How to Ignore a Genocide
The world turns away, again.
Raphael Lemkin was 21 years old when he came across the story of Soghomon Tehlirian in the newspaper.
Tehlirian was just a few years older than Lemkin. And now he was now on trial for murder. Tehlirian had walked up to a man on a trendy Berlin street in the middle of the day, pulled a pistol from his pocket, and shot the man in the back of the neck.
The murder shocked the world. The man who bled to death on the street was Talaat Pasha, the former Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. Talaat had been responsible for the murder of Tehlirian’s whole family, in addition to more than one million other Armenians.
Lemkin, studying linguistics at the University of Lvov in Poland,1 was convinced the wrong man had been arrested. “Is it a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men?” Lemkin asked his professor. “This is most inconsistent.”2
His professor explained: “Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chicken. He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.” This was 1920.
Lemkin watched with fascination as Tehlirian was tried. “I have lived only to avenge my people with his life,” Tehlirian told the court. The jury deliberated for just an hour before delivering its verdict: Not guilty.
But that didn’t sit well with Lemkin either. Whatever good his act had done to draw the world’s attention to the Turkish atrocities, Tehlirian had become the “self-appointed legal officer for the conscience of mankind.” A system which privileges the anger of the victim isn’t justice, but revenge. And vengeance is both notoriously inaccurate and prone to creating more violence.
Lemkin resolved himself to address this legal chasm. He became a lawyer. He warned his colleagues that the Turkish massacres were not a uniquely horrific occurrence, nor the behavior of less civilized people. The architects of such destruction, he warned, could be close at hand.
In the liberal order, Lemkin believed, laws had to be drafted to deal with illiberal acts. The world had already come to ban piracy and slavery: Why not mass murder? He came up with two parts of this novel legal concept: “Barbarity,” the murder of a class of people; and “vandalism,” the destruction of their collective identity. Such a law could give the international community both standing and purpose to prosecute those responsible for such crimes. And, maybe, it could even prevent them.
Lemkin hoped to travel to Madrid to present his plan for this new legal doctrine. But the Polish government feared Lemkin’s sharp tone on Germany’s government might be bad for business. So they forbade him from attending. When one of Lemkin’s colleagues read his paper, in his stead, German attendees walked out.
Six years later, Adolf Hitler addressed his military chiefs. “The aim of war is not to reach definite lines but to annihilate the enemy physically,” he ranted. “It is by this means that we shall obtain the vital living space that we need. Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?”
A week later, Germany invaded Poland. Lemkin rushed to the train station.
This week, on Bug-eyed and Shameless, the story of how we ignored a genocide. How we’re ignoring one right now. And how we can learn to not ignore the next one.
Part 1: Darfur, 2004
One million people had been displaced. More than three million had been directly affected by the conflict. “Yet Darfur has remained virtually invisible,” researcher Eric Reeves wrote in an editorial in early 2004. He warned that without “immediate plans for humanitarian intervention,” tens of thousands of civilians would die.
The dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir claimed it was fighting a counter-insurgency campaign against local rebels. Journalists had been essentially forbidden from accessing Darfur, so only wisps of news floated out of the region. But when Julie Flint, an independent consultant, managed to reach the isolated region for four weeks that spring, she discovered the reality of al-Bashir’s operation. The state military, working “hand in glove” with local Arab militias, were systematically targeting small villages full of civilians. Soviet-era bombers would pound these settlements, then these militias — including the reviled Janjaweed — would sweep in to kill and burn with impunity. Flint begged the international community to intervene.
The African Union sent peacekeepers, but they were too few to make a difference. The issue was submitted to the U.N. Security Council, but it would take four months for them to even pass a resolution calling for the Sudanese government to stop the violence. The killing continued. A subsequent U.N. study, early in 2005, found that the violence was both “widespread and systemic,” and amounted to crimes against humanity. Later that year, they refer the case to the International Criminal Court. It would take a hybrid U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force would not be deployed until July, 2007.3
Between 2003 and 2007, from total international indifference to international foot-dragging to action, it is estimated that some 300,000 people were killed in Darfur.
When charges were being drawn up against al-Bashir, architect of these atrocities, the International Criminal Court omitted a crucial word. It’s one that Reeves pointedly used in his 2004 op-ed, and one that Flint carefully deployed in her own study. It’s the word that Lemkin had been trying to come up with for years — his concept of “barbarity” and “vandalism.” The refusal to use the word led to an extraordinary appeal before the International Criminal Court an an even more stunning reversal by the world’s foremost international law body. It read:
Part 2: New York, 1944
Living in exile, Raphael Lemkin contemplated suicide.
A fellow Polish Jew, Szmul Zygielbojm, had opted for such a path. Zygielbojm, exiled in London, had tried desperately to shake the Americans out of their complacency. U.S. intelligence knew full well of Hitler’s “Final Solution,” and the Brits had intercepted German communiqués about their mass deportations. European papers reported on estimates that as many as one million Jews had been deported and killed, but that news was buried inside the pages of the New York Times. It was easier to continue fighting the war but refusing its refugees.
Zygielbojm read reports of the valiant ghetto uprising in Warsaw, and implored the Americans to intervene to help the rebellious Jews. America declined. Then came reports of the uprising’s defeat — and news that Zygielbojm’s wife and daughter had been killed in the ghettos. “The responsibility for this crime of murdering the entire Jewish population of Poland falls in the first instance on the perpetrators,” he wrote to the Polish government-in-exile. “But indirectly also it weighs on the whole of humanity, the peoples and governments of the Allied States, which so far have made no effort toward a concrete action for the purpose of curtailing this crime.”
Zygielbojm took a fatal dose of sleeping pills and died on May 12, 1943. He dedicated his death to those who died in the uprising: “I belong with them, to their mass grave.”
Lemkin conducted similar calculations, trying to determine whether he was worth more alive or dead. He convinced himself, rightly, that his work was too important.
In 1944, Lemkin published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. More than 600 pages long, it was an unprecedented collection of the laws promulgated by the Nazi regime across Europe. It was the legal basis on which the Nazis massacred six million Jews, and more than 10 million Russians, Roma, Queer people, and other “undesirables” — but also how it weaponized the functions of its client states to suppressed dissent and maintain order. It was the legal machinery of evil. It was how the Nazis made terror ordinary.
Just as Hitler had created a legal framework to legalize mass murder, Lemkin sought to use law to criminalize it. In so doing, he resisted the idea that Hitler’s crimes ought to have special designation. “Germanization” may have been an apt term to describe the Nazi war crimes, but it would do little good in the future. The extent of this holocaust could not become the definition, he believed, because no future crime should ever be allowed to become so grotesque. “New concepts require new terms,” he wrote. That new term was genocide.4
As the concentration camps were liberated, the world was forced to confront what the Allies had hid. Lemkin showed up in Germany to push the Nuremberg courts to hold the Nazis accountable for this crime against all of humanity. Reunited with relatives for the first time since the war, he learned that the rest of his family had been exterminated. “If Lemkin was relentless before, the loss of his parents pressed him into overdrive,” writes Samantha Power, a student of Lemkin.
Even if his new definition was used only rarely in Nuremberg, it gained traction with the newly-founded United Nations. In 1948 it adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It forbade the intentional destruction, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. While international law has a habit for providing rationalizations and easy outs for rogue regimes, the law on genocide had no such loophole.
“The perpetrator’s particular motives for wanting to destroy the group were irrelevant,” Power notes: Whether it was Saddam Hussein seeking to clear the Kurds from useful borderlands; the Rwandan government invoking national security to slaughter the Tutsi minority; or Bosnian Serbs trying to expel Croats and Muslims from their land: It made no difference. Genocide could not be explained away.
It was an extraordinary win. The next step, ratification, should have been the easy part.
But in the ensuing debate, some uncomfortable realities came to the surface. A 1951 petition, We Charge Genocide, made the case that the United States’ treatment of its Black population amounted to crimes against humanity. “Every word…voiced against the monstrous Nazi beast applies with equal weight, we believe, to those who are guilty of the crimes herein set forth,” it opens.
America didn’t want to hear that. One of the petition’s authors, W. E. B. Du Bois, was set to present the petition at a U.N. meeting in Paris. The U.S. government forbade him from leaving the country, just like Poland had done to Lemkin years earlier.
The petition did not sway many jurists, though it would prove incredibly influential on radical Black politics for decades to come. Lemkin himself recognized the gross injustice inflicted on Black Americans, but concluded it did not rise to the level of genocide. A few years later, Martin Luther King Jr., made an even more serious charge of genocide: “We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe its indigenous population.”
Fearing a reckoning with its own history, America insisted that it could not be bound by this international law and refused to ratify the Convention.
Raphael Lemkin died in 1959, living in poverty in New York City, of a heart attack. He collapsed in the offices of a Park Avenue public relations firm, Power writes, “his blazer leaking papers at the seams.” He had never stopped trying.
With Lemkin gone, the cause of the Genocide Convention fell to an unlikely hero: Senator William Proxmire. He committed, in 1967, to deliver a speech on the floor of the Senate every single day it say until the law was ratified.
It would take, he hoped, just a year or two of daily speeches. It took, in fact, 19 years.
By the time President Ronald Reagan endorsed ratification, in 1986, Proxmire had delivered 3,211 speeches in support of the Genocide Convention.
Part 3: Darfur, 2023
Omar al-Bashir built genocide into his state.
After the world’s attention turned away from Darfur, al-Bashir incorporated the murderous Janajweed into his security architecture: Rebranding them as the Rapid Support Forces.
Investigations from Human Rights Watch uncovered a pattern of “mass rape and killings” throughout Darfur and elsewhere in the country committed by the Rapid Support Forces throughout the 2010s. They have also been implicated in fighting Saudi’s brutal proxy war in Yemen. When al-Bashir was ousted from power in 2019, the Forces’ leader — the mononymous Hemedti — became a senior leader in the military junta. He deployed his forces to enact a protest crackdown that Human Rights Watch surmised “may constitute crimes against humanity.”
When the Sudanese government moved to fold the RSF into its regular forces, Hemedti launched a series of attacks on the state military. A full-scale civil war has raged for more than eight months, and killed scores.
The “Rwanda genocide scenario is happening now” one Darfur organization said this spring, “and the world is just watching.” The violence, per local reports, seems to be particularly targeting members of the Masalit tribe. “Entire families have been exterminated and buried in mass graves,” a local official said.
In a damning report from August, Amnesty International chronicled a litany of possible human rights abuses while excoriating the liberal order: “To date, the international response to the conflict in Sudan has failed to meet the scale and urgency of the situation.”
Since then, the international community has become less engaged in Sudan. Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council voted 14-0 — with Russia abstaining — to close its mission in the country, heeding the demands of the Sudanese state. Not only is there no plan on the table to address the rising violence, the Security Council, its own members complicit, has not even managed to advance measures to crack down on weapon sales to Sudan. Media attention on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza exceed reports on the situation in Darfur on most days by more than 50-to-1.
Part 4: A Responsibility to Protect
The world made “modest progress” in combatting genocide in the 20th century, Samantha Power wrote in 2002.
That progress came, mostly, in the field of law. Ad hoc tribunals for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia led to actual convictions and jailtime for those responsible for committing genocide. But Power became a champion of the idea that merely prosecuting war crimes was not enough: They had to be prevented. Or, at least, stopped.
There were examples where the exact right combination of media attention, public activism, and invested foreign governments conspired to save lives. In Timor-Leste, in 1999, an Australian-led peacekeeping force quelled rising violence before things spiralled. “Without this unique confluence of events and acts of conscience,” according to author Geoffrey Robinson, “in all likelihood we would now be speaking not of fifteen hundred dead but rather tens of thousands.”6
Rwanda was the countervailing example. International attention and outrage had prompted a meek and cowardly response from the U.N., and the genocide went on just the same. A pointed apology from President Bill Clinton in 1998 was as frank as it was empty. “Never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence [of genocide],” Clinton said from the airport in Kigali. But, as journalist Philip Gourevitch wrote: “Expectations of the great powers had been bitterly diminished to very nearly zero.”7
The cynicism was deserved. Despite an emerging idea that the world had a “responsibility to protect” civilians, the world seemed hopelessly unwilling and incapable to figure out how. Indeed, in the years that followed, the world would continue shying away from evidence of genocide: Darfur being a prime example. America, in particular, had shown a “toleration of unspeakable atrocities, often committed in clear view,” Power wrote. “The United States has consistently refused to take risks in order to suppress genocide.”
America was certainly willing to take risks, and break international law, to advance its own security agenda, however. Power joined Barack Obama’s administration, first as a member of the National Security Council then as ambassador to the United Nations, with a hope of finally creating an internal standard of protection. It didn’t happen.
America invoked the responsibility to protect when it invaded Libya in 2011, insisting it was protecting the rebelling civilian population from autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s forces. That may have been true. But the intervention, largely from the air, both obliterated the Libyan state and caused a knock-on effect in Yemen, the Sahel, and central Africa. In those crises, America shown itself to be either totally indifferent or actively supportive of the aggressors. An even-worse humanitarian disaster in Syria went by without American involvement, despite the crossing of numerous “red lines.”
Since Obama left the White House, peacekeeping — ineffective as it has been — has only fallen more out of fashion, while intervention has become a dirty word. The autocrats have the run of the U.N. and other international fora, and the public has grown desensitized to genocide. We have full access to these atrocities in real time, yet we have shown ourselves even less capable of marshalling a response than even two decades prior. Often, debates about the nature of these crimes is muddied by misinformation and partisan recriminations.
The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect assesses there are 13 areas in the world which are in crisis, while there is imminent risk of “genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing” in five other regions. They point to Russian massacres committed in Ukraine, including the mass deportation of children. They point to the Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang. They point to the continued murder of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar.
And they point to the humanitarian crisis taking place in Gaza, echoing this call from U.N. experts:
Part 5: Jerusalem, 1961; Gaza, 2023
If Raphael Lemkin was intent on prosecuting genocide, Hannah Arendt was fascinated with understanding it.
Like Lemkin, she understood that genocide was a complex crime. It required the indifference, complicity, and collaboration of thousands, even millions, to make it possible. She called it the “banality of evil.”
In 1960, in defiance of international law, Israel kidnapped Adolf Eichmann and secreted him away to Israel to stand trial for his role in crafting the Nazi’s “Final Solution.” Arendt, on assignment for the New Yorker, went to Jerusalem to cover the trial. And she found herself unafraid of him.
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal,” Arendt wrote. Eichmann’s miserable defence, that he was but a tiny cog in a bigger machine, was exactly the point for Arendt. The fact that he helped the machine work proved his guilt. It was the world’s job to understand how those cogs worked together.
And to that end, Arendt began to worry about the brand of justice that Israel was meting out. She thought, like Lemkin, of Soghomon Tehlirian. The young Armenian had taken justice into his own hands, she wrote, because he had no other option. Israel had broken international law to bring Eichmann before the court. Worse yet, its case against the Nazi official was not being prosecuted under the Genocide Convention, but under Israeli law. They were trying him not for crimes against humanity, but for crimes against the Jewish people. Arendt believed the prosecution had become a “show trial.”
“If genocide is an actual possibility of the future,” Arendt wrote, “then no people on earth — least of all, of course, the Jewish people, in Israel or elsewhere — can feel reasonably sure of its continued existence without the help and protection of international law.”
If Israel is so willing to break international law to bring Eichmann to justice, Arendt wondered, could it excuse its own soldiers when they shoot Palestinian civilians on the orders of their commanders? Indeed, the court heard of an incident in an Arab village, where Israeli commanders gave orders to open fire on a town full of unarmed civilians. An Israeli judge found that order illegal, but gave the soldiers relatively short sentences, as they were following “superior orders.”
“The truth of the matter is that Israeli law, in theory and practice, like the jurisdiction of other countries, cannot but admit that the fact of ‘superior orders,’ even when their unlawfulness is ‘manifest,’ can severely disturb the normal working of a man's conscience,” Arendt wrote. All states break the law sometimes, she admits, in war or emergency. But without international law, how can the world ensure that such breaches are only an exception, not a norm?
Sixty years later, in the same magazine, Masha Gessen found themselves revisiting Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial, and wondering if the lessons had been hopelessly obscured.
“For the last seventeen years, Gaza has been a hyperdensely populated, impoverished, walled-in compound where only a small fraction of the population had the right to leave for even a short amount of time—in other words, a ghetto,” Gessen writes. “Not like the Jewish ghetto in Venice or an inner-city ghetto in America but like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany.”
Laws in Germany had discouraged thinking such thoughts. As Gessen stepped through an art installation in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, over thousands of metal disks, each cut to look like an anguished face: “I thought of the thousands of residents of Gaza killed in retaliation for the lives of Jews killed by Hamas. Then I thought that, if I were to state this publicly in Germany, I might get in trouble.” A new definition of antisemitism, pushed aggressively by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, has been used to conflate criticism of the government of Israel with antisemitism.
Gessen was to be recognized this month with the Hannah Arendt Prize in Germany. But their column sparked such backlash that the foundation sponsoring the prize withdrew their support — only to reverse again and begrudgingly offer the prize, crushed under the hypocrisy of it all. But the message was sent: Gessen had gone too far.
What strikes me is that we are no longer making modest progress in genocide prevention. We may, in fact, be regressing. There are genocides taking place right now which are garnering scant international attention, let alone action.
Omar al-Bashir is still, despite an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for multiple counts of genocide, sitting in Sudan. His protégée, a likely war criminal in his own right, is prosecuting yet another genocide. The world has simply no plan to do anything about it, nor does there seem to be much public pressure to change that.
Sudan’s crimes against international law are being ignored. Israel’s are being excused.
In October, Israel was attacked by a terror group with clear genocidal intent. In response, it has persecuted a war that has has shown a total disregard for international law.
On Monday, a group of IDF soldiers were conducting an operation inside Gaza City. They were approached by three men waving a white flag: The soldiers opened fire, killing two. The third man fled into a nearby building: The IDF opened fire again, killing him.
The three men were Israeli hostages, who had somehow escaped Hamas captivity. The entire operation was launched, at least in part, to save their lives. But it seems the intent of destroying Hamas, or anyone who looks like Hamas — that is, standing in Gaza — became a higher priority. The IDF says the killings were a “mistake and a malfunction.” There are now nearly 20,000 dead in Gaza: That is not a mistake or a malfunction.
Israel knew going into this war that bombarding Gaza would incur a staggering death toll. (Dispatch #77) But, more than just a tolerance for high collateral damage, it looks more and more like those superior orders are manifestly unlawful.
We need to have an investigation into the substantial evidence that Israel may have broken international law in prosecuting this war. I confess I still struggle with the idea that this war could rise to the level of genocide. But given the mounting death toll, the level of destruction, and the dehumanizing rhetoric of its leaders, I am increasingly convinced that it is a possibility: Particularly if the war continues.
The international community has managed to do the extraordinary thing and come together, almost unanimously, in favor of a ceasefire. Now it needs to do the more difficult thing and press Israel to agree to one before things get worse.
That’s it for this week.
As dour a note as it is to leave on, I hope everyone has a pleasant holidays.
I’ll be back before the New Year with some requisite end-of-2023 lookback content.
What is today Lviv, Ukraine
A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power.
"If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide Was Stopped in East Timor, by Geoffrey Robinson
We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch.