In Hague, the tribunal officials trying Slobodan Milosevic are seemingly no closer to the truth than their predecessors at Nuremberg. The truth is elusive, frightening, and oftentimes too revealing. The truth is the answer to the fundamental question of how seemingly ordinary people can commit acts of unfathomable depravity. Perhaps it is so horrible that we cannot bear to imagine it, or perhaps it is so basic to human nature that we do not want to believe that we all have it in us. How can a civilized world stand in silence or indifference before evil’s embodiment, whether at Auschwitz, Cambodia, Rwanda, or Srebrenica?
It is clich to say that history teaches us not to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors, but now, in a supposedly more educated society, we are seeing the terrors orchestrated by Hitler manifested all over the world. I believe that the mass terror of the sort practiced by the Nazis will occur again and is occurring again. Whenever certain ingredients are present, Hitler’s legacy will continue.
The policy of ethnic cleansing can occur and have terrible consequences in all territories with mixed populations, especially in attempts to redefine frontiers and rights over given territories. There is a new logic of conflict that relies on violent actions against the ‘enemy’s’ civilian population on a large scale rather than on war in the traditional sense.
Wherever intolerance, discrimination, and ethnic and religious exclusivity exist, the world is in danger of imitating Hitler’s actions. Even where historical conflict does not exist between racial or ethnic groups, strategic political interests can often lead the governments of nations to commit genocide. Examples of this logic and policy abound today, especially in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
By definition, ethnic cleansing is the forced expulsion of one ethnic group by another to create a homogenous population. Most recently, this policy has been carried out in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992-95, Croatia from 1991-92, and Kosovo in 1999. To further their aim of creating Greater Serbia, Bosnian Serb forces compelled thousands of non-Serbs, Croats, Albanians and Muslims to abandon their homes, allowing Serb families from other parts of former Yugoslavia to occupy them. Wholesale slaughter, deportation, strategic bombing of cities, blockading of cities, and other human rights violations were allegedly used to implement this policy, which created nearly two million refugees.
Under the command of Slobodan Milosevic, Serb forces were responsible for the widespread killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats. This was most apparent in 1995 at Srebrenica where almost all captured Bosnian Muslim men and boys, altogether several thousands, were executed at the places where they had been captured or at sites to which they had been transported for execution. In Croatia, Milosevic took part in a joint criminal enterprise for the forcible removal of the majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from approximately one third of the territory of Croatia and planned to become part of the new Serb-dominated state through the commission of crimes.
In Kosovo, Milosevic bears direct responsibility for crimes that are alleged to include the deportation of 800,000 Kosovo Albanians and the murders of hundreds of ethnic Albanians. In all of these incidents, certain ingredients existed that made contributed to the genocidal domestic policy: ethnic hatred and feelings of superiority of one racial group over another. Ethnic wars differ greatly from most other wars because of its foundation on ethnic superiority and the annihilation or expulsion of people from a certain area.
The system of ethnic cleansing imposed in the Balkans had two main goals: to eliminate a group of a certain ethnicity and to destroy their history. In the words of Andras Riedlmyer of Harvard, the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing were “not content to terrorize and kill the living; they wanted to eliminate the memory of the past as well.” By destroying the ethnic history and moving people of certain ethnic descent, the perpetrators can erase their existence and thus achieve their main goal of an ethnically pure nation.
As long as it is part of human nature to want to dominate and claim ethnic superiority, I am afraid that the sort mass terror committed by the Nazis will be repeated. Human nature makes it so that individuals and even whole nations want a scapegoat for their misfortunes, and it is easy to place the blame on a minority ethnic group and rally support from the majority for that point of view.
One might think that after the lessons of the Holocaust, the world would rise up against nations who commit crimes against humanity. But while all of this was playing out in the Balkans, the UN was unable to do much to stop the atrocities being committed in the region because, even after the lessons of World War II, western countries which did not have a vested economic interest in going into the war remained largely indifferent. They excuse they made was that they did not want to intervene in the “peace process”, a faade Milosevic created in order to stay in power. Whereas the U.S. intervened in the takeover of Kuwait by the Iraqis because of its oil resources, it was reluctant to take part in the battle in the Balkans.
I am afraid that scenarios like this will play over again and again because the world tends to turn a blind eye to human rights violations in countries they have no vested interest in because the moral imperative to take action is not as strong as the economic imperative to stay out of war.
This story of ethnic division was also played out in 1994 in the tiny, overpopulated country of Rwanda. In April 1994, Rwanda’s president dies in a plane crash that was widely considered to have occurred under suspicious circumstances. The Hutu immediately blamed the minority Tutsi for the president’s death, therefore shattering the delicate peace between the two groups. What resulted in the next months was the massacre of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu on the part of extremist Hutu.
The reason for this situation is the culmination of history, geography, and hatred. All three of these ingredients possessed fine socio-geographic pedigrees and their product was staggering in its horror. Ethnic hatred, even at its most time-worn, has only one strategy: hateful and feral murder.
Traditionally, the lighter-skinned Tutsis were the ruling class in Rwanda. But when the Tutsi king died in 1959, the ninety-percent Hutu majority seized their chance and rebelled, murdering almost 100,000 Tutsi. Bertrand Russell called it “the most horrible and systematic human massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.” Since its inception in 1962, the Hutu-led Rwandan government pursued a policy of eradicating Tutsi culture from Rwanda. Hutu propaganda was in full-gear, decrying the Tutsis as enemies of the state. It so happened that when the Rwandan president died, the Hutu government claimed that it was a direct result of Tutsi sabotage.
The same day Rwandan radios carried massages ordering the murders of every Tutsi. The violence was sweeping and immediate as over 800,000 Tutsis. This is yet another example of how countries with mixed racial composition are especially prone to genocide of the minority by the majority. When changes in leadership are about to occur and when the redefinition of a country’s policy is about to take place, the urge to create an ethnically pure country is especially strong as the minority is thought of as a threat to the status-quo. As long as intolerance and ethnic exclusivity exist, the danger of genocide is present. As long as international organizations remain indifferent to the situation or are unable to supply the means of intervention, charismatic leaders will rise up and lead nations to ethnic cleansing.
I believe that as long as human nature is prone to discrimination and hatred, the sort of mass terror practiced by the Nazis can occur again, is occurring again, and will occur again. Especially in times of transition and uncertainty, there is always the temptation to blame the more vulnerable minorities of conspiracy and to portray them as the cause of misfortune. While the lessons of the Holocaust have not been forgotten, they are often ignored in favor of economic interest.
Public opinion demonstrates that Americans in particular do not want to go to war in Kosovo or Rwanda because there is no vested economic imperative to take action, no matter how strong the moral imperative is. Perhaps one day we will have advanced enough as a civilization to see that some causes are worth fighting for, even if it is half a world away, because we are part of humanity. But the danger of perpetuating crimes against humanity is always present, as long as the human heart can hate and discriminate.