The treacherous sands of time

The UN's Genocide Convention was passed fifty years ago. But has it ever been applied or enforced? No
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The Independent Culture
Genocide: a new word for an old crime. Compounded of the Greek word for tribe and the Latin suffix for murder, it was coined in 1943 by a Polish jurist, Raphael Lemkin, to describe any systematic attempt to exterminate a people or its culture and way of life. It is a "crime against humanity', one of a select body of offences which even though directed at particular tribes are crimes against all. It is a violation of certain universal intuitions about when it is appropriate for human beings to die: when they are ready, when their time is up, when they take up arms, when they are guilty, and so on. That they should die simply because of the colour of their skin or the contours of their face violates a basic presumption of innocence. No one should be killed simply for being who they are. If there are moral universals in the world, one would have thought that this would be one.

It is not. The truths we hold to be self-evident are the truths that divide us. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Genocide Convention, passed by the United Nations in December 1948 and ratified by the parliaments of all but a handful of member states. But it remains a nullity, never once applied or enforced. None of the perpetrators of the genocides committed since 1948 - not even Cambodia - has been punished. The larger the crime, it seems, the greater the chances of impunity. There has been talk since 1949 of a permanent international tribunal to try such crimes, but none has been created because most nations won't accept their citizens being tried by a foreign court, even one mandated by the United Nations. In the absence of such a court, genocide has never acquired the clear meaning which only successful prosecutions ever give to crime. The word has fallen into a dubious moral limbo. Perpetrators excuse themselves of the charge of genocide by claiming they were defending themselves against the genocidal intentions of their enemies. Victimized people inflate the injustices they have suffered into genocide in order to seek absolution and sympathy. To claim to have been the victim of a genocide can be an essential moral step in claiming reparations, self-determination and statehood. What remains is not a moral universal which binds us together, but a loose slogan which drives us apart.

To present Dresden in the context of genocide, as the photograph (right) does, raises the question of these suspect moral equivalences. Genocide is a crime whose identity turns on intention. What intention was at work in RAF Bomber Command in February 1945? To harm and punish German civilians, certainly. To exterminate them as a people? Certainly not. Moreover, victims whose state is engaged in war are in a different category to victims who have not taken up arms. Dresden's people were citizens of a state waging exterminatory war; the bombing was an act of war. Once the conflict ended, the bombing ceased. It was as just a war as ever was fought, but its justice does not justify war crimes. And a war crime Dresden certainly was: indiscriminate slaughter of a civilian population for no military or tactical objective, or none that can be subsequently defended. That no one was punished is an inequity of victor's justice. But injustice is not undone by misdescribing the crime.

Likewise, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and the defoliation of jungles in Vietnam were war crimes. Anyone who doubts this should inspect the consequences, unsparingly catalogued in the photographs of deformed children and their fiercely accusing stares. But genocide is not a simple synonym for horror. It is a category of horror, distinct unto itself. Instead of defining a discriminate category of evil, the word genocide has become an invitation to abandon all discrimination. It might seem better to abandon the word altogether, were it not that the crime it describes continues to exist.

The impulse to commit genocide is ancient. The list of tribes which have been exterminated may be as long as the list of animal and plant species which we have rendered extinct. This exterminatory impulse is much misunderstood. It is actually a kind of longing for utopia, a blood sacrifice in the worship of an idea of paradise. What could be more like paradise on earth than to live in a community without enemies? To create a world with no more borders or watch-posts, a world freed from fear in the night and war by day? A world safe from the deadly contaminations and temptations of the other tribe? What could be more beautiful than to live in a community with people who resemble each other in every particular? We all long for harmony, for an end to the seemingly interminable discord of human relations. What could be more seductive than to kill in order to put an end to all killings? This utopia is so alluring that it is a wonder the human race has been able to survive it at all. Certainly genocide enlists lower motives than the longing for utopia. The men with the machetes may have no utopia in mind higher than at last possessing their neighbour's farm or property. But genocide is such a radical cleansing, such a violation of the normal order of things, that it must enlist the highest of motives, the biggest of dreams. Most genocides begin with orders from above, with rabid invocations of the people's need to cleanse themselves of pollution. Beyond the hate, however, the authorities promise a calm after the cleansing storm and a world freed of enemies and fear. This utopia both glorifies venal motive and silences residual scruple.

At the end of this century, we can see from Bosnia and Rwanda that such impulses have not ended with the defeat of fascism and the collapse of communism. They remain permanent human temptations: the way to a utopia so appealing that for millennia the violence used to achieve it was not perceived as a crime. What could be more sensible than to rid the forest of the tribe whose existence menaces your own? Until very recent times, it was not self-evident that other tribes belonged to the same species. While human life may have existed on the planet for a million years, it is possible that only in the last thousand have men believed that we belong to a single tribe. The crime of genocide could not exist as a moral category until this consciousness was established. This was the work of the monotheistic religions, who bound the tribes together by preaching that all men were subject of the same master. It was not until the European Enlightenment that this religious intuition was secularised, when it became a commonplace to think of human beings possessing a common nature and a common set of moral obligations. And only in our century, in the last fifty years, has it become possible to declare a set of universal human rights. So the history of genocide teaches us something about the history of the century in general: ours has been the first to perfect mass murder and the first to understand the exact sense in which this is a crime. Our future depends on whether our sense of it as crime is equal to the strength of it as a temptation.

Auschwitz, Cambodia, Rwanda: the malignity in these places is dissolving. Bones crumble; human ash returns to soil; teeth, sandals, hair, bullets, axes disperse into atoms and molecules. The evidence of evil, like the evidence of good, obeys the universal laws of entropy. Heat cools, matter disintegrates, memories fade. Photographs, however, document the downward drift of forgetting: how flowers push up through graves, how birds fill the sky over Dresden, a sky that once was thick with bombers. Even large and terrible crimes are eventually forgotten; even horror turns into dust and sand. We do not want a world where crime escapes punishment, where evil escapes being called by its proper name, where infamy is swallowed by sand and wind. Entropy is a moral scandal. If everything is forgotten, if all headstones decay, what is the point of grieving?

Evil counts on the certainty that grass will cover the limepits, that the ground will swallow up the bullet-casing, that voices will fall silent and memory fail. A German history of the destruction of the Herero in Namibia in 1904 speaks of the "sublime silence of infinity" stifling the cries of the dying. Demonic cynicism often lays claim to the sublime. For if everything ends in the silence of infinity, why should evil matter?

Entropy makes remembering an obligation. In remembering we make our stand against the indifference of nature. But nature will not help. The best markers are those entered in the human mind and transmitted from generation to generation. Even these are no match for nature. Photographs decay; books disintegrate; stories falsify and finally betray those they wish to save. For as these pictures show, nothing, not even infamous crime, is immortal.

In the Russian Orthodox memorial service for the dead, the believers sing the Viechnaya Pamyat: "Eternal Memory, Eternal Memory grant him O Lord." The memory in question here is God's. It is perfect: every hair on our head is counted, and every one of our sins too. If we are forgotten by men, we will still be remembered by God. This is the consolation of the faithful. But where is the consolation of the faithless? The only consolation seems to lie in being reconciled to erasure by the winds.

It is not easy to be at peace with what the memorials to genocide tell us: that everything slowly vanishes, including our best efforts to remember. Human culture is an attempt to inscribe significance, to make human meaning and connections endure. In our century, the crimes we have committed against each other have been so large, so persistent, so insane that they make us wonder whether this struggle has any point. For we have become a force of entropy ourselves; we have unleashed our own nihilism, our own drive to nothingness.

Genocide is the perfection of this drive towards oblivion. The dead are hurled into mass graves; corpses are piled on top of each other in a defilement which eliminates all singularity, dignity and meaning from dying. The difficulty of mastering genocide lies in the impossibility of restoring to each victim the singular attention which is due all humans in the hour of their deaths. We cannot rescue each one from the anonymity of mass graves. Only God's memory could and then only if we could believe.

Belief is hard; we have good reason to lack belief in ourselves. We were the ones who mechanised death, who created instruments - crematoria, shooting pits, death marches - which violated our own injunction that each human death should be given significance. And so a great work of reparation has been going on throughout the century, an unending, futile, yet essential attempt to undo the harm we have done to ourselves. We erect museums, statues, exhibitions; we collect the pictures of those who have died to restore an identity to their facelessness. Our memorials are like those pebbles placed on the top of gravestones in Jewish cemeteries, symbols of a link which not even death can destroy. But we know that nature will wash away both pebbles and headstones alike. All we can do is to place them, over and over, for as long as we can.

This essay is taken from `Granta 63: Beasts', which is available from bookshops this week, price pounds 7.99, or direct from Granta at pounds 5.99 (freecall phone/fax 0500 004033).