Millions of people throughout the world have died as a result of genocide and crimes against humanity. The address by the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to the Israeli Zionist Knesset on January 20, 2014 illustrates how crimes against humanity are being manipulated for an ulterior and self-serving political agenda, in his case to criminalize opposition to Zionism and Israeli state terrorism as “anti-semitism” – a hierarchy of crimes has been established. On Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27, 2009 Dr Hakim Adi, then Reader in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Middlesex, gave a presentation at the African Caribbean Community Library, Battersea Library, in the London Borough of Wandsworth, United Kingdom. The meeting was part of the commemoration of this national day organised under the overall support of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, a national charity formed in 2005. January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945, is commemorated as Holocaust Memorial Day internationally. (Originally published on this website on Janu 27, 2014) The meeting at the Battersea Library was jointly organised by the African Caribbean Community Library and Wandsworth Council, and was attended by the Community Librarian and members of Wandsworth Council, including the mayor Cllr John Farebrother, as well as people from the community.
AFTER an introduction from the mayor, Dr Adi asked everyone to stand for a minute’s silence to remember the millions who have died as a result of genocide and crimes against humanity. We post below a summarised version of Dr Adi’s remarks. Following the presentation, a serious discussion, led by Dr Adi, was held focusing on identifying who is responsible for the crimes of mass killings, in which a score of people spoke in the time available, and raising the important question of what form of democracy can empower to people to become the decision-makers so that the people’s will can become effective in putting an end to all crimes against humanity.
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I am very honoured to have been asked to speak here in Battersea on the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). It is of course vital that we condemn all crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity and that we learn the lessons of history in order that we can prevent similar crimes in the future. We historians have a particular responsibility here, because human memory can be both short and rather selective, but it is vital that we are not selective about which crimes are remembered. HMD in Britain has been criticised for being rather selective and focusing mainly on the crimes of the Nazis, and those committed in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda, while sometimes Darfur is mentioned too. As a consequence, rather than uniting everyone, HMD has actually created disunity. There is no hierarchy of crimes of genocide based on the numbers of those lost at any particular time, and there should be no thinking that some humans are more important than others. What is important is that we remember all such crimes and understand their causes.
The crime of genocide was established in international law in 1948 by a UN Convention that defined such crimes as –
“Any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group; killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of that group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole of in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
In addition to this legal definition which was prefaced by remarks that made it clear that genocide had taken place throughout human history, mention is also often made of the 1985 Whitaker Report to the UN Sub-Committee on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. The Whitaker Report elaborated on the issue of historical genocide, especially that of indigenous and other peoples as a consequence of colonialism, and as a result of what it referred to as “insensitive economic exploitation” in the modern world.
There therefore seems to be no good reason to limit our concern to certain acts of genocide carried out after a particular date or in particular locations. Indeed, in the last few weeks many people have spoken of the onslaught of the Zionist regime in Gaza as genocidal, and you can judge for yourselves how well it fits the definition in the UN Convention. When one talks of the long-suffering Palestinian people, it is important to remember that the crimes against them, which include the denial of their right to exist as a nation and to inhabit their own land did not commence in the last few weeks but stretch back for nearly a century. As well as the crimes of Israeli state terrorism, which are too legion to mention, we must also condemn those who support such crimes and create the conditions for them. We must consider who provides the arms and other support for such crimes. Here we see the hand of the US and British governments in particular, who have even provided Israel with the capability of using nuclear weapons. Today the British government openly justifies the crimes of the government of Israel whom the Jewish Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufmann has recently called murderers and war criminals.
But more importantly we must also condemn those British governments of the early 20th century, who while perfidiously promising to support the Palestinian, and other Arab peoples’, right to self-determination openly declared in the infamous Balfour Declaration, and elsewhere, that they were Zionists and then illegally encouraged immigration into Palestine and the alienation of the Palestinians’ land. It was the governments of Britain, drawn from all the big parties, which ruled Palestine as if it were a colony, suppressed the Palestinian people and then having carried these crimes and created a major problem in the region then officially washed their hands of it, while continuing to exacerbate it for another 60 years.
So this too seems to me to be a very major crime, a crime of genocide according to the UN definition that should also be remembered and condemned. But we do not have to limit ourselves to the 20th century. We must not forget the genocide that occurred in the American continent where, as a consequence of what some now call the invasion of 1492, some 80-90 per cent of the continent’s entire population were wiped out as consequence of economic exploitation and political oppression and as a result of the introduction of various diseases from Europe to which the population had no immunity. But this genocide was also accompanied with various racist justifications that still have consequences today as is evident in such countries as Bolivia, which for the first time in nearly 500 years has a head of state who is a representative of its Native population and a constitution that recognises and guarantees their rights.
Then there is what is sometimes called the “African holocaust” to consider. The enslavement of African men, women and children, for the economic benefit of the major European powers, might also be said to fall within the UN definition of genocide. Certainly the loss of population for the African continent caused by enslavement is almost incalculable. Estimates range from tens of millions upwards and this too was accompanied with a racism that justified genocide and exploitation on the basis that Africans were not even human, another great crime, the legacy of which remains with us today.
There are also the many genocidal crimes mentioned in the Whitaker Report carried out by the English colonialists and British imperialists. In particular it highlights the crimes carried out by the English state against the Irish and Scots, for example, as well as those committed in Africa, Asia and Australasia. In Australia, the colonial state eliminated about 90 per cent of the Aboriginal population, in some instances literally hunting and killing people like animals, at other times kidnapping children in order to deny them their parents and their culture in the manner described in the UN Convention. In this connection, it is sobering to reflect that not only are these acts of genocide not commemorated during this HMD but leading politicians openly justify or even celebrate the crimes of colonialism. Tony Blair infamously stated that the British Empire was a “remarkable achievement”. Gordon Brown declared that Britain should stop apologising for colonialism, although nobody has been able to find any evidence of such an apology. David Cameron prefers to speak about colonialism in terms of the great “benefits” that Britain gave to the world in the 19th century and declares that overall, Britain’s “contribution” was a “good one”. Unfortunately, time does permit the presentation of detailed evidence of the crimes of British colonialism that in India alone resulted in the deaths of over 20 million from famine alone.
It is also important that we do not forget the crimes of genocide committed in the 20th century. In this regard, I have been asked to say something about Africa. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle referred to it as the “greatest crime in all history” and also for those who consider the sheer scale of genocide important, in terms of numbers the genocide in the Congo, ironically called the Congo Free State, ushered in the last century. At the end of the 19th century this area had been invaded and established as the private domain of Leopold, the king of Belgium, who with British, European and US capital attempted to use it as one of the world’s largest producers of rubber. In order to achieve this he instituted a reign of terror that in some 20 year led to an estimated 10 million deaths, although historians disagree on the exact figure, which also included the mutilation of men, women and children, rape, the murder of hostages and many other atrocities. If this were not bad enough, when Leopold was forced to relinquish his control of the Congo after an international outcry he was actually compensated by the Belgian government, which continued its colonial domination of the region from 1908 for the next 50 years. But the crimes against the people of this region did not end there because in the 1960s the first Congolese government, of Patrice Lumumba was overthrown by the US, Belgium and their NATO allies, and eventually the agent of these foreign powers, Mobutu, was brought to power. These events have had a great destabilising impact on the region and sown the seeds of the many problems facing the DR Congo today. If there were time, we could go into the impact of colonial rule not only on Congo but also on the neighbouring countries Rwanda and Burundi, because it is important that the terrible events in those countries are also put into perspective.
Of course today one sees various politicians shedding crocodile tears about the crisis in the Congo but in many respects there is no mystery about it. Several UN Reports have detailed the activities of the big monopolies of Britain, the US and other countries who have fuelled instability in the region and continue to do so, in order to plunder its minerals, including gold, diamonds, copper and coltan, the last being so essential for the manufacture of mobile phones and other electronic equipment. Since the toppling of Mobutu in 1997, another 10 million people are estimated to have lost their lives in the genocidal wars raging in the DR Congo, which at one time involved eight other African countries and their foreign backers. On this day should we not also remember the genocidal crimes carried out in the Congo region and who has been responsible for these crimes?
At the beginning of the last century, the German colonialists carried out one of the most infamous crimes of genocide in what was then called South West Africa, the modern Namibia. In that colony between 50-70 per cent of the entire population of two peoples the Herero and the Nama were exterminated. Here use was made of concentration camps and slave labour, while those carrying out these crimes kept precise records of those detained and murdered. It was in this part of Africa that the term lebensraum was apparently first used and where the fascist ideologue Eugen Fischer first carried out what were referred to as experiments on human beings. It is difficult to understand why this great crime should be ignored to this day.
Holocaust Memorial Day should be concerned with all such crimes and many others that I have not had time to mention. Of course, it must also be concerned with the emergence and consequences of fascism, especially the activities of Nazi Germany. Yet here too some analysis of the causes of fascism must be made. How are we to explain the rise of Nazi Germany? What role did the other big powers play? What were the consequences of the treaties imposed on Germany at Versailles and elsewhere at the end of the Great War? Then we must also understand the role played by Britain and the US in the financing and re-arming of Germany in the inter-war period in which can be found the hand of all the big monopolies and financial institutions which often had open connections with the big monopolies in Germany which supported and financed Hitler. If time allowed we could go through the consequences of the Dawes Plan and the many other pacts and agreements during this period. What lessons can be drawn from the fact that the British government encouraged the Hiterlites to invade Austria and Czechoslovakia, indeed from the whole policy of what is called Appeasement and the rejection of what was then called collective security? Could this not be called support for aggression and support for fascism, in an attempt to encourage Germany to move to the east and embark on a war with the Soviet Union? Such encouragement, which even included discussions about colonial territories and open admiration for Nazi Germany and its policies from elements within the ruling circles, not only gave the green light for internal repression and the genocide which claimed the lives of millions but also unleashed a war in which many millions more lost their lives.
So in conclusion I think it is vital that we draw the appropriate lessons from history, that we are not too selective about this history, that we learn the lessons so as to prevent crimes of genocide and other crimes against humanity in the future. I have said that there are many other examples, but what conclusions might be drawn which we can now discuss in more detail? First, I think it is important to recognise the role that the big powers have played throughout modern history both directly and indirectly creating the conditions for crimes of genocide to take place. Second, we can say that genocide, the denial of the right to live of a particular collective, is the most serious attack on the rights of human beings, but is often proceeded by or accompanied by other attacks on rights. This must raise the question of how all rights can be defended, both within an individual society and internationally.