the famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But that’s only one reason why it’s important. Another one is that the denial of a genocide is a part of genocide itself. It conceals the crime, exonerates the murderers and erases the victims’ existence as a group.
For those reasons, last week, many praised the U.S. president for recognizing the Armenian genocide and criticized other countries, including Israel, for not doing so because of political and economic interests. As justified as the criticism may be, and as positive as the declaration by President Biden is, we should recall that despite the importance of historical memory, there are other forces that shape the present and the future. Recognition of a genocide that took place over 100 years ago is only the first step in a long journey.
This journey passes through places like Xinjiang in northwest China, the Tigray region in Ethiopia and Myanmar. In China, members of ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs are being sent to “reeducation” camps, in which the prisoners are held without trial in grueling conditions and suffer from cruel indoctrination, torture and rape. In addition to the camps, testimonies, leaked documents, satellite photos and media reports reveal a series of other steps against the population in Xinjiang: forced labor, tight surveillance, separating children from their parents and a ban on practicing Islam. There is also evidence of medical experiments, organ harvesting and forced sterilization, all almost without intervention by the international community.
In Ethiopia’s Tigray region and in Myanmar local longstanding ethnic conflicts include horrific reports. News from Tigray in the last few months included acts of slaughter, looting, uprooting the population, deliberate starvation by burning crops, and widespread rape. In this round of the conflict the perpetrators are the Ethiopian government with the assistance of forces from Eritrea and Amharic militias. In Myanmar the second half of the previous decade saw tens of thousands of Rohingya people murdered, and hundreds of thousands persecuted and expelled. Testimonies revealed horrific acts such as setting entire villages on fire and throwing their residents into the flames, acts of gang rape, and tossing infants into the river. Since the military coup in February, the situation of the Rohingya may deteriorate even further.
The sad truth is that in the short term, the recognition of the Armenian genocide won’t help the victims in China, Ethiopia and Myanmar. History teaches that acts of genocide were not prevented in Rwanda, Kosovo, Darfur or Syria in the 1990s and 2000s despite the universal recognition of the most comprehensive genocide in history – the Holocaust. Nor did they take place due to a failure to recognize the Armenian genocide. Recognition is necessary for prevention, but it’s insufficient. In order to combat present and future genocides at least three additional elements are needed: facts, limits and institutions.
There’s a great deal of discussion about media and public discourse in the 21st century suffering from relativization and multiple narratives. In addition, some of the conflicts that lead to genocide are complex and hard to understand. The terrible result is that the murderers can always paint a picture in which they themselves are the victims. That is how reports are published, based on partial truths, maintaining that the Uighurs are fundamentalists and terrorists, the Rohingya are Muslim invaders and the Tigrayans themselves carried out acts of ethnic cleansing. Only undisputed facts and a wide context can counter the abundance of opinions and propaganda.
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But facts aren’t enough. “They shall understand that a limit, under the sun, shall curb them all,” wrote Albert Camus in “The Rebel.” “Each tells the other that he is not God” (translated by Anthony Bower). In a world where Authoritarian leaders and their regimes aim to achieve absolute power, recognition of the past and understanding the present must lead to placing limitations. Wars will probably continue to accompany mankind for years to come. We must recognize that and place clear limitations on them.
This isn’t new – international treaties, institutions, courts and tribunals have tried for decades to place limitations and prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The situation of these institutions has never been worse, but even if they suffer from weakness, political biases and corruption, in the absence of a world power that is committed to putting an end to acts of horror, and is capable of doing so, the international institutions must recognize the past, discover present facts and place limitations. Nothing else will prevent the next genocide.