When he was asked about the Sudanese regime’s ethnic cleansing in Darfur, Turkey’s President Erdogan said, “It is not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide.” When Mark Zuckerberg defended Facebook’s policy of allowing free speech for Holocaust deniers, he thought Holocaust deniers aren’t “intentionally getting it wrong.” Evidently, his views have “evolved” since then. Meanwhile, 63% of his generation in America don’t know that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and half of them thought fewer than two million died.
Now, Linda Melvern, a leading expert on the Rwandan genocide, has documented the continuing campaign to deny the existence of the plan to exterminate the Tutsi minority in 1994.
“Like those who tried to prove the gassings exaggerated in the Nazi concentration camps, they too were determined to minimise, obscure and diminish what happened,” with “no shortage of scholars, regional experts, journalists and military officers to appear in court in their defence,” she writes in her latest book.
Melvern’s catalogue of international reactions to the slaughter of the Tutsi could equally apply to what followed the Holocaust: at the heart of both is denial that a genocide took place and that a genocidal ideology drove it, rather than a series of regrettable incidents.
During and after the Holocaust, as with Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, there was a deliberate campaign of misinformation and lies produced by “respectable” academics and journalists. There was also a well-organised evacuation and protection of those implicated in genocide by governments and institutions. Criminal proceedings became forums in which the dead were dishonoured and survivors were humiliated. Then, adding to the trauma, there has been the premature release of those convicted of the greatest crime of all, genocide.
The international community has a poor track record on recognising the power of exclusionist ideology. Just as world leaders in the 1930s ignored the classification, discrimination and dehumanisation of Germany’s Jews, so the United Nations refused to confront the poisonous ideology permeating Rwanda, and the massive arms purchases, in the four years running up to the 1994 genocide. Melvern produces the evidence to show that during the slaughter, UN members took the word of the murderous regime’s ambassador rather than the evidence from satellite photos of the systematic extermination of Tutsi.
Melvern writes that the US government considered a raid to destroy the Rwandan radio station directing the genocide, but considered it too expensive (about $8,000). They justified this as proof of their belief in free speech. Meanwhile, Tutsi were killed at a faster rate than the Nazis murdered the Jews; it was the largest slaughter of children ever known.
It may not surprise readers familiar with France’s record during the Second World War to learn from Melvern that the French authorities armed, trained, evacuated and protected Rwanda’s killers. French officials, aided by the BBC, have repeatedly accused the Tutsi (without evidence) of starting the genocide by shooting down the Rwandan president’s plane; this is akin to the Reichstag fire.
There has since been a global effort to suggest (again with flimsy evidence) that there was a double genocide when the Tutsi systematically killed Hutu, thereby perpetuating the view that conflict in Africa is caused by savage tribes rather than manipulative politicians. In an echo of Nuremberg and the Japanese war trials, judges have released the architects of the genocide on the grounds that they were model prisoners.
The international community embraces moral equivalence because it lets them off the hook for repeatedly ignoring the evidence of incipient genocide. Whether it is Nazi propaganda in the 1930s, or Milosevic’s “Greater Serbia” speeches, or Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, our diplomats and officials choose not to acknowledge the power of hate speech and exclusionary ideology.
Decision-makers finally react when it is too late, and the human and economic costs are vastly more than they would have been if warnings had been heeded. But, as Melvern writes, you cannot kill an ingrained ideology with a gun. Refusing to confront the power of ideology allows genocide denial to flourish. The result, as the Anti-Defamation League survey found in 2014, is that a third of people around the world don’t believe the Holocaust has been accurately described as six million Jewish people systematically murdered by the Nazis. Most people don’t even know it happened. That should give us all pause for thought.