Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Genocide: Misuse and Misinformation

On Saturday Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused the Han Chinese - the dominant ethnic group in China - of committing genocide against Uighurs, an ethnic minority predominately found in China's Xinjiang region. The New York Times reported on additional violence in the region, describing how the "ethnic tensions" were leading to "bloodletting" and "massacres." The Times has not concurred on Turkey's assessment on the situation in Xinjiang - it is too early to make such claims, too much room for criticism - but the subtext of that article was screaming: genocide, genocide, genocide.

This is interesting. On one hand there is the irony of Turkey accusing another nation of genocide considering the Turkish government's inability to admit to its own violent history. There is also the fact that the majority of the victims - 137 out of 184 confirmed deaths - are Han Chinese, the alleged perpetrators, and the Uighurs, the alleged victims, initiated the violent attacks. Can the Uighurs still be victims of genocide if they are not the victims of attacks? There are some genocide scholars - typically, but not always, Holocaust scholars - who believe the victim group is unable to defend itself against genocidal attacks, physical or otherwise and that inability to defend is what makes them victims. Others contend it is the perpetrators perception of the group as "enemy" as essential to determining victim groups. There are other theories as well, yet none consider the possibility of a victim group proactively attacking perpetrators before any attempt at genocide has been made, most likely because that group would be an aggressor.

There is the possibility that Erdogan is referring to the continued discrimination and joblessness among Uighurs in the region, realities no doubt exacerbated by the current recession and the influx of Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese into the region. Possible, but unlikely: this discrimination has occurred for decades and has turned violent one more than one occasion (the 1990s were particularly bloody.) Rather, it seems more like a political ploy for Turkey (though for what reason remains to be seen) and another dig at the ineffectiveness of the United Nations. After all, if the UN can't succeed in upholding its founding principle - the prevention of genocide - then of what use is it?

This is not the first time that spontaneous outbursts of civil unrest have been erroneously identified as genocide. Recently genocide has become a bit of a buzzword, thanks to the success of Save Darfur in bringing it to the forefront of media attention and overly simplistic (and erroneous) movies such
Hotel Rwanda pushing the concept into the spotlight of pop culture. In the process understanding of what genocide is has been watered-down to any display of "ethnic violence," whether in Kenya, Zimbabwe or China. However, as the international community is largely unwilling to infringe upon a nation's sovereignty, all the accusations succeed in doing is creating hype and furthering the confusion surrounding the concept of genocide.

Tension between Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Chinese government is not new: Uighurs have been attempting to break away from China and create a separate nation since at least the 1940s. They have legitimate grievances concerning job discrimination and other forms of abuse. Yet China also has a legitimate right to step in and prevent secession attempts within its borders. The nation-state has been a recognized political body for over three hundred and fifty years; by accepting that principle we accept a state's right to remain intact. On the other hand, secession is rarely calm and bloodless and while the Chinese government and its armed forces are obligated to follow international humanitarian law, I can't imagine anyone being surprised if China breaks that obligation while thwarting the attempts of a break-away region. And even if there was a massive outcry against China, who has the power to do anything about it? The country would veto any UN action against it and since China owns so much of the US's debt, I doubt we would threaten any aggression.

But claiming genocide where no genocide exists - human rights abuses maybe, but no intent to completely destroy the Uighurs physically and culturally - only belittles actual instances of the crime. Mass confusion already exists concerning genocide, as well as frustration over a mounting inability to prevent it from happening; false accusations only make efforts at education more difficult and futile. Mainstream media and pop culture add to the problem by recycling misinformation, being either unable or unwilling to research the truth.

The more the term "genocide" is used indiscriminately to describe any episode of ethnic or mass violence or social unrest, the more numb the population grows to its meaning. Genocide is the intent to destroy a group - be it ethnic, racial, religous or national - completely, all physical and cultural evidence annihilated. It is the most heinous act that can be afflicted upon a humanity. If we become apathetic towards genocide then what humanity will we have left?

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