Today, April 24th 2015, is being commemorated as the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, in which over a million Armenians from what is now Eastern Turkey died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, directed by the leaders of the Turkish nationalist party. Since modern Turkey continues to deny the 1915 genocide – in the triple sense of denying the scale and character of the violence, the state’s responsibility and above all the applicability of the word ‘genocide’ – much commentary will, in addition to commemorating the victims, repeat the necessity of ‘recognising’ this, one of the largest genocides of the often-genocidal twentieth century.

I want to suggest a different line. I think that the worst thing about the situation today is the fact that, in the very region in which so many Armenians died a hundred years ago, local Armenians are among those dying as result of the genocidal civil war in modern Syria. It was into the deserts of modern Syria and Iraq that Ottoman forces drove the Armenians – mainly the old, women and children, since most younger men had already been killed – to face robbery, rape and death through starvation and thirst.

Across these deserts today the armies of the Syrian and Iraqi governments as well as militias which include a self-proclaimed new Caliphate (would-be successor to the Ottoman empire overthrown after the 1915 genocide), are engaged in a ferocious new war. Many of the forces involved, not just ISIS, are committing genocidal atrocities. More people have died, or been made homeless, as a result of the targeted violence of the Syrian regime than of the Islamist killers.

The Armenian Genocide occurred before the era of ‘humanitarian’ intervention, although in the pleas of the Armenian victims to the Western empires we can see precedents for the desparate cries of help of Christians, Yezidis and others threatened in Iraq and Syria today. Some see the current US intervention against Islamic State as an advance on yesterday’s indifference, but since it comes at the price of accepting Bashar al Assad’s atrocities, I find it difficult to join them.

After 1915, most of the surviving Ottoman Armenians made their way eventually to Western Europe and the United States. It is a striking comment on our lack of progress that when today’s fleeing Syrian refugees try to make it to Europe, they face not only official barriers but perilous sea-crossings after which, should the boats carrying them capsize, Europe has even tried to evade the elementary duty of rescue.

The new denial of the scope of genocide and suffering in 2015, and of the responsibilities which arise from it, is even more shocking than the old Turkish denial of the meaning of 1915

¿Qué es el Genocidio?

Posted: March 14, 2015 in Uncategorized

The Spanish translation of my What is Genocide? is now out from Prometeo Libros, Buenos Aires. Many thanks to Victoria Cacares Mauri, the translator, and to Daniel Feierstein, editor of the Colección Estudios sobre Genocidio, in which the book appears.

¿Qué es el Genocidio? is based on the original English text published in 2007. I have now completed a Second Edition, to be published by Polity later this year. I haven’t changed my answer to the question, but the new edition addresses the expanded literature, especially on Raphael Lemkin, the inventor of the idea of genocide, which has appeared in the last decade, as well as improving the presentation of the argument.

My surprising local angle on Britain’s 2015 General Election. At the last election, in 2010, I was in Brighton, and my comment on the battle between Caroline Lucas’ Greens and Labour was much-read. This time I’m in East Devon, where local campaigns against property development and hospital closures, and for local democracy, are having an impact which I analyse in this piece which has just appeared on openDemocracy.

It is the unlikeliest place to look for evidence of Europe’s new political turbulence. Forecasters agree that in South West England, the main issue in the May 7 General Election is between the two Coalition parties. Will the Liberal Democrats manage to cling on to their seats or will David Cameron’s Tories take them, offsetting Labour gains elsewhere in England and Wales – which combined with the SNP’s capture of Labour seats in Scotland will allow Cameron to remain in Downing Street?

Certainly, the insurgent soft-racist party, UKIP, will advance a little here, but it is nowhere near to capturing seats as it may elsewhere. Likewise the ‘Green surge’ may conceivably work in regional capital Bristol, but there is no sign that rural constituencies will see strong Green advances. With the Lib Dems the fall guys of the UK’s first coalition since the Second World War, sitting Tory MPs must be feeling complacent about their own returns to Westminster, even if the national outcome remains on a knife-edge.

This will undoubtedly have been the case in the East Devon constituency, where the academic site projects national trends to give the Conservatives 40 per cent, Labour 16, the LibDems and UKIP 15 each and the Greens 7. However the site willingly acknowledges that local constituency-level knowledge is not included in its model, and Lord Ashcroft’s programme of constituency polling has also not reached here.

It is therefore understandable that national media have so far overlooked a very English local insurgency which has produced a serious independent candidate,Claire Wright, who aims to oust Tory foreign office minister, Hugo Swire.

Independent MPs are rarely elected in UK general elections, but the rare exceptions are often in safe Tory seats where (as here) both Labour and the Lib Dems are weak. In recent times, Martin Bell (a BBC reporter) toppled ‘sleazy’ Tory Neil Hamilton (now a leading UKIP figure) in Tatton in 1997, although when Bell stood down in 2001, the seat reverted to the Tories’ George Osborne. Consultant Richard Taylor captured Wyre Forest in 2001 on the back of a strong campaign to save Kidderminster’s hospital, holding it until 2010.

Could East Devon be 2015’s case? Wright is not a celebrity capitalising on a national scandal, as Bell was, nor does she have a single decision like Kidderminster’s hospital closure to rally opposition to local Tory dominance (although local hospital closures are important issues, and Wright is part of a campaign against cuts in the Ottery St. Mary hospital). It might therefore be thought that her chances are slim. Yet she is building on very broad opposition to the ruling Tories on East Devon District Council (EDDC), widely perceived as a one-party state where developers rule – if not a hotbed of corruption (Tory Graham Brown was forced to resign in 2013 in a ‘councillors for hire’ scandal).

Wright has a broad local base. A youthful district and County councillor, she came to prominence in a mass movement which brought 4,000 people onto the streets of the district capital and seaside resort of Sidmouth (population 14,000) in 2012, in protest against a development on open green space proposed by the EDDC. Already there was a scent of wider anger with a one-party regime on the council (the Tories have ruled for 35 of the last 39 Years). ‘Without the ventilation of change, the council has, some feel, begun to smell’, wrote the editor of Country Life at the time.

Unlike most such protests which quickly fade, Save Our Sidmouth spawned a movement, the East Devon Alliance (EDA), which is now challenging for power on the council. EDA is aiming to contest at least 45 of the 58 council seats and end Tory rule. The election takes place on the same day as the general election and the Lib Dems have no chance of gaining control, while Labour and the Greens will be lucky to gain any seats at all.

Syriza or Podemos, EDA is not. Yet this local movement of mainly middle-aged, middle-class southern English is one of many local resistances to the Tory-led Coalition’s National Planning Policy Framework, widely seen as a property developers’ charter, who are nationally united in the Community Voice on Planning (COVOP).

Like the London tenants fighting the sale of their estates to developers, EDA contests the increasing bias of the British state towards property developers, local and international. The difference between EDA and other anti-developer resistance is that EDA, including several sitting independent councillors, is now challenging for district power. With implicit backing from the local press, EDA threatens a major upset in this quiet backwater.

Without EDA’s challenge to the local council, Wright’s independent campaign might seem quixotic. Yet simultaneous local and national elections, with synergies between the campaigns, give her a chance. Bookies now have herahead of the Lib Dems and Labour, and a respectable second place is clearly possible. Wright’s challenge is to persuade Lib Dem, Labour and Green voters who will vote EDA in the local elections to also support her – while at the same time trying to eat away at the Tory vote.

In what has been called Britain’s most unpredictable election – as I write, electionforecast projects a mere one-seat Labour plurality over the Tories (283-282 in a parliament where 326 seats are needed for a majority) – clearly every seat counts. Experts expect wide variations between constituency outcomes, and East Devon is another to watch. They would also do well to take on board the significance of the local elections: in East Devon on May 8, the most likely change is an end to decades of Tory council rule.

I published this letter in the Guardian on 27 January 2015 (scroll down for my letter):

‘The proposals of a European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation report for a Europe-wide ban on genocide denial, as part of a swathe of new legal measures (Jewish groups want EU ban on intolerance, 26 January), are highly problematic. First, it is proposed to ban denial of the Holocaust, but not of other historic cases such as the Armenian genocide or the Palestinian Nakba – although Nakba denial (legally enforced in Israel) is as likely to contribute to antisemitism (a major concern of the report) as is Holocaust denial.

Second, it is proposed to outlaw denial only of any “other act of genocide the existence of which has been determined by an international criminal court or tribunal”. This sounds reasonable, but international courts try individuals, only adjudicating history incidentally; most recent genocide, like historic genocide, has not been tried internationally; and these courts’ operations are highly politically constrained.

The proposed bans will only lead to arbitrary and contested prosecutions which increase polarisation, not reconciliation. It is better to combat genocide denial through argument and evidence.
Martin Shaw
Author, What is Genocide?

To expand, there are at least five separate issues here:

1. Banning ideas, however reactionary, as such – rather than when they threaten violence or discrimination – breaches freedom of speech.

2. The report doesn’t say what is to be banned – ‘literal’ denial (of the facts) or ‘interpretative’ denial (whether the events constitute a genocide). My reference to the Nakba illustrates the contentiousness of the latter issue, and the line where legitimate debate and denial gets blurred. I do not think it is possible to legally define this line: it is a matter for historians.

3. Naming the Holocaust as a genocide that can’t be denied, while requiring all other genocides to pass a legal test before their denial counts for the purposes of banning, is inconsistent and protects the memory of the Holocaust while not protecting that of many other historic and contemporary episodes.

3 In any case, there is no international legal framework for recognising genocides and the corpus of international legal decisions is decidedly not robust enough to provide an impartial framework. Many cases cannot be brought before international courts for political reasons, and courts are subject to political pressures in operations, leading them to inconsistent decisions which even involve genocide denial as in the case of the International Court of Justice decision on Bosnia.

4 In the contemporary European context, to legally ban Holocaust denial while not protecting the memory of other genocides such as the Nakba, which matter particularly to Muslim and Arab minorities, can easily be construed as a partisan intervention, and enforcement could easily contribute to polarisation. The incarceration of Holocaust-denying ‘historian’ David Irving in Austria did little good, and the indictment of Muslim Holocaust-deniers in France, say, could actively cause harm.

5 The report is considerably motivated by the desire to stem (indeed ban) anti-semitism. However we know that contemporary European anti-semitism, while rooted in jihadist ideology as well as historic legacies, is hugely stimulated by Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, as the big spike following last summer’s Israeli atrocities in Gaza showed. Israel has instrumentalised the Holocaust while simultaneously banning commemoration of the Nakba. Netanyahu is now shamelessly instrumentalising the recent genocidal mini-massacre of Jews in Paris. I argue that to weaken anti-semitism, rather than reinforcing these Israeli narratives by banning Holocaust denial, it is necessary to seek a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians and to challenge Israeli ideology. Recognition of the Nakba could be a powerful step in that direction. The European Council on Toleration and Reconciliation would have done better to focus on.this alternative agenda.

In 2000 I published a book, Theory of the Global State: Globality as Unfinished Revolution which revised the terms of the debate about the state, arguing that the dominant state form in today’s world is a ‘Western state conglomerate’ led by the USA but combining many ‘nation-states’ and international organisations. Together with the ‘global layer’ of international institutions which the West largely dominates, I saw this as an incipient ‘global state’, although I emphasised that this was a highly contradictory development.

In 2003, Alex Wendt, a well-known IR theorist, published an article arguing that a ‘world state’ was inevitable. Now the Garfield Institute at Hiram University has set up a new website, which includes a new paper by Wendt and my new article ‘Global State Formation in the 21st Century’, which discusses Wendt’s ideas and updates my argument.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is recognised by all who have studied it seriously as one of the largest-scale, most concentrated episodes of mass murder in the last century. About 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis but also Hutus who opposed the Hutu Power regime, were killed in a matter of weeks. Frequently compared to the Armenian genocide and the extermination of the Jews, like them its ramifications have continued long after the events. It has increasingly been the focus of sharp controversy, as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government led by Paul Kagame has used the genocide to justify its own atrocities and authoritarianism, while those opposed to the RPF regime and Western support for it have often minimised the 1994 genocide itself.

At the beginning of this month the BBC’s This World series waded into this highly charged context. Jane Corbin set out to investigate the RPF’s crimes, which include massacres during the invasion of Rwanda that helped provoke the genocide in 1994, at the Kibeho camp where Hutus were held by the victorious RPF in 1995, and at various times in the Congo wars, in massacres that were investigated (along with others by its opponents) by a UN commission of inquiry. These are indeed a largely ‘untold story’, as the programme claimed, for Western publics.

However in the course of exposing the RPF, This World also publicised controversial arguments about the 1994 genocide, provoking 38 academics and others, most of them Rwanda experts, to write in protest to the BBC. They claim the programme whitewashed the Interahamwe militia, the trained killers of the genocide; grossly minimised the numbers of Tutsi murdered; and supported the largely discredited theory that the RPF itself shot down the plane of President Juvenal Habarymana, the event that was the signal for Hutu Power murderers to spring into action in April 1994.

The BBC strongly refutes ‘the suggestion that any part of the programme constitutes a “denial of the genocide against the Tutsi”.’ It points out that ‘there are repeated references to the mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus in 1994 and that this constituted genocide.’ However central to This World’s account were two US academics, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport, who while acknowledging that many Tutsis were killed in 1994, claimed that even more Hutus died at the hands of the RPF in that year. ‘Rwanda’s Untold Story’ apparently accepted this claim, but consulted none of the many who have carried out more in-depth research into the 1994 events and regard it as wholly inaccurate.

Falsifying the identity of the majority of victims lifts the main blame for killing from the Hutu nationalist génocidaires, and places it on the movement that opposed them. The RPF may have been responsible for serious – even genocidal – atrocities on a smaller scale, but all the available evidence suggests that in 1994 it was the Hutu Power regime that perpetrated the largest-scale mass murder anywhere in the post-Cold War era, primarily against Tutsis. Claims that shift the responsibility to the RPF are as much genocide denial as claiming that no mass killing took place at all.

This World didn’t appear to recognise that while President Kagame’s ‘official narrative’, as the programme called it, of the 1994 genocide helps to keep his grip on power, many of his critics have dubious axes to grind. Rwandan Hutu nationalists have now been joined by Western leftists who appear to believe that any genocide recognised by the West must be a myth. Radicals like the Guardian’s George Monbiot who refuse to support this denialism are subjected to widespread online abuse.

The truth about genocide in Rwanda does not belong to the opponents of the RPF regime any more than to President Kagame. Acknowledging the crimes of the RPF should not mean minimising or denying the Hutu Power genocide – or the fact that Kagame’s victory ended it, whatever new horrors it led to in the Congo. The catastrophic 1994 events were certainly the outcome of a political struggle in which the RPF was far from innocent, but that movement was not its perpetrator. Nothing the RPF has done since can justify the journalistic revisionism that the BBC allowed out on October 1st.

See my fuller post on Left-wing Genocide Denial and also Once More on Left-wing Genocide Denial. I have also written about the interactive regional pattern of genocide in the African Great Lakes in Genocide and International Relations, pp. 164-71.

My podcast interview about Genocide and International Relations on New Books in Genocide Studies is online at