Genocide, War Crimes and the West

This interview was conducted by email in April 2005 with Danny Rødgaard,
a Danish freelance journalist working with Amnesty International Magazine.

In Genocide, War Crimes & the West, you are saying that the western countries are complicit in genocide and war crimes. Can you point to some examples from the post-World War Two era?

Unfortunately, many examples could be cited, most of them pertaining to the role of the United States. I don't think this is because the US is fundamentally different from other western countries, although it may be moving in that direction. Rather, it's that the US has been the global superpower in the post-World War Two period, and powerful countries usually inflict largescale violence (including war crimes and genocide) on others. US actions in Indochina during the 1960s and 1970s are probably the most severe case, with up to 5 million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians killed. A number of scholars in comparative genocide studies have referred to these actions as "genocidal," along with Soviet actions in Afghanistan, for example.

Two other examples would be US support for military rulers in Guatemala and Indonesia, which were central to the genocides committed against Mayan Indians and East Timorese in the 1970s and 1980s. A final case I would mention is the imposition, mostly under US aegis, of brutal economic sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s. By most estimates, these killed between half a million and 1 million Iraqi civilians, which for me also meets the definition of genocide.

Other western countries are, of course, not innocent in the equation. Britain was the United States' biggest supporter on Iraq sanctions, for example, and played a leading role in the war of aggression in 2003. France has a long record not only of committing war crimes itself -- notably in Algeria in the late 1950s -- but of arming, training and supporting some of Africa's most despotic regimes. The genocidists in Rwanda in 1994 were thrilled by the support they received from France before, during, and after the genocide -- one of the very worst cases of western involvement in genocide in the past few decades. My own country, Canada, waged genocide against native peoples until very recently, and perhaps still wages it (for more on this, see the extraordinary chapter by Ward Churchill in the Genocide, War Crimes & the West volume). As a rich country, Canada is also complicit in structural violence and economic oppression worldwide.

Another thing I want to point out is that it can be misleading to focus exclusively on politico-military genocides. In my forthcoming book, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, I argue that our understanding of genocide should be widened to include structural violence, especially resulting from the economic prescriptions and institutions imposed by the First World (the western world plus Japan) on the Third World. Another chapter in Genocide, War Crimes & the West, by the Canadian scholar and activist Peter Prontzos, explores this issue. Prontzos points out that structural violence carries over to western societies themselves, so that westerners may not only perpetrate the violence but experience it, particularly if they're underprivileged and structurally disadvantaged.

It can be harder to assign individual responsibility for structural violence, but that's not always the case. For example, the architects of "austerity measures" and "structural adjustment programs," which have directly caused tens of millions of deaths over the last couple of decades, are well enough known. Indeed, they often boast publicly about their "accomplishments." Will we ever see a world where such actions are viewed as crimes or genocide, rather than simply "economic medicine"?

How do you define this complicity of the West? Is it moral, political, or both?

It's at heart a political complicity, with moral implications and consequences. I don't say that western leaders support war crimes and genocide because they are sadists who want to see people suffer. Rather, they want to perpetuate a particular political order that preserves and extends western privilege, in alliance with satraps in the Third World who share the benefits. These self-interested policies are then imbued with a spurious moral content, so that we're supposed to believe, like Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide, that "everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." With these ideological blinders comes moral complicity in massive destruction and suffering, inflicted both directly, and indirectly through structural violence.

You use the word "democrisy." What does it mean?

In my Introduction to Genocide, War Crimes & the West, I define "democrisy" as "the stain of hypocrisy that attaches to regimes that are avowedly democratic in character -- that allow comparative freedom and immunity from naked state violence domestically -- but that initiate or participate in atrocious actions beyond their borders." In other words, there is a special hypocrisy attached to western countries who are relatively respectful of human rights at home, and there is a special obligation on the part of citizens in the western democracies to confront these crimes, given our wide-ranging freedoms. Again, I am not suggesting that western countries have a monopoly on atrocities and genocidal violence -- very far from it. But this element of hypocrisy seems to me distinctive in a western context, as does the responsibility that citizens of democracies in the West and elsewhere have to understand the violence that is committed in their name.

Why are atrocious actions by powerful states exposed to public examination and criticism as never before in history? Could you give some examples?

Since the mid-nineteenth century, we have witnessed the explosive growth of a "regime" (in the International Relations sense) of human rights and humanitarianism around the world. It has fuelled such historic changes as the end of the Atlantic slave trade, the securing of women's and workers' rights, and Third World independence from western colonialism. Some of these victories are contingent rather than definitive. In some cases, too, formal institutions have been replaced by informal ones that are also deeply oppressive, as colonialism gave way to neo-colonialism, for example. Nonetheless, these are epochal achievements. They reflect the growing capacities of citizens around the world to access information, understand power relations, and mobilize to confront oppression in their own societies and around the world. The "regime" of unquestioned state sovereignty and realpolitik is still enormously powerful, in fact dominant. But it has eroded substantially, and I hope it will erode further.

In the Introduction, you write that "this book can be seen as an attempt to erode, in some small way, the culture of impunity" -- refering to Western culture. Can you explain further what you mean about this culture of impunity?

Despite the advances that I just mentioned, there is still a powerful stereotype that western, liberal-democratic countries don't engage in nasty things like war crimes and genocide. Moreover, global power relations allow the West to stage military interventions and mount international criminal prosecutions of others, while they themselves are immune to such treatment. I think that has to change -- that international law should be for the powerful as well as the weak. A crucial point will be reached if and when we see a western leader on trial for genocide or crimes against humanity. We're not there yet, but you can see in US opposition to the International Criminal Court, for instance, that those in power are quite nervous about the possibility. Henry Kissinger doesn't travel abroad much these days, for fear of being arrested and charged with crimes in Indochina, East Timor, and other places. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently hedged on a visit to Germany until the German government guaranteed he wouldn't be arrested for overseeing rampant torture in the US military system. These advances are more symbolic than substantive, but they're not insignificant. A great many scholars, activists, and others around the world are working to to deepen and extend them. I see my own efforts as a tiny contribution to that process.

If we look at the world right now, we have terrible wars and atrocities going on -- some even say genocide. We could mention Darfur in Africa and Chechnya in the Caucasus. There are many others as well. Is the western world responsible in some way for the crimes and atrocities in these places? Are there other current wars and conflicts where the West has responsiblity?

It's important not to buy into the West's own hubris, and believe that all things everywhere are subject to western intervention and manipulation. One must also reject the Third World demagogues like Robert Mugabe, who blame the West for every problem in their countries, and use the history of western colonialism to justify their own repressive actions.

I think your question has to be answered on a case-by-case basis. For example, the conflicts in Chechnya and Darfur are not western creations. But western responsibility arises, for example, when one continues to shake hands and do daily business with Vladimir Putin while he wages genocide in the Caucasus; or when one acknowledges that events in Darfur constitute "genocide," but then does next to nothing about it.

I am not saying that the solution is straightforward in all cases. One can't send an international military force into Chechnya without Russian approval, for example, or into Tibet over Chinese objections. Either action could risk a Third World War, which would not exactly be a constructive trade-off. But it would be quite easy, for example, to make Russian membership in the G-8, or Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization, contingent on adequate protections for minorities -- as the European Union and Organization of American States, for example, require of their members. We can see how the possibility of EU membership has transformed Turkey's previous genocidal policy towards its Kurdish population, for example.

The basic moral issue has been expressed repeatedly by Noam Chomsky, who more than anyone else has influenced my own thinking in these areas. Chomsky asks: To what extent can we practically influence outcomes for the better? To the extent that we can, morally we should. Russian actions in Chechnya and Sudanese actions in Darfur present difficult challenges. But there are plenty of cases where western intervention is far easier -- that is, where we are the ones inflicting or facilitating the atrocities. All we have to do then is stop.

After September 11, a lot has changed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the battle against "terrorism." What does this new situation mean for western complicity in genocide and other atrocities?

Since 9/11, the "War on Terror" in the United States has been used as a fig-leaf to cover a descent into barbarity. The US has become a torture-state -- defined as a state whose agents inflict torture systematically and with impunity. The fact that, in a globalized age, most of these crimes occur offshore or are subcontracted to other countries makes no difference at all, morally speaking. As Bob Herbert wrote powerfully in The New York Times (11 February 2005), "Any government that commits, condones, promotes or fosters torture is a malignant force in the world. And those who refuse to raise their voices against something as clearly evil as torture are enablers, if not collaborators."

As Hitler and Stalin realized, absolutely anything can be justified in terms of "national security." The United States is a complex and variegated society. It has tens of millions of honourable and progressive individuals who want to see an end to these atrocities. It also has tens of millions of ignorant and amoral people who support the torture-state, and indeed want to see it deepened and extended. I think things are poised on a knife-edge in the global superpower right now. Another terrorist attack, or the onset of economic depression (which is likely within a year or two), could send things spiralling into overt fascism. I'm sorry if that sounds melodramatic, but there is a real sense of Germany in 1932 pervading US politics and society these days.

What is positive globally, and in terms of the West in particular, is that US actions have met with almost total rejection and condemnation everywhere else. Most countries don't have clean hands themselves, of course. But there is a global consensus that the US is becoming a dangerously backward and reactionary polity, one that needs to be opposed by more cosmopolitan and law-abiding policies. That distinction may sharpen in coming years, if the renewed US slide into extremism and barbarity continues.

What explains western unwillingness to face the truth about the West's involvement in genocide and crimes against humanity?

An American comedian, Rob Corddry, summarized the mindset beautifully a while back, speaking about torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. "We shouldn't be judged on actions," Corddry said. "It's our principles that matter, our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember: Just because torturing prisoners is something we did, doesn't mean it's something we would do."

I think our belief that "we would never do that" is probably the biggest psychological obstacle we in the West have to overcome, if we're to confront the damage done on our behalf. Psychologists speak of "cognitive dissonance," the gap between who we really are and who we think we are -- our preferred self-image. As activists and engaged scholars, I think we need to create as much cognitive dissonance as possible, to the point of provoking an existential crisis that can only be resolved by a healthy dose of reality.

Again, there's nothing uniquely western about this. In every country, "patriotism" and innate convictions of superiority mean that people have greater difficulty recognizing atrocities by their own nation than those inflicted by others. What's significant in democratic countries, including western ones, is that those who are able to transcend this mindset can make a real difference in suppressing atrocities.

One final question: Why is it important that we in the West face our complicity in genocides and other atrocities? What will it mean if more people begin to realize this complicity? Or if they don't?

These are good questions, and enormous ones. I could appeal simply to moral conviction: the idea that human beings shouldn't inflict violence or destruction on others, except in the strictest self-defense. If we don't recognize the violence we are complicit in, as well as that committed by others, the violence will continue, and probably grow.

But understanding complicity changes nothing by itself, except an individual mindset. Recognition must spur action and opposition -- individually and collectively. I've already cited a number of cases in which collective action brought an end to some of humanity's most brutal and enduring abuses. If slavery could be ended, if colonialism could be ended, then I see no reason why, in theory, genocide cannot be ended -- or at least pushed to the margins of human affairs. Recognizing the patterns and relations of violence that produce it is a vital first step. But there is nothing predetermined about the outcome: these victories don't just "happen."

If we do nothing, if we simply shut ourselves in our living-rooms and watch TV, I fear there is no real hope for human civilization. We are confronting several potentially terminal crises, including ecological collapse, crises of subsistence, and superpower proto-fascism. As the old saying has it: For evil to triumph, it's only necessary that good does nothing. Right now good is doing something, but not nearly enough.

On the other hand, history shows that literally anything is possible in the realm of human affairs. Anything in this realm that can be understood can be confronted and transformed. We have never faced such diverse and all-encompassing threats as we do today, but we have also never had such potential to address them. It's a cliché, but true, that our future is in our hands.

Copyright Adam Jones 2005. This interview may be freely cited, copied, and distributed if the source is credited.