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The Shared Roots of Genocide and Systematic Persecution



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July 11, 2015 marked 20 years since a Bosnian-Serbian armed force led by General Ratko Mladic trapped a group of townspeople in a beautiful high mountain valley in a United Nations protected zone near Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina and systematically murdered the village’s unarmed Muslim men and boys. The death toll of this carefully planned three-day killing spree reached approximately 8,000. The international community continues to finance an effort to identify the remains of those slain, whose bodies—deliberately scattered to conceal the evidence—continue to be discovered in the nearby forest. To date, some 6,930 individuals have been identified from examination of 17,000 body parts. The Serbian government has apologized for the massacre, but has refused to label it genocide; that is, the nation’s officials will not call it an intended attempt to exterminate completely and systematically the group targeted. Nonetheless, recognizing this anniversary was looming and aware the United Nations Security Council has never declared the killings a genocide, the British government had sought to obtain a resolution from that body declaring the Srebrenica massacre such an event. Despite more than two years of negotiation with the Council’s members, particularly Russia, and the obvious character and evil of the deed under consideration, that effort failed on the eve of the massacre’s 20th anniversary. Russia vetoed the resolution on the basis of what its United Nations ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, called that effort’s “confrontational” and “politically motivated” language. Meanwhile, Serbia characterized the draft resolution as one-sided, divisive and anti-Serb. China, Angola, Venezuela and Nigeria abstained from voting while ten nations, including the United States, voted in favor. Only Russia voted no.[1]

Despite this turn, this year as in all those since the killings, the worst in Europe since World War II, the Srebrenican bloodbath was commemorated on July 11 and the remains of more individuals were returned to their loved ones in plain draped coffins to be buried in the hillside near where the atrocity occurred. Moreover, the resolution’s failure did nothing to undo the fact that two international tribunals had previously found that the murders constituted genocide. The International Court of Justice did so in its ruling concerning a lawsuit brought against Serbia by Bosnia-Herzegovina in February 2007. The United Nations Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia also found two Bosnian Serb officers guilty of genocide in the Srebrenica killings. But those decisions cannot change the fact that Russia defeated a formal effort in the United Nations to label the event for what it was. The British initiative concerning the massacre saw the Serbs and their Russian ally work vigorously to change the subject and to blame those wishing to define the murders as genocide for conflict concerning the proposal.

Just months earlier, Pope Francis’s decision in a special commemorative Mass on April 12, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the start of Turkey’s systematic killings of Armenians and its associated mass deportations in the years between 1915 and the early1920’s, to depict those actions as genocide elicited a response from that nation’s government that was similar to the push back from Serbia and Russia regarding the Srebrenica massacre.[2] This was so despite the fact that the Pope was simply repeating a judgment Pope John Paul II had earlier offered. The Turkish regime’s action during and following World War I resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million individuals and the forced exile of many others. In response to Pope Francis’ statement, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu suggested, as reported by the Washington Post, that the Roman Catholic leader was not only wrong, but also deeply hypocritical to raise this designation, which Turkey has long fought:

I am addressing the pope: those who escaped from the Catholic inquisition in Spain (Sephardic Jews) found peace in our just order in Istanbul and Izmir. We are ready to discuss historical issues, but we will not let people insult our nation through history. [3]

That is, the Prime Minister’s reply to the Pope’s declaration said nothing about the subject in question, but instead decried historic Catholic Church actions. Davutoğlu offered this “argument” concerning the Ottoman Empire’s protection of blameless Jews during the Inquisition even as Turkey’s current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan simultaneously was routinely giving speeches blaming the “Saturday People” for his nation’s high interest rates and explaining modern history as the product of a grand conspiracy orchestrated by the Ust Akil (Jews).[4] The irony of this response was profound, whatever the horrors of past Christian persecution.

Both the Srebrenica massacre and the Turkish slaughter and deportations of Armenians, whether or not one chooses to describe them as genocides, and however markedly different their scale, were motivated by a combination of fear and hatred of the different or “other” that is typical of such human cruelties across history. Those being asked to accept responsibility for the two crimes outlined here have offered the passive-voice mainstay “mistakes were made” as their explanation, without accepting full responsibility for the tragedies their governments directly or indirectly unleashed. Turkey explains its actions as an imperative of World War I—as if systematically killing 1.5 million of its own citizens was required by that conflict—and not the willful act of a government to eradicate a share of its population from its midst. Serbia’s leaders, while willing to apologize for the killings at Srebrenica, have also claimed that those seeking more are persecuting that state. Conveniently overlooked in this rhetorical mystification is the fact that Serbia orchestrated the war that resulted in the massacre and that soldiers working on its behalf perpetrated it. In both Turkey and Serbia, those seeking accountability and responsibility for murderous actions have been roundly rebuffed and attacked and told that the motives of those they dare impugn were actually more than understandable, if not beyond reproach. In addition, those expressing concerns have been admonished, whether Popes or governments, “others did (and are doing) awful things, too.”

If the way that those seeking to defend otherwise indefensible actions to perpetuate discrimination against specific groups have used history as a justification to do so sounds familiar in these cases, it should. The United States is in the midst of what may prove a critical turn in how a share of its population, especially in its traditional Southern states, regards the Civil War, and its modern day symbolic evocation, display of the Confederate flag. Until a recent hate crime in Charleston, South Carolina, which killed 9 innocents in cold blood versions of that flag flew on the capital grounds of South Carolina and Alabama and were featured in the design of the Georgia and Mississippi state banners. It was also on daily display in countless other locations across the South, despite the defeat and dissolution of the Confederacy in 1865, more than150 years before. National debate following the shootings crystallized quickly around the Confederate banner because the alleged murderer, Dylann Roof, had wrapped himself in racist hate speech and that flag respectively, in photos and materials he had posted on the Internet.

For context, it should be understood that the Confederate standard was revived during the Jim Crow era in the South by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s as a symbol of racial segregation, hatred and inequality and was first flown above the South Carolina statehouse in protest against the Civil Rights movement in 1956. This “new” use of the symbol signified continued popular Southern resistance to legal equality for African Americans. Nevertheless, to legitimate it, the flag was often justified as an honorable memorial to those who had fought and died on the Confederate side in the Civil War, not for slavery, but to defend their homes against alleged Northern invasion or for states rights.

The problem with these widely employed popular arguments is that NONE of the states that seceded, precipitating the Civil War, proposed them as their reason for doing so. South Carolina in 1860 was typical of the other Southern states in its rationale for dissolving the Union:

A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.[5]

This is what the Confederate standard stood for and it surely explains why Roof and many other White supremacist racists would turn to it as a symbol for their tortured beliefs, and why the Klan and later Southern leaders of massive resistance, such as Alabama’s George Wallace and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, would embrace it as a symbolic frame for their stance.

At bottom, those perpetrating genocide always suggest thereafter they undertook such actions to exterminate a group that was both loathed and feared and no longer viewed as human. Those in the group so considered could be murdered with impunity as despicable “others.” Likewise, many of those individuals in the South who for decades have embraced the Confederate flag have done so on the fictitious basis of its service as a representation of their heritage. In truth, however, the standard was created to represent a military defense of the practice of human bondage, “rediscovered” decades later as a symbol of hate and continued discrimination and thereafter maintained for nearly fifty years as a way to denote subtly continued resistance to formal equality for a persistently “othered” population—African Americans. While obviously all of these examples did not involve genocide per se, the Serbian and Turkish killings, and American cases of abuse, murder and systematic discrimination all arose from irrational hatred bred of anxiety about and intolerance of difference, and with the aim of establishing or maintaining “power over” an other. In each of these examples, too, entire groups have stood by cheering while a share of their own have been made the subject of ongoing social degradation and persecution. Because we are human, we shall always have power mongering, xenophobia and small-minded hatred and ignorance with us. It seems reasonable to suggest that the ongoing debate concerning these three different situations holds the potential to bring home to the citizens and leaders of each nation involved how toxic and dangerous political appeals on the basis of difference, ignorance and intolerance are for freedom. Nonetheless, the human track record on this count should give pause to the sober minded devotee of democracy. I hope these events will create momentum not to continue developing ever more complex myths or rationalizations to continue discrimination and “othering” or to resist accountability for past heinous actions, but instead to establish and maintain cultures capable in the first place of resisting mobilization for tyranny and violence on the basis of human differences.


[1] Somini Sengupta. “Russia Vetoes U.N. Resolution calling Srebrenica Massacre ‘Crime of Genocide,’” July 8, 2015, The New York Times   “Russia vetoes UN genocide resolution on Srebrenica,” Aljazeera, July 9, 2015,

[2] Jethro Mullen, “Pope Francis uses ‘genocide’ to refer to mass killings of Armenians by Turks,” CNN website April 13, 2015,

[3] Ishaan Tharoor, “Turkey says the Pope is part of an ‘evil front’ because he used the word ‘genocide,’” The Washington Post, April 15, 2015

[4] Edward Luttwak, “Sins of the Three Pashas, London Review of Books, June 4, 2015, 37 (11), p.6,

[5] Jelani Cobb, “Last Battles,” The New Yorker, July 6 and 13, 2015,

Publication Date

July 19, 2015