It’s happening again. In Darfur, scene of a genocide that killed 300,000 people and displaced millions 20 years ago, armed militias are on the rampage once more. Now, as then, they are targeting ethnic African tribes, murdering, raping and stealing with impunity. “They” are nomadic, ethnic Arab raiders, the much-feared “devils on horseback” – except now they ride in trucks. They’re called the Janjaweed. And they’re back.
How is it possible such horrors can be repeated? The world condemned the 2003 slaughter. The UN and the International Criminal Court (ICC) investigated. Sudan’s former president, Omar al-Bashir, was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity along with his principal allies. The trial of one suspect, known as Ali Kushayb, opened last year. Yet Bashir and the guilty men have evaded justice so far.
It’s a familiar story. Throughout history, genocide, the most heinous of crimes, has often gone unpunished. The UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention defined it as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It is universally proscribed. States are legally bound to prevent it. Yet there’s a tendency to look away. In Xinjiang, Myanmar and elsewhere, the convention’s “odious scourge” rages unchecked.
For its part, Sudan goes from bad to worse. The Janjaweed are allied to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – paramilitaries warring with the army for control of the country. The RSF commander, known as Hemedti, was a Janjaweed leader in 2003. Like others, he has never faced justice. The UN warns with growing urgency that “crimes against humanity” are being committed in Darfur. It seems only too obvious where this is headed.
Genocide, typically, is a “never again” event. So terrible and long-lasting are its effects that survivors insist it cannot ever be repeated. The Holocaust – the murder of six million European Jews by Nazi Germany – is the supreme, modern example of genocidal evil. Yet even that abomination has not dispelled a more general amnesia (or deliberate forgetting) about the past, nor deterred present-day emulators. “Never again” never works.
The denial of recognition and justice to genocide’s historical victims helps explain today’s political and moral blindspots. In a powerful essay in the New York Review of Books last month, Ed Vulliamy, a former Guardian and Observer Bosnian war correspondent, highlights one such case of “invisibility”: the 19th-century drive to exterminate California’s Native American tribes.
“They were totally deprived of land rights. They were... treated as wild animals, shot on sight... enslaved and worked to death... Their life was outlawed and their whole existence was condemned,” an official report later admitted. Nowhere were efforts to destroy Indigenous peoples’ lives and culture more “methodically savage” than in California, Vulliamy writes. Yet who remembers now? Who even knew?
To his credit, the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has sponsored a California Truth and Healing Council to collect descendants’ testimony and formulate proposals for recognition, recompense and restorative justice. Newsom is clear about what happened. “It’s called genocide... No other way to describe it,” he said when setting up the council. Such candour is rare.
Most European countries, Britain especially, formerly exhibited genocidal tendencies. Australia, too. The genocide of the Herero, Nama and other Aboriginal peoples by early 20th-century German settlers in what is now Namibia is another instance of obliterated history recently brought painfully to light. Thousands were machine-gunned by the colonists. Pornographic photographs of sexually-abused women were sent home as postcards. Foreshadowing Nazi atrocities, macabre medical experiments were conducted on prisoners.
In 2021, a belatedly apologetic Germany agreed reparations with Namibia’s government. But the deal is on hold. Victims’ groups object, saying they were not consulted. As in other historical genocides, like that suffered by Ottoman-era Armenians in 1915-17, facts are disputed, responsibility is repudiated, and reconciliation remains elusive. Referred pain is just too powerful.
Genocide prosecutions make gradual advances. Last week, a court in Paris jailed for life a Rwandan military policeman, Philippe Hategekimana, for his role in the slaughter of 800,000 people, mostly minority ethnic Tutsis, in 1994. Following the Bosnian war, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, were tried for genocide.
But national courts in Germany and France exercising “universal jurisdiction”, the much-undermined ICC (the US, Russia and China reject its authority), special courts (as in Sierra Leone) and ad hoc, Yugoslavia-style international tribunals, such as that urged for Ukraine, are struggling to keep up with the sheer scale of atrocious behaviour around the world.
Why, for example, is Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, not prosecuted for attempted genocide of Kurdish and Sunni groups under the terms of the 1948 convention? Russia’s Vladimir Putin should surely face similar action over Ukraine – in addition to the ICC’s war crimes warrant. Last week’s pizza restaurant bombing in Kramatorsk could be exhibit A, though in truth there are not enough letters in the alphabet to list all Putin’s crimes.
Treating genocide as a rare, usually historical occurrence is nonsense. It’s happening today in Darfur. It’s happening in Myanmar, where minority Rohingyas are persecuted and displaced by a vicious military junta. And it’s happening in China with the documented mass detention, forced labour, involuntary sterilisation, family separation and religious persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
As the US government says, such cruelty exactly fits the definition of genocide with intent. So why not indict President Xi Jinping? The UN Human Rights Council’s shameful vote to ignore its own damning Xinjiang investigation shows why this suggestion is impractical to the point of absurdity. It shows the depth of the problem with genocide denialism that the world still faces.
It’s why impunity rules. It’s why the killers keep killing. It’s why the Janjaweed ride again.