On the denial of genocide

On the denial of genocide

Jerusalem Post
Bret Stephens
Apr. 15, 2004

In April 1998, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the UN
Genocide Convention, a “Statement by Concerned Scholars and Writers”
was published by the Armenian National Institute. Its purpose was to
“commemorate the Armenian Genocide of 1915” and “condemn the Turkish
government’s denial of this crime against humanity.”

“Denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide,” the statement
read. “In a century plagued by genocide, we affirm the moral necessity
of remembering.”

The statement garnered more than 150 signatures, including those of
William Styron, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut, Seamus
Heaney, John Updike and Daniel Goldhagen. Also signing was Ben
Kiernan, a professor of history at Yale and director of its Genocide
Studies Program. And therein lies a tale.

In 1994, Kiernan, an Australian, was awarded a $500,000 grant by the
US State Department to establish the Cambodian Genocide Project, the
purpose of which was to gather precise data on Khmer Rouge crimes in
order to bring its leaders to justice. But Kiernan’s scholarship, it
turned out, was blemished by his past attempts to whitewash those

“Did the new government [of Cambodia] plan and approve a systematic
large-scale purge?” asked Kiernan in the pages of the Australian
Outlook in December 1976. “There is little evidence that they did.”
Elsewhere, he had claimed at the height of the killing that
“photographs of alleged atrocities are fake” (The Age, March 2, 1977)
and that “there is ample evidence in Cambodian and other sources that
the Khmer Rouge movement is not the monster that the press have
recently made it out to be” (Melbourne Journal of Politics, 1976).

Kiernan’s appointment elicited outrage in some quarters, particularly
in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal and in Commentary
magazine. But the Clinton State Department ignored calls to have the
grant rescinded and Kiernan proceeded as planned. In 1997, Yale made
Kiernan a full professor. In 2002, he was awarded the Critical Asian
Studies Prize. He is currently at work on a history of genocide from
1492 to the present.

In fairness, from the 1980s onward Kiernan became a tireless
chronicler of Khmer Rouge atrocities. But this was only after those
atrocities became impossible to deny. What’s significant, at any rate,
is that Kiernan is hardly the only scholar still active today who came
to the Khmer Rouge’s defense while the killing fields were in full

In June 1977, The Nation – the flagship publication of the American
Left – ran a lengthy review of three books dealing with contemporary
events in Cambodia. The reviewers, Noam Chomsky of MIT and Edward
Herman of the University of Pennsylvania, cast aspersions on the
reliability of one book alleging Khmer Rouge atrocities while
lavishing praise on a volume which gave “a very favorable picture of
[the Khmer Rouge’s] programs and policies.” As with Kiernan, Chomsky
and Herman noted “repeated discoveries that massacre reports were
false.” And in a chilling echo of classic Holocaust denial, they gave
credence to the view that the death toll in Cambodia was mainly
attributable to sickness, not slaughter.

PERHAPS IT is not surprising that Kiernan, Herman and Chomsky were Pol
Pot apologists. It was in the late Seventies, after all, that Chomsky
was coming to the defense of Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, while
Kiernan was a disciple, and apparently remains an admirer, of the
Australian Stalinist Wilfred Burchett.

But three points are significant. First, all three vehemently deny
their past sympathies. So much for “the moral necessity of
remembering.” Second, in sympathizing with the Khmer Rouge when they
did, they hardly traveled alone: Efforts to deny the existence of the
killing fields were widespread at the time, particularly in Europe,
and certainly not beyond the pale as far as the editors of The Nation
were concerned. Third, Kiernan, Chomsky and Herman are representative
of a broader phenomenon, namely, the tendency among self-styled
progressives and human-rights activists to willfully ignore, or
tacitly acquiesce in, some of the worst human-rights abuses of their

Why? Among the oft-made arguments of people like Chomsky and Herman
is that Western policy makers focus only on the human-rights abuses
committed by their enemies, not their friends. Why, for example, was
so much Western attention and outrage devoted to goings-on in
Communist Cambodia, instead of East Timor, which was then under the
thumb of US-allied Indonesia? Why obsess about the sins of the
Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but not those of the Pinochet regime in
Chile? It’s a legitimate point. But what has been true of some
quarters of the Right has been at least as true of parts of the
Left. In their 1977 review, Chomsky and Herman did not merely point
out hypocrisy in Western attitudes; they systematically attempted to
shred the evidence that the Khmer Rouge was guilty of “autogenocide”
(the killing of their own people). Furthermore, they repeatedly argued
that most of Cambodia’s suffering was either the direct or indirect
consequence of American actions. Thus, in discussing photographs of
Cambodian civilians pulling plows in a field, they first alleged the
photos were faked, then suggested that if people rather than oxen were
in fact pulling plows, it was because “the savage American assault on
Cambodia did not spare the animal population.”

The proclivity to deny was not unique to the Cambodian situation.
Walter Duranty, the New York Times’s Pulitzer-winning Soviet
correspondent in the early 1930s, completely failed to report the
forced famine of the 1930s, which killed an estimated 10 million
peasants, mostly Ukrainian. This was not out of ignorance. Instead, it
stemmed from his conviction that “within five years or less [peasants]
will benefit enormously from being forced to accept a modern form of
agriculture [i.e., collectivization].” For him, the key question was
not the human toll, but “whether the Soviet drive to Socialism is or
is not successful irrespective of costs.”

A more recent case of genocide denial occurred 10 years ago this
month. In April 1994, as eyewitness evidence mounted that Hutus in
Rwanda were methodically exterminating hundreds of thousands of
Tutsis, the US State Department assiduously avoided use of the term
genocide. As described by Samantha Power in her article “Bystanders to
Genocide” (The Atlantic Monthly, September 2001), then-secretary of
state Warren Christopher instructed his spokesmen and deputies to
speak only of “acts of genocide,” a legalism that would, he believed,
avoid triggering US obligations under the Genocide Convention to
intervene. Power quotes the following remarkable exchange between
State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly and Reuters reporter
Alan Elsner.

Elsner: How would you describe events taking place in Rwanda? Shelly:
Based on the evidence we have seen from observations on the ground, we
have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred in

Elsner: What’s the difference between “acts of genocide” and
“genocide?” Shelly: Well, I think the – as you know, there’s a legal
definition of this… clearly not all of the killings that have taken
place in Rwanda are killings to which you might apply the label… But
as to the distinctions between the words, we’re trying to call what we
have seen so far as best as we can; and based, again, on the evidence,
we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.

Elsner: How many acts of genocide does it take to make a genocide?
Shelly: Alan, that’s just not a question I’m in a position to answer.

UNLIKE CHOMSKY, Kiernan and Herman, the Clinton administration did not
attempt to deny the unfolding reality in Rwanda. And unlike Duranty,
the administration did not wink at the mass killing as the necessary
price to be paid for achieving some prospective greater good. Their
motives were purely political. The US had been badly burned by events
in Somalia six months earlier and the appetite for another African
humanitarian assistance mission was slight.

Yet the administration, and particularly Clinton himself, did have at
least one thing in common with Chomsky, Kiernan and Herman: They
sought to obscure their past actions. On a visit to Rwanda in March
1998, Clinton confessed “that we in the United States and the world
community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to
try to limit what occurred.” Yet as Power points out, “this implied
that the United States had done a good deal but not quite enough. In
reality the United States… led a successful effort to remove most of
the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked
to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements.”

Clinton’s post facto handwringing notwithstanding, there were at least
intellectually defensible reasons for the US to stay out of Rwanda
when it did. To begin with, there was no compelling strategic
rationale to intervene, no vital material interests at stake in
Rwanda. Furthermore, Rwanda’s was hardly the only African tragedy in
the 1990s: assorted wars in Somalia, Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia and
Ivory Coast collectively took approximately three million lives.

Why should one tragedy deserve intervention, and not the other? And
how does a single intervention put a stop to concurrent or future
genocides or massacres? Absent compelling answers to such questions,
the natural tendency is to do nothing. Of course, the Genocide
Convention is meant to compel great powers to act, whatever the
tangled moral dilemmas or strategic considerations.

Yet as Canadian scholar Michael Ignatieff has noted, in the case of
Rwanda the Convention did at least as much to hamper an effective
response to the genocidaires as it did to deter them. There were
limited measures the US and other countries might have taken in Rwanda
against the Hutu militia, such as jamming Hutu radio. One reason they
failed to take them is that the Convention condemned the US and other
countries into an all-or-nothing approach. Either a genocide was
taking place, in which case maximum efforts had to be undertaken to
stop it; or it wasn’t, in which case the situation in Rwanda was a
matter for Rwandans to resolve themselves. Confronted by such options,
denying the genocide, and doing nothing to help the massacred Tutsis,
seemed the counsel of prudence.

The instinct to do nothing, however, does not apply only to hardheaded
practitioners of realpolitik. In the face of atrocity, pacifists and
human-rights activists also tend to counsel inaction or measures not
likely to bring about a swift end to the atrocities. For example,
Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth argued recently that the war
in Iraq was “not a humanitarian intervention,” since despite the
uncontested awfulness of Saddam’s regime “it is possible to imagine
scenarios even worse.”

Many others in the so-called peace camp also tend to apply the
precautionary principle when it comes to military intervention, on the
theory that waging a war to end a bad regime might impose greater
hardship on the tyrannized population than the tyranny itself. Thus
the anguished predictions, prior to the Iraq war, of tens of thousands
of civilian casualties and up to two million dead as a result of food
shortages, water contamination and so forth.

WHAT ASTONISHES one most, looking back on some of this sordid history,
is not so much that so many genocides or mass killings were “allowed”
to happen.

Rather, it is that the reasons for shielding ones eyes from the
killing are so many, and the reasons for “doing something” are so few
and weak.

The hard Left represented by Chomsky looked the other way in Cambodia
because it could not believe that a “progressive” regime could be
responsible for such horror. The Durantys of the world understood that
killing was taking place on a mass scale, but thought it was a
worthwhile price to pay for the sake of realizing utopia. For Clinton,
interfering in Rwanda was not worth the prospective cost in American
lives or political capital.

For those who marched against invading Iraq, war is worse than
tyranny. For the so-called realists, a foreign policy based on
human-rights considerations is a bottomless swamp of open-ended
commitments and moral hazards into which no responsible power can
allow itself to wade. Anyway, if Hutus want to exterminate Tutsis –
indeed, if Tutsis put themselves in a position where it is possible
that they may be exterminated – that’s nobody’s fault but theirs.

Monday is Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel. Sirens will blare,
traffic will come to a halt, and for a minute or two an entire nation
will stand in silence. They will do so behind the shield of a mighty
army – so far, the only proven remedy for collective helplessness.

[email protected]