so i’m sitting here in my apartment in nablus, working on my book, with al jazeera playing in the background. “people and power” was on and i turned up the volume when i heard arundhati roy’s voice coming from the tube. she’s one of my favorite writers and thinkers in this horrifying world. the episode is on “india’s maoist revolution,” which i will post when it becomes available online. but what struck me was when roy was describing the farmers forced off their land by these maoist rebels–the naxalites–who are now living in something resembling prison camps under brutal conditions. she used the word genocide in a novel way to describe their situation, but also in a way that can easily be used the world over:
most of the genocide in this world happens when people are cut off from their resources.
she went on to elaborate, but i didn’t have time to write it all down. but i like this way of describing genocide. i especially find it applicable to palestinians, and especially to the situation in gaza right now–palestinian refugees who have been cut off from their land for over sixty years, palestinians who have been cut off from basic needs–let alone resources–to feed, heal, heat, light the homes of gaza. today the word genocide was used by jamal al-khudari to describe what is happening in gaza:
The situation in the Gaza Strip is shifting from “collective punishment to genocide,” said Jamal Al-Khudari, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and head of the popular committee against the siege in Gaza.
in an article written earlier this year, “listening to grasshoppers: genocide, denial and celebration,” based on a speech she originally gave in istanbul, roy thinks about the meaning of genocide–its history, its usages, it significance:
In the state of Gujarat, there was a genocide against the Muslim community in 2002. I use the word Genocide advisedly, and in keeping with its definition contained in Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The genocide began as collective punishment for an unsolved crime—the burning of a railway coach in which 53 Hindu pilgrims were burned to death. In a carefully planned orgy of supposed retaliation, 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in broad daylight by squads of armed killers, organised by fascist militias, and backed by the Gujarat government and the administration of the day. Muslim women were gang-raped and burned alive. Muslim shops, Muslim businesses and Muslim shrines and mosques were systematically destroyed. Some 1,50,000 people were driven from their homes….
As genocides go, the Gujarat genocide cannot compare with the people killed in the Congo, Rwanda and Bosnia, where the numbers run into millions, nor is it by any means the first that has occurred in India. (In 1984, for instance, 3,000 Sikhs were massacred on the streets of Delhi with similar impunity, by killers overseen by the Congress Party.) But the Gujarat genocide is part of a larger, more elaborate and systematic vision. It tells us that the wheat is ripening and the grasshoppers have landed in mainland India.
It’s an old human habit, genocide is. It has played a sterling part in the march of civilisation. Amongst the earliest recorded genocides is thought to be the destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War in 149 BC. The word itself—genocide—was coined by Raphael Lemkin only in 1943, and adopted by the United Nations in 1948, after the Nazi Holocaust. Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as:
“Any of the following Acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Since this definition leaves out the persecution of political dissidents, real or imagined, it does not include some of the greatest mass murders in history. Personally I think the definition by Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, authors of The History and Sociology of Genocide, is more apt. Genocide, they say, “is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator.” Defined like this, genocide would include, for example, the monumental crimes committed by Suharto in Indonesia (1 million) Pol Pot in Cambodia (1.5 million), Stalin in the Soviet Union (60 million), Mao in China (70 million)….
Of course today, when genocide politics meets the Free Market, official recognition—or denial—of holocausts and genocides is a multinational business enterprise. It rarely has anything to do to with historical fact or forensic evidence. Morality certainly does not enter the picture. It is an aggressive process of high-end bargaining, that belongs more to the World Trade Organisation than to the United Nations. The currency is geopolitics, the fluctuating market for natural resources, that curious thing called futures trading and plain old economic and military might.
In other words, genocides are often denied for the same set of reasons as genocides are prosecuted. Economic determinism marinated in racial/ethnic/religious/national discrimination. Crudely, the lowering or raising of the price of a barrel of oil (or a tonne of uranium), permission granted for a military base, or the opening up of a country’s economy could be the decisive factor when governments adjudicate on whether a genocide did or did not occur. Or indeed whether genocide will or will not occur. And if it does, whether it will or will not be reported, and if it is, then what slant that reportage will take. For example, the death of two million in the Congo goes virtually unreported. Why? And was the death of a million Iraqis under the sanctions regime, prior to the US invasion, genocide (which is what Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, called it) or was it ‘worth it’, as Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the UN, claimed? It depends on who makes the rules. Bill Clinton? Or an Iraqi mother who has lost her child?…
Since the United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world, it has assumed the privilege of being the World’s Number One Genocide Denier. It continues to celebrate Columbus Day, the day Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, which marks the beginning of a Holocaust that wiped out millions of native Indians, about 90 per cent of the original population. (Lord Amherst, the man whose idea it was to distribute blankets infected with smallpox virus to Indians, has a university town in Massachusetts, and a prestigious liberal arts college named after him).
In America’s second Holocaust, almost 30 million Africans were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Well near half of them died during transportation. But in 2002, the US delegation could still walk out of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, refusing to acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade were crimes. Slavery, they insisted, was legal at the time. The US has also refused to accept that the bombing of Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden and Hamburg—which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians—were crimes, let alone acts of genocide. (The argument here is that the government didn’t intend to kill civilians. This was the first stage in the development of the concept of “collateral damage”.) Since the end of World War II, the US government has intervened overtly, militarily, more than 400 times in 100 countries, and covertly more than 6,000 times. This includes its invasion of Vietnam and the extermination, with excellent intentions of course, of three million Vietnamese (approximately 10 per cent of its population)….
And what when victims become perpetrators? (In Rwanda, in the Congo?) What remains to be said about Israel, created out of the debris of one of the cruellest genocides in human history? What of its actions in the Occupied Territories? Its burgeoning settlements, its colonisation of water, its new ‘Security Wall’ that separates Palestinian people from their farms, from their work, from their relatives, from their children’s schools, from hospitals and healthcare? It is genocide in a fishbowl, genocide in slow motion—meant especially to illustrate that section of Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which says that genocide is any act that is designed to “deliberately inflict on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part”.
genocide in a fishbowl is what she calls the context here in palestine. a slow genocide. by expanding the word in this way we are able to include contexts like the american war in vietnam. what is happening in the congo right now. in gaza. these deaths may be slow, they may actually come from famine and disease. and they may come from military powers overwhelming for the civilians affected by them. but whether a mass of people are murdered in one fell swoop or slowly, painfully, cyclically, repeatedly it is no less a genocide.
there is a moving film that roy narrates called simply “we,” which deals with this theme to a certain extent, but everyone needs a little dose of roy in their life. or if you’ve never read her brilliant novel the god of small things you should rush out to your nearest library or bookshop and find a copy and inhale her words.