The problem with the word “genocide”

Germany returns Namibian skulls taken in colonial era

A century ago, Turkish forces slaughtered more than one million Armenian children, women, and men. This weekend, public conversations during the event’s centenary centered around the politics of deploying the “g-word”—genocide–as descriptor. Since World War II, this term has been laden with political obligations regarding international intervention, but categorization of atrocities as genocide may enable post-conflict legal recourse and provide some public recognition for survivors. Ultimately, however, the term’s deployment is problematic. This is particularly true of atrocities committed before the word’s widespread use in the mid-twentieth century. Tragically, the politics of public memory remain as troubling as the politics of initial recognition.

During the commemorations’ lead up, Pope Francis called Armenia “the twentieth-century’s first genocide.” #AfricanTwitter quickly responded, pointing out that Germany’s 1904 slaughter of around 100,000 Nama and Herero preceded Armenia by a decade. The great-granddaughter of a slain Armenian called for public discourse to recognize Namibia. Historian David Olusoga wrote an open letter to the pope, questioning whether he misspoke intentionally or ignorantly. The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Blog provided a vivid, detailed primer; AIAC, of course, published its own reminder. Many of these efforts centered around the idea that the German slaughter of more than half of Namibia’s Nama population and three-quarters of its Hereros had been “forgotten.” Not mentioning Africa, it seemed, might reflect a brief memory lapse.

But “forgotten” is not the right word. The genocide of Namibians remains well known. Additionally, Westerners remember Rwanda. They remember Mobutu. They remember Idi Amin. They will likely remember the horrific images emanating from South Africa during the past few weeks. And they should. These are disturbing and significant. But a public remembrance of genocide in Africa and the world must go far beyond these to include other forms of violence that are less frequently considered.

An Economist piece last Thursday attempted to explain the term genocide’s deployment, discussing the 1948 UN convention that stipulated genocide be recognized as racially — or ethnically-based mass killing, rather than atrocities directed at political enemies. It cites Rwanda’s 1994 slaughters as “not in question” — despite the fact that as they unfolded two decades ago, Western officials intent on non-intervention did put categorization of the killings into question, actively choosing to eschew use of the “g-word.” Curiously, the Economist also excludes Namibia — along with its contemporaries such as Belgian rubber plantations in the Congo, British concentration camps during the South African War, and French settlers’ efforts to wipe out southern Algeria’s population.

These campaigns laid the groundwork for the twentieth-century carnage that the pope and others selectively recall. We must remember that genocide was not a twentieth-century invention, but that its twentieth-century iterations came after centuries of European practice in colonial societies, from the Americas to Equatorial and Southern Africa and Australasia. Genocide, in the form of settler conquest and violence, laid the groundwork for western civilization’s development. The killing of Africans — whether through mass round ups and shootings, intentional poisoning of cattle, or trans-oceanic trade — was fundamental to colonialism, not incidental. It followed on the heel of societal destruction through methods such as smallpox blankets and re-homing of Aboriginal children. Through subsequent burning of archives and desecration or re-claiming of pre-colonial structures, colonial agents attempted not only to wipe out people, but also to destroy any record of them. Nefariously, European creation of political structures based upon “race” and “tribe” laid the groundwork for Rwanda and Sudan, both of which, as we have seen, the Economist addresses. While both of those genocides took place within the immediate context of African agency, they followed a long historical trajectory of European identity construction; again, far from being antithetical to colonialism, they reflected its large-scale violence.

Denial of the brutal, genocidal nature of colonialism and enslavement continues to be the West’s statement that African lives — that black lives — don’t matter.  Within the context of Armenia, political leaders (such as, significantly US president Barrack Obama) have avoided retroactive use of the word genocide in an effort to maintain relations with Turkey. The politics of memory are complicated, but they are not inconsequential. “. . . (W)hen recognition is withheld,” the Economist explains, “whether because of a technicality or political expediency, it can feel like the final insult.” This, ironically, included the publication’s own incomplete chart.

In an African context, this final insult remains. In light of a world built upon colonial settlement, where genocide became structural as well as incidental, full public recognition will elude us.  Until it occurs, however, charts explaining the “g-word” will remain incomplete.

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