January 10, 2023
DHAKA – Seventy-five years after the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide came into force, one of its glaring failures has been in not recognising the 1971 Bangladesh genocide and the 2017 genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar.
This not only saddens us in Bangladesh, it is also distressing for many who have followed large scale massacres in various parts of the world in the post-colonial era.
Polish Jewish refugee lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide” in 1943 to describe the destruction of a nation or ethnic group. The word is derived from the Greek “genos” (people, tribe or race) and the Latin “cide” (killing) against the backdrop of the Holocaust, which Winston Churchill called a “crime without a name”. But Churchill’s double-standards remained the enduring feature of the Western standpoint on genocide or large scale engineered deaths.
Churchill, the British “hero” who guided the Allies to victory in World War II and who attacked Hitler and the Nazis over the Jewish Holocaust, has been held responsible for triggering the Bengal famine that led to three million deaths in what was then undivided Bengal, the largest province of British India.
Madhusree Mukerjee, whose book “Churchill’s Secret War” created waves and rattled many a British colonial apologist, has gone on record to equate Hitler’s extermination of 10 million Jews with Churchill presiding over the death of three million Bangalees through a famine orchestrated by policies linked to the British war effort.
On December 9, 1948, the international community formally adopted a definition of genocide within the 1948 Convention – essentially enshrining the message of “never again” in international law.
However, academics like Rachel Burns of York University has questioned whether the Convention has achieved what it set out to do and focused on three of its key failures. First, the very term “genocide” is applied too slowly and cautiously when atrocities happen; second, the international community fails to act effectively against genocides; and third, too few perpetrators are actually convicted of these crimes.
Burns points to the many genocides that have occurred since the 1948 Convention and its ratification in 1951, and then points to the only three that have been recognised – and led to trials – under the Convention: Rwanda in 1994, the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, and Cambodia under the 1975-79 Pol Pot regime.
Burns refers to the widespread killing and displacement of the Yazidi by IS and of the Rohingya in Myanmar, which are ongoing and recognised by the UN as a whole, but are yet to be officially recognised as genocides by some individual states. Similarly, 13 years after atrocities took place in the Sudanese region of Darfur, criminal investigations continue, but no official charges of genocide have been made under the Convention.
Political scientist Adam Jones has also named the genocides committed under Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in 1988-91 in Iraq, and the genocide committed by the West Pakistan forces against Bangladeshis in 1971.
As Rachel Burns put it, “And the list of ‘genocides’ that might fall under the UN definition is frighteningly long. The International Criminal Court is investigating several states in which human rights violations and war crimes ‘may’ have occurred.”
As a passionate and patriotic Bangladeshi, I would like to argue that the UN should prioritise recognising the 1971 East Pakistan genocide against Bangalees for three reasons. Firstly, the number of people killed in then East Pakistan by Pakistani forces (the regular army and collaborators) between March and December 1971 far exceeds the numbers of victims of the three genocides recognised by the UN. Nearly three million Bangalees of all faiths were massacred by the Pakistani forces in only nine months. In comparison, 1.5 to two million deaths occurred at the hands of the murderous Khmer Rouge, but these deaths were over a four year period between 1975 and 1979. Between 500,000 to 650,000 Tutsis were massacred by Hutus during the Rwandan civil war between April and August 1994. And the Balkan genocide casualty toll never crossed six digits.
Secondly, the genocide in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was not just limited to random killings, but involved both targeted murders (like the massacre of intellectuals) and large scale acts of sexual violence (nearly 200,000 to 400,000 Bangalee women), as well as arson.
Finally, this genocide was carried out by the Pakistan army – and not by militias – which has since been designated by US and NATO as a “useful ally in the war against terror”.
UN recognition of the 1971 East Pakistan genocide is not only important for the global body to regain its credibility and effectiveness, but also to expose a military institution which is seen as of strategic value to the West.
The West has been fooled, somewhat wilfully, into believing that the Pakistan army is useful in fighting terror in Afghanistan. There is enough evidence now to suggest that the Pakistani generals were always running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. They were giving the US and NATO a springboard for anti-Taliban operations, but were also allowing the Taliban to find shelter, training and weapons in Pakistan, without which the Taliban would have never survived, let alone emerge victorious to take over Afghanistan.
The least the West can do – especially the US, which is very vocal about human rights violations in Bangladesh now – is to officially recognise the 1971 East Pakistan genocide. They should stop fooling their own citizens about the role of the Pakistani army in the War against Terror. By recognising the 1971 genocide, they can hold the Pakistan army accountable for denying Bangalees the right to life during the Liberation War.
Recognition of both the 1971 genocide and the 2017 Rohingya genocide will help call out and expose two evil military institutions who threaten democracy and dignity of life in our part of the world. It is high time the West stops chasing phantoms and does its bit to punish mass murderers. Otherwise, their sermons on human rights just ring hollow.
Seventy-five years after the UN Convention, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s “never again” remains “a prayer, a promise, a vow”, but not a reality. And their frequent recurrence owes much to how many genocides have gone unrecognised and unpunished.
Tarana Halim, an actress, lawyer and former minister, is now president of Bangabandhu Sanskritik Jote and a member of Awami League central committee.