Srebrenica deniers get their mucky paws on Rwanda
When, back in the 1940s under the shadow of the Holocaust, Raphael Lemkin coined the term ‘genocide’, then lobbied to have it recognised as a crime in international law, his aim was to prevent such crimes occurring in the future. Since then, there have been those who have attempted to use the concept of genocide, in the spirit of Lemkin, to agitate against the mass extermination of human beings. But there have also been those who have paradoxically attempted to use the concept of genocide to ensure that acts of mass extermination are allowed to take place. During the war in Bosnia, supporters of the genocidal project of Milosevic and Karadzic expended an enormous amount of energy trying to deny the reality of the mass killings – from arguing that the atrocities were being invented by the Western media, to redefining Serb concentration-camps as ‘detention centres’, to claiming that the Bosnians had carried out the atrocities against themselves. But one of their favourite tactics was to set up, then attack, the straw man that ‘the Bosnian genocide was the same as the Holocaust’. Since it was not the same as the Holocaust, they argued, it could not really have been genocide. And since it was not genocide, it wasn’t anything to get upset over.
Thus, it suits the deniers and supporters of genocidal acts to define ‘genocide’ as narrowly as possible. A genocide, such as occurred in Bosnia, can be measured against the benchmark of a ‘perfect’ genocide such as the Holocaust, and found wanting. They tend to define ‘genocide’ as something that has to involve the total physical extermination of an entire ethnic group. This, of course, is a much narrower definition than the one in international law, which defines genocide as an attempt to destroy a group ‘in whole or in part’. And as Adam Jones has pointed out in ‘Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction’ (Taylor and Francis, 2007), according to the international legal definition, genocide technically does not have to involve actually killing anyone at all.
Nevertheless, even with their narrowest possible definition, the deniers have to recognise that at least a couple of cases of genocide have historically occurred. I recall having an exchange about Milosevic on the blog Crooked Timber with a notoriously unpleasant little Stalinist by the name of Louis Proyect, who assured me that the only cases of genocide that were universally acknowledged were the Holocaust, the Armenians and Rwanda. This was already inaccurate, of course, as the Armenian Genocide has been the object of a sustained campaign of denial by Turkish nationalists and their supporters. But it is true that Rwanda has tended to be spared. Back in December 1995, an article by Fiona Fox appeared in Living Marxism, the principal propaganda rag of Milosevic’s and Karadzic’s supporters in the UK, entitled ‘Massacring the truth in Rwanda’. Living Marxism had pioneered Bosnia genocide denial, and Fox attempted a similar form of denial over Rwanda, but this was something of a flash in the pan: Rwanda so far has simply not provoked such a large and active denialist lobby as Bosnia.
The primary reason that the denialists have been much more vocal over Bosnia than Rwanda was that the Bosnian genocide occupied a much larger place in the Western consciousness than the Rwandan genocide, and was a much more prominent foreign policy issue, and over a longer period of time. So far as left-wing deniers were concerned, a second important motive was their wish to minimise the crimes of a reconstituted Communist regime – Milosevic’s ruling party called itself ‘Socialist’. But let there be no illusions: the more widespread and vocal nature of Bosnian than of Rwandan genocide-denial has nothing to do with the fact that the scale of the mass killings in Rwanda was much greater than in Bosnia, or that the Rwandan genocide was much more absolutist in its exterminationist goals than the Bosnian genocide.
That this is so, is evidenced by the fact that two fools have now rushed in where wiser devils have feared to tread. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson were the founders of the ‘Srebrenica Research Group’, set up to deny the Srebrenica massacre had taken place. Their efforts have appeared increasingly laughable, as in terms of forensic evidence, the fact and scale of Srebrenica are probably better documented than any other genocidal massacre in history. The cynicism and downright clownishness of their denialist antics are highlighted by the fact that they repeatedly highlighted the figure of roughly 100,000 Bosnian war-deaths, established by Mirsad Tokaca’s Research and Documentation Centre (RDC), as proof that earlier estimates of 200,000 Bosnian dead were part of an elaborate campaign of anti-Serb disinformation – while themselves repeating massively exaggerated figures for Serb war-dead that the RDC’s research had already discredited.
Herman’s and Peterson’s denial of the Rwanda Genocide has been dissected by Gerald Caplan (in two pieces) and by Adam Jones. I’m not going to regurgitate the admirable job that these two colleagues have done, but what is particularly striking is the amateurish, almost whimsical nature of the deniers’ arguments. Readers may recall the case of the Bosnia genocide denier Thomas Deichmann, who thought that he could disprove the eyewitness accounts by reporters of the Serb concentration-camp at Trnopolje because he noticed that the barbed wire in the picture of the camp was on the ‘wrong’ side of the fence poles, and as his wife pointed out, this wasn’t how fences were organised in their garden. Among the similar gems of stunning insight now produced by Herman and Peterson, which they feel refutes all the evidence for the genocide produced by genuine experts, historians, journalists and war-crimes investigators, we have the following:
Would it not have been incredible for Kagame’s Tutsi forces to conquer Rwanda in 100 days, and yet the number of minority Tutsi deaths be greater than the number of majority Hutu deaths by a ratio of something like three-to-one? Surely then we would have to count Rwanda 1994 as the only country in history where the victims of genocide triumphed over those who committed genocide against them, and wiped the territory clean of its “genocidaires” at the same time. If ever a prima facie case existed for doubting the collective wisdom of “academics, human rights activists, [and] journalists” whose opinions the establishment respects, we find it here, with the alleged Hutu perpetrators routed and fleeing for their lives in neighboring countries, and the alleged Tutsi victims in complete control.
Jones points out that it wasn’t the Tutsi victims who defeated the genocidaires, but the Rwandan Patriotic Front invading from Uganda. Apart from that, the sloppiness of the deniers is indicated by their assumptions that the side that lost the civil war cannot be the one that carried out the genocide, and that the victorious side ‘ought to’ have carried out the most killing. We could ask what such an interpretative model would say about the battle for Srebrenica in 1995, when the victims’ side lost but still had its genocide denied, and its own killings of enemy civilians equated with the actual genocide, by Herman and Peterson. Or about World War II in Bosnia, when the Partisans, composed in large part of Serb victims of the Ustasha genocide, defeated the Ustasha perpetrators of the genocide.
Caplan describes Herman and Peterson as ‘two dedicated anti-imperialists [who] have sunk to the level of genocide deniers’. Yet it is a remarkable form of ‘anti-imperialism’ that feels no desire to condemn or expose Western collusion with either the Bosnian or the Rwandan genocides. Indeed, the well documented history of active French complicity in the Rwandan genocide is a particularly fruitful field for those who really do want to expose the crimes of ‘Western imperialism’.
Clearly, Herman and Peterson are anti-Americans before they are anti-imperialist. But it is even worse than that. For them, ‘anti-imperialism’ ultimately is genocide denial. Should any act of genocide be made known to the Western public, they see their job as ensuring that nothing is done to stop it while it is occurring, and as denying it after it has occurred – that is what ‘anti-imperialism’ is for them. Such are the depths to which these people have sunk.
Update: Peterson appears to have graduated from putting ‘massacre’ in inverted commas when speaking about Srebrenica, and ‘genocide’ in inverted commas’ when speaking about Rwanda, to putting ‘the Holocaust’ itself in inverted commas:
I find Jones’s comparison between the “holocaust” and events in Rwanda 1994 to be strangely revealing—but about Jones, not Rwanda. To me, it betrays an emotional, self-dramatizing, even defensive attachment to the “Holocaust in Rwanda”—that is, to a particular model for discussing events in Rwanda during 1994—that appears to overwhelm everything Jones thinks and writes about it. Indeed. “The Genocide” in Rwanda stands out in Jones’s work (and in the work of many others) as a kind of fetishized, supra-historical entity in its own right.
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