Why does genocide happen?


On Facebook, WikiTribune was asked to explain: “Why is it that every nation on earth tries to exterminate its indigenous and minority peoples and stops or imprisons refugees and the persecuted?”

The question of why minorities are persecuted, or more generally of how the perception of in-groups and out-groups emerges in virtually every society, is one which has plagued historians and political theorists.

Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, dramatized the destruction of the Melians by Athens in his History of the Peloponnesian War. After the Athenians invaded the island of Melos, and negotiations between both sides collapsed, the adult male Melians were executed, while their women and children were sold into slavery. The extermination of the Melians is considered a genocide by some historians.

In Thucydides’s infamous formulation, which he puts in the mouth of the Athenian negotiators, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

Later, Hannah Arendt, attending the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the bureaucrat who masterminded the Holocaust, in Jerusalem, contemplated the “essence” of the Nazi genocide in her Report on the Banality of Evil. What was “the very essence of the crime, which was no ordinary crime, and the very nature of this criminal, who was no common criminal”?

Arendt writes that “when the Nazi regime declared that the German people not only were unwilling to have any Jews in Germany but wished to make the entire Jewish people disappear from the face of the earth that the new crime, the crime against humanity — in the sense of a crime “against the human status,” or against the very nature of mankind — appeared.

“Expulsion and genocide, though both are international offenses, must remain distinct; the former is an offense against fellow-nations, whereas the latter is an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the “human status” without which the very words “mankind” or “humanity” would be devoid of meaning.”

Even today, the question of persecution of minorities persists the world over, though some political scientists argue (Foreign Policy) that incidences of genocide are decreasing. The most high-profile example of persecution of minorities in the world today is possibly the persecution of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, western China.

Up to a million Uighurs — a Muslim people indigenous to China’s vast far west — were reported by Reuters (citing the UN) to have been incarcerated in “re-education camps” on charges of religious extremism. The Economist describes their native Xinjiang as “a police state like no other”.

Last month, a U.S. congressional report described (Washington Post) the systematic incarceration of Uighur Muslims as the largest mass incarceration of a minority population in the world today.

However, on August 23, the investigative journalists Ben Norton and Ajit Singh of the Grayzone Project contacted a spokesperson from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and confirmed that it was only a single person on an independent committee who had made the claim that one million Uighurs were incarcerated, not the UN itself.

In recent times, the treatment of the Rohingya minority by authorities in Myanmar has provoked global condemnation, with the United Nations terming it “ethnic cleansing”.

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