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Combating Catastrophe: The American Response to Genocide in Cambodia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Combating Catastrophe: The American Response to Genocide in Cambodia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization,

no society, no future.

– Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel shares insight into the collective idea of what genocide is and the impact genocide has on the world. Wiesel gives testament that the genocide is devastating not only in mass killings, but also the through the outgrowth of genocide results in the loss of culture, histories, languages, memories and subsequent generations that would have existed had it not have been for the death of millions. Often when the term genocide is used, it is connected to the Holocaust; however, genocides have occurred throughout history and continue to occur today. In order to better understand how to grasp the power and extent of mass killings, the Cambodian genocide and the Bosnia-Herzegovina genocide will be used as case studies to understand genocide, the international politics at play, and the lasting devastation.

The power in labeling a mass atrocity a genocide is the invoking of an international obligation to respond. The genocides in Cambodia committed by the Khmer Rouge and the systematic ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb Forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, were both defined by the international community as genocide, while simultaneously having very complicated and political international responses. Both the Cambodian Genocide and the Bosnian Genocide are complicated by United States ideology and politics, and, by comparing the two, it will be possible to provide a better understanding and insight into the two conflicts.

For comparative purposes, genocide will be defined as “gross and systematic and severe human rights violations involving extensive political killings, or in response to humanitarian crises such as famines or massive refugee flows”  Much of the discourse on genocide came from the aftermath of Nazi concentration camps post World War II and the Nuremberg Military Tribunal following the end of the war in 1995. In 1948, the United Nations adopted The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, directly before the Universal Declaration of Human Right or the International Human Rights Covenants. The Genocide Convention defined genocide as a crime and created standards and obligations for the international response or degree of intervention in addressing the genocide. The creation of the United Nations came in the aftermath of the Allied victory in World War II – making the Allied Powers: United States, Russia/Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China all permanent members of the UN Security Council. The UN Security Council holds significant power via controlling discourse as well as international humanitarian norms. States such as the United States, Russia, and China, who are all non-members of the International Criminal Court (ICC), are also prominent members and have a significant influence in international politics. Thus, the power of a country, such as the United States, labeling something a genocide, or not, holds significant leverage and sway over the response because of the influence of the United States. An example of this is the U.S. in Indonesia, and how the “mass killings” of people of Indonesia based on political identity are at best labeled a tragedy,  but are not labeled a genocide even though it meets the various criteria.

The Genocide Convention defines genocide as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group… calculated to bring about its destruction”. Major ideas coming out of the Genocide Convention include the idea that states have an obligation to prevent genocide and to punish the perpetrators, often in the form of international trials/court. Many wars and conflicts that were considered forms of genocide during the Cold War were from internal conflict rather than between two sovereign states: Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina being both examples of genocides committed between the government and its people.

Cambodia (1975-1978)

The Khmer Rouge was the political party in power that committed the systematic extermination of Cambodians. Saloth Sar or famously known as Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge.  Pol Pot was raised in a farm community in Cambodia and then later received a Western education in Paris, France, where he first heard of the communist ideology that would later lead to genocide. While radical thought was, for most of Pol Pot’s peers, theoretical at best, Pol Pot was able to implement these political ideas into Cambodia when he returned home. With the help and influence of the Vietnamese Communist party and with the support of communist countries such as China and North Korea, support existed within the region that allowed for communism to grow in Cambodia. The party moved to foundational changes within Cambodian society, moving close to 2 million people from the cities, mostly the capital, Phnom Penh, to the countryside for re-education programs. Those who showed any defiance,  were unable to be re-educated, or had ties to capitalist ideology, were seen as threats to the society and the political party. Often times many women and children whose husband or father had been sent to confinement were later executed as well. This genocide only lasted about two years but killed an estimated two million people.


Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995)

The start of the Bosnia-Herzegovina genocide was based on the aftermath of World War I. Yugoslavia was the conglomeration of Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Istria, Dalmatia, Croatia-Slavonia, Vojvodina, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. The dominant group within the conglomeration was Serbs, and while they discriminated against other groups, before World War II, the collective lived in toleration of each other. After World War II, Yugoslavia was reorganized into six designated republics and two autonomous regions united under a federal system. The rise of power of Jusip Broz Tito allowed for Yugoslavia to remain a state even though it had groups of people contending for power over the area. Over time, tension among the different groups in Yugoslavia grew and with the death of Tito, and the emergence of economic and political problems, chaos emerged. The use of nationalism by Slobodan Milosevic, that began during his rise to power in 1987, brought forth the very conditions, stereotypes and alienation tactics that fostered genocide. Milosevic depicted Muslims who lived in Serbia as the largest threat to the Serbian national society. A foundational aspect that played into the genocide was the use of religion and mythology in demonizing Muslims as “Christkillers” within Christian Serbian teachings and understandings. On April 5, 1992, Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia and conflict erupted, which lead to a civil war between the Bosniak majority was opposed by Bosnian Serbs. From 1992 to 1995,  the use of these teachings and ideologies turned into the “daily rituals of ethnoreligious purification” which was acted out through means of genocide.  The Bosnian Serbs sought to purify through mass killings of Bosnian Muslims. By the end of the war, 100,000 Bosniak and Croatian civilians were killed; it was considered the largest massacre since the end of World War II in Europe.

Extended Power - The Influence of the US both in Cambodia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The historical contexts in Cambodia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, are what laid the groundwork and conditions that allowed for genocide to occur. The Cold War politics at this time played a part in the continued violence in both Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, rather than a more immediate response to these conflicts. The Cold War politics throughout US foreign policy is essential in understanding how both these genocides were addressed, viewed and then acted upon by the United States. The United States was one of the most powerful countries emerging post World War II. The United States was also extremely influential in the creation of the United Nations. The UN Responsibility to Protect is a cornerstone in international humanitarian law and intervention. The United Nations defines mass killings as a genocide, and generally requires some sort of response. Thus, to use the label genocide is to then invoke UN peacekeeping forces and the establishment of courts if the conflict ends.

The international law that was, in essence, created post World War II in Nuremberg and Tokyo. In these trials it proved to have a fatal flaw of being unclear regarding the terms of how to go about international humanitarian intervention, through military action, in states where mass genocide was occurring, and where intervention was not considered legal. The point of Nuremberg and the UN Security Council sanctioned trials was to hold those individuals at high levels of power, as the most accountable for the atrocities and mass extermination that occurred. However, in the case of Cambodia and Bosnia, the intervention that millions needed came too late.

The intervention that did occur was highly geopolitical for countries involved. It was only through the framework of the United Nations Security Council that could deem, “that genocide represented a threat to international peace and security. In practice, though, it never exercised that authority. The standard pattern, right through the end of the Cold War, was for the international community to wring its hands in anguish as genocide played itself out”.  Within the Security Council, you had the US, UK, and France on one ideological side and Russia/Soviet Union and China on the other, causing tension and gridlock amongst the very people who could end the genocide.

A foundational difference between the two trials was who sponsored and supported what, and the different levels of intervention that the international community had in Cambodia versus Bosnia-Herzegovina. The international response was collective and enacted thorough UN peacekeeping forces in Bosnia were sanctioned by the Security Council. At this time it is important to note the changes that occurred within the Cold War – most notably the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The ideological battle and gridlock within the international community and the United Nations was significantly diminished which in turn, allowed for action.

Whereas in the case of Cambodia, the timing of the genocide itself played a key role in the redress that was expected at the time. In Asia and Southeast Asia, you have the United States in two major wars, among various other military action. Most notably the Korean War began shortly after World War II beginning in 1950 and lasting till 1953, and then the Vietnam War started in 1955 and finally concluded in 1975, the same year the Cambodian Genocide began. The United States and China, two countries who were once allies found themselves on opposite sides of an ideological battle that was being played out in proxy wars from Korea to Cambodia, to other areas around the world. A devastating consequence of the Vietnam War was the millions of bombs that the United States dropped in Laos and Cambodia. In 1975, you have domestic turmoil in the U.S. surrounding the Vietnam War, that going back to Southeast Asia with any form of U.S. military to address the Cambodian Genocide was not a feasible option. The Khmer Rouge even held the Cambodian seat in the UN till 1982. Most of those remain unaccountable for their actions, most notably the leader Pol Pot. Pol Pot died in 1998 before any trials began.

Genocide is a difficult and horrific act to comprehend. How a society gets to that point of action is often muddled with politics, power, and self-interest. By using Cambodia and  Bosnia-Herzegovina as two key examples, one can better understand how the atrocities occurred through the historical circumstances, international politics and the very institutions and means of addressing mass violence.

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