Archive for the ‘Yugoslavia’ Category

The Guardian journalist George Monbiot has written a further article, ‘See No Evil’, on the denial by Edward Herman and David Peterson of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995, in their book The Politics of Genocide which includes a supportive Preface by Noam Chomsky.

Monbiot is responding to Herman and Peterson’s reply on ZNet to his original criticism in The Guardian,  following his unsuccessful attempts in lengthy email correspondence (reproduced on Monbiot’s own site) to get Chomsky to address his collaborators’ genocide denial.

Last year I published a review which came to similar conclusions to Monbiot’s. In preparing his latest reply Monbiot asked me and three other academic writers on genocide (Adam Jones, Linda Melvern and Marko Atilla Hoare) to write our own responses to Herman and Peterson’s new justification of their position. Monbiot refers to my review and response in his article, and has published all four comments on his site. Below I reproduce my own new response to Herman and Peterson.

Edward Herman and David Peterson, in their reply to George Monbiot, do little to respond to the wave of incredulity and revulsion which their denial of genocide and its endorsement by Noam Chomsky are causing.

They misrepresent Monbiot, a widely respected critical journalist, as a cog in a Guardian-Observer propaganda machine which – in turn – is simply churning out a version of something called the ‘Western party-line’. Such crude, amalgamated constructs not only make serious debate difficult, but are also designed to damage one of the most important arenas for critical information and debate in the mainstream media – in precisely one of the areas in which it has been strongest, reporting on and debating crimes against humanity.

Herman and Peterson do this because, as I have argued in my full review in the Journal of Genocide Research, their Politics of Genocide ‘does not stop at raising … counter-examples to the Western mainstream. Instead, it engages in what can only be described as extensive genocide denial.’ Deniers need to block out key information and misrepresent opponents to support their perverse world-views. As the sociologist Stanley Cohen puts it in a classic study, ‘One common thread runs through the many different stories of denial: people, organizations, governments or whole societies are presented with information that is too disturbing, threatening or anomalous to be fully absorbed or openly acknowledged. The information is therefore somehow repressed, disavowed, pushed aside or reinterpreted. Or else the information “registers” well enough, but its implications – cognitive, emotional or moral – are evaded, neutralized or rationalized away.’

What is the information which disturbs Herman and Peterson? They cannot accept what has now been established by extensive and rigorous enquiry, that in 1995 unarmed Bosniak men and boys from the Srebrenica ‘safe area’, who were captured by Bosnian-Serbian forces, were murdered in cold blood. They suggested in their book that the case was ‘extremely thin, resting in good part on the difficulty of separating executions from battle killings’. This is a classic genocide denial mechanism (which can be traced back to the Armenian genocide), representing genocidal killing as really only war, suggesting that the victims were not really civilians (they might have been killed in battle), or if they were, as killed accidentally in the course of fighting.

Herman and Peterson believe that their trump card against Monbiot is that he ‘fails to mention that … we point out that the Bosnian Serbs “had taken the trouble to bus all the women, children, and the elderly men to safety”.’ What this shows, however, is that do not understand genocide, which involves not just indiscriminate attacks on entire populations, but also narrower, targeted violence – as often against men of military age (as potential resisters) as against women (whose sexual violation completes the humiliation of a community).

They also cannot accept that an exceptionally large, fast campaign of mass murder was carried out by Rwandan Hutu Power forces in 1994, claiming that the ‘great majority of deaths were Hutu, with some estimates as high as two million’. Claiming that Monbiot’s objections are ‘laughable’, they ridicule him for running ‘to his readers with the scoop that we are so sloppy in our use of sources’.

Yet the principal academic reference for Herman and Peterson’s claim is an unpublished paper, ‘Rwandan Political Violence in Space and Time’, which they attribute to Christian Davenport and Allan Stam and source to Davenport’s website, dated to 2004. Yet on page 37 of the same paper (which while citing a database compiled jointly with Stam, is attributed only to Davenport and dated 2008), are printed in black and white the following unequivocal conclusions: ‘we find that the majority of killings take place in the zone under government control (accounting for approximately 990,000 deaths). They are the ones directly responsible for almost all of the political violence.’ (Accessed on 17 October 2011)

A charitable explanation could be that Davenport’s paper has been updated since 2004, and this conclusion added since then, although 2008 was still well before The Politics of Genocide went to press. But Herman and Peterson can hardly have missed a clear line of argument which, while qualifying previous accounts of the Rwandan genocide, does not undermine the conclusion that the majority of killing in Rwanda in 1994 was committed by Hutu Power forces. The difference is that Davenport and Stam want to raise questions about the narrative of genocide; Herman and Peterson want to fully overturn it.

So they are sloppy with their sources: it is they, in the nice phrase they use against Monbiot, who are ‘hit-and-run intellectuals’, scooping up quotes and references without due care. As Cohen says, in denial ‘information is … somehow repressed, disavowed, pushed aside or reinterpreted.’ We find bucket-loads of all these tendencies in Herman and Peterson – and their patron, Chomsky. Indeed one suspects that, as Cohen continued, ‘the information “registers” well enough, but its implications – cognitive, emotional or moral – are evaded, neutralized or rationalized away.’

The remaining question is why do the Chomskyites do it? The obvious answer is political: they have such a huge investment in the idea that the USA and the West are the source of all the world’s evils, that they can only process information to fit this case. More complex answers might include, that like their fellow deniers in the former LM coterie, they are building an intellectual and political niche out of contrarian positions. The danger is that such nonsense, with its pseudo-scholarly apparatus of extensive footnotes and media science, finds a ready audience among the political idealistic.


Draft review for the Journal of Genocide Research

Gerard Toal and Carl C. Dahlmann, Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 978-0-19-973036-0.
Paul Mojzes, Balkan Genocides: Holocaust and Ethnic Cleansing in the Twentieth Century, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011, 978-1-4422-0663-2.

The anti-population violence during the Bosnian War of 1992-95 was, together with the mass murder in Rwanda in 1994, one of the seminal events for the public awareness of genocide in the period after the Cold War. Yet while the Rwandan Genocide has been clearly named and is the focus of ever-growing academic study, the significance of the Bosnian events remains highly contested and their study lacks the momentum of the Rwandan field. Most of the general literature dates from the 1990s, and there have been few recent attempts to synthesise the events themselves and their legacy. Gerard Toal and Carl C. Dahlmann’s Bosnia Remade, with its incisive empirical study of the problematic post-war ‘return’ of the expelled and its ambitious critical-geopolitical theoretical framework for understanding the war and its aftermath, is therefore a very welcome addition.

The authors’ primary aim is to evaluate the process of return of displaced people. Annexe 7 of the 1995 Dayton General Framework Agreement committed the international authorities supervising Bosnia to upholding this right in the aftermath of the war, and there followed what was probably the most determined attempt to enforce the return of expelled populations anywhere in the world. (Omar Bartov was therefore wrong to claim, in this journal, that the right of return is demanded only for Palestinians displaced by Israel.#) Although around a million, out of over two million, Bosnians expelled from their homes and home districts during the war had returned by 2004, Toal and Dahlmann’s analysis – using detailed studies of three key municipalities as well as general data – shows that most of these were ‘majority returns’, of people belonging to the same ethnic group as the postwar controllers of particular areas. ‘Minority returns’, of people belonging to different groups from local powerholders, were often met with violence and obstruction. Despite sometimes determined efforts by international bodies, they were largely unsuccessful.

This outcome is explained as a consequence of the character of the wartime processes that produced displacement and how the political structures that they produced were largely embedded in the postwar settlement, and explains why Bosnia Remade’s account of the returns process is preceded by a very full synthesis of the war itself and the original expulsion process. Ethnic cleansing, they say, was a ‘military tactic to realise a larger strategic vision … as much about seizing and consolidating territory as … about identity. More than simply the removal of an out-group from a location, ethnic cleansing involves the ethnicization of space.’ It is thus a form of geopolitics, involving two related practices, the attempts to produce a new ethnoterritorial order of space, and to build an ethnocratic political order. The latter involved a ‘fundamental reorganisation of a local political economy’, through ‘accumulation by dispossession’, with housing, land and valuables stolen (116-17). The phenomenon originated in the Serbian strategy ‘to reconstitute Yugoslavia as a smaller, more compact federation controlled from Belgrade’ (21) and Serbian nationalists were responsible for most expulsions, although the Croatians developed similar strategies in some areas and their ethnic cleansing in 1995 constituted its ‘largest single instance’ (6). Although Toal and Dahlmann ‘reject as lazy and irresponsible the nostrum that there is a “moral equivalence” between the fighting factions in Bosnia’ (17), they recognise that Bosnian forces were also responsible for some expulsions and show that Muslim-based parties sometimes blocked minority returns to areas they controlled after the war.

The key to the relative failure of the returns process is that Dayton mostly allowed parties controlling localities at the end of the war – in many cases having removed much of the original population – to consolidate their power. Post-war politics was ‘the continuation of the war by other means’; local elites ‘established patronage systems in their captured opstine [municipalities] that endured into the peace.’ (235) US President Bill Clinton insisted on early elections, in the belief that democratisation was a way out of Bosnia’s impasse, but just as the earlier 1990 elections had originally ethnonationalised Bosnian politics – laying the basis for territorial division – so post-Dayton elections were manipulated by local powerholders who boosted their own population group’s electoral registration and absentee voting, while blocking the participation of the expelled – so confirming territorial division. ‘Rapid elections … mostly served to entrench nationalist parties and collective rights’ (234), at the expense of the individual rights of expelled people. Moreover this local control was reinforced by the establishment of the wartime Republika Srpska as an ‘entity’ (within a new federal structure for the Bosnia-Herzegovina state), which Serbian politicians treated as far as possible as a separate state. Although the literature has often emphasised the lack of ‘will’ of international authorities, Toal and Dahlmann point to the inherent weakness of multinational bureaucracy and its lack of capacity faced with local intransigence: ‘the international community soon realised that it was insuffiently equipped to monitor and enforce Dayton’s provisions across two entities, ten cantons and 148 local governments, each with its own tactics for discouraging returns and repossession.’ (237)

Thus Bosnia Remade shows that Michael Mann’s argument that ethnic cleansing is the ‘dark side of democracy’ is particularly relevant when the latter is proposed as an answer to ethnic conflict: as a growing literature attests, elections can be catalysts for conflict. The book also matches two of the themes of Stathis Kalyvas’ influential arguments about civil war violence: the importance of the local level, and the fact that populations help produce the violence that is directed at civilians.#  Thus Toal and Dahlmann argue that ethnic cleansing ‘is never straightforwardly “ethnic” or motivated only by a desire to “cleanse” localities thought the murder and expulsion of ethnic others. Criminal opportunism, local grievances, revenge and nihilism fuelled by alcohol and drugs are also elements of the practice. Some violence … was motivated by long-held grudges.’ (13) However their demonstration of the centrality of Serbian and Croatian geopolitical projects to the cleansing process contradicts Kalyvas’ claim, in an article with Nicholas Sambanis, that it can be mainly explained by the level of resistance to Serbian power.#

Toal and Dahlmann argue that both ethnic cleansing and return are unavoidably geographical projects, and their approach is based on critical geopolitics, ‘an approach that produces “categories of analysis” to grasp and explain the too-often unproblematized “categories of practice” of banal and not-so-banal nor benign geopolitics.’ (9) Thus they reject the subsumption of the events in the categories of ‘civil war’ and ‘ethnic conflict’, and similarly to David Campbell’s earlier post-structuralist account#, show how ethnopolitics was constructed out of Bosnia’s historic hybrid, plurinational society. However, despite pointing out that ‘ethnic cleansing’ is ‘a vivid metaphor conveying the commitments of its perpetrators’ (3), they are remarkably content to use this as their main analytical category. ‘Genocide’, in contrast, is treated overwhelmingly as a rhetorical device of actors, whether of Serbian perpetrators recalling their peoples’ historic victimisations, or of Bosnian Muslim leaders complaining about Serbian ‘cleansing’. In a surprising lapse of critical focus on the ‘categories of practice’, they reproduce the view (now conventional in international legal circles) that genocide was only committed at Srebrenica in 1995, while the general destruction of plural Bosnian society, which occurred as they show mainly in 1992, was not genocide.

Yet what Toal and Dahlmann describe is what others from Raphael Lemkin onwards have carefully defined as genocide: carving out imagined ethnic homelands by destroying Bosnia’s ‘common life, multiethnic settlements and the homes of ordinary Bosnians’ (134), and destroying its common public infrastructure and cultural and religious property, indeed its ‘lifeworld of coexistence (140). When they talk of a ‘geopolitical logic of erasure and refoundation’ (6) they reproduce Lemkin’s ‘two phases [of genocide]: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.’# Their argument that the ethnonationalism has largely succeeded even though it was not militarily victorious is another way of expressing his dictum that genocide is a way of winning even when the war itself is lost. Yet nowhere do Toal and Dahlmann argue for these conceptual choices.

Paul Mojzes makes similar conceptual decisions, but he does at least try to justify them. His book is a historical synthesis, which has the considerable virtue of bringing together the large number of genocidal events in the modern Balkans over the last century. He begins with the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, seen as an ‘unrecognized genocide’, and proceeds to the ‘multiple genocides of World War II’ and ‘retaliatory genocides against wartime enemies’, before arriving at ‘ethnic cleansing during Yugoslavia’s wars of distintegration in the 1990s’ (Kosovo is considered in a separate chapter, as is the ICTY). In each of this periods, Mojzes carefully accumulates the evidence on anti-population violence from all sides, and this will serve as a useful reference work. He also tries to say which events constituted genocide, and which not, and while his criteria and judgements may both be disputed, it is all done in a careful way that gives the readers useful pointers. The sheer range of events that are covered, the variety of their perpetrators, and the demonstrations of their interconnectedness, also provide useful antidotes to any simple ideas that only one or other type of actor perpetrated genocide. Mojzes falls into the trap of identifying the political factions with the ethnic groups themselves, so begging the question of the ethnopoliticisation that is the focus of Toal and Dahlmann’s analysis. But by placing the Bosnian war in the larger series of recent conflicts that began in Slovenia and Croatia and ended in Kosovo, he provides useful contextualisation, even if Balkan Genocides has neither the interpetative historical depth of Donald Bloxham’s work#, which covers the earlier part of its ground, nor the theoretical and empirical richness of Bosnia Remade.

Any optimism about the future of the Balkans in these books is highly tempered, but Toal and Dahlmann are right to say that Bosnia-Herzegovina is still in the process of being made. There is no inexorable law that condemns us to reproduce the crimes of the past, even if there are powerful social forces that work in that direction.

See the full review including references.

George Monbiot has written an interesting take in The Guardian on ‘left-wing’ denial of the Srebrenica genocidal massacre and the Rwandan genocide, Left and libertarian right cohabit in the weird world of the genocide belittlers. Monbiot refers to the recent book by Edward Herman (Noam Chomsky’s collaborator of four decades) and David Peterson, with a foreword by Chomsky, which is explicit in its denial of genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda. I have written the following review of this book for The Journal of Genocide Research (this is a draft; the final version appeared in issue 13, 3, 2011, 353-58):

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010
128 pp, $12.95 (pbk)

Genocide is an intensely political topic. This type of targeted anti-population violence arises from political and armed conflict and is justified by political ideology. Its discussion always reflects political interests, values and goals: even academic genocide studies are surrounded by critical political issues, and often informed by unstated political assumptions. So The Politics of Genocide is a good title; but for this book, it is a misnomer. Readers looking for a rounded treatment of the subject will be severely disappointed. What Edward Herman, long-time collaborator of Noam Chomsky (who writes the foreword), and his co-author offer us is a politics of genocide, based on the unremitting opposition to Western and especially US power that characterizes all the works of these authors.

This is a study, then, of the contradictions of official Western attitudes to genocide, with a superficial reference (but one significant for the book’s method) to mass media, and brief references to “‘genocide’-oriented intellectuals.” The core case is that all major sectors of the Western establishment are fundamentally compromised by partial attitudes to political violence, according to which some is regarded as “constructive” (committed by Western states and necessary to their aims), some “nefarious” (committed by the West’s enemies), some “benign” (committed by the West’s allies) and some downright “mythical” (supposed actions of the West’s enemies, actually invented for propaganda purposes). This framework, which the authors explain was devised by Herman and Chomsky as long ago as 1973 during the US war in Indochina, defines the book’s four main chapters, each devoted to proving the West’s politically motivated partiality towards violence across a wide range of cases.

The relatively novel element in The Politics of Genocide is the claim that “genocide” language has become increasingly central to the process by which the West interprets events in these four categories: “During the past several decades, the word ‘genocide’ has increased in frequency of use and recklessness of application, so much so that the crime of the 20th century for which the term originally was coined often appears debased” (p 103). Ironically, therefore, Herman and Peterson join many official Western, and especially pro-Israeli, advocates in suggesting a very special (perhaps “unique”?) place for the Holocaust in the modern history of violence. But this reference serves a definite purpose in the authors’ own political framework: if it can be argued that “current [Western] usage” is (as Chomsky puts it, p 7) “an insult to the memory of victims of the Nazis,” then that usage is discredited. And Herman and Peterson’s target is not just this usage, but, as Chomsky summarises, “[t]he vulgar politicization of the concept of genocide, and the ‘emerging international norm’ of humanitarian intervention” (p 10), and especially “all the fine talk about the ‘responsibility to protect’ and the ‘end of impunity’” (p 11). The real problem with the latter, in their view, is that (as Chomsky says) this fine talk “has never once been extended to the victims of these same [Western] powers” that promote it, “no matter how egregious the crimes” (p 11). Thus Chomsky concludes: “As for the term ‘genocide,’ perhaps the most honourable course would be expunge it from the vocabulary until the day, it ever comes, when honesty and integrity can become an international norm” (p 12).

The methodology of this study can be summarized as follows: sweeping assertions about historical events, political attitudes and intellectual positions, buttressed by selective quotation and ignoring most contending sources and arguments, with cavalier use of statistics, all calibrated via a one-dimensional media survey and offered without any attempt to define key concepts. Let us take as a starting-point the following statement: “The leading mainstream experts on ‘genocide’ and mass atrocity crimes today still carefully exclude from consideration the US attacks on Indochina, as well as the 1965-1966 Indonesian massacres within that country – just as they exclude the deaths and destruction that have followed from the United States’ and NATO-bloc’s aggressive wars of the past decade” (p. 17). At this point, one might expect a careful discussion of the “mainstream experts”: but although they are supposed to be an important part of the compromised Western consensus, Herman and Peterson’s sole reference in academic genocide studies is Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” (2002).# One would not guess that the crimes of pro-Western Indonesia (both the military killings referred to and the invasion and repression of East Timor) are increasingly standard topics in genocide research.# Otherwise, the text is singularly devoid of references to the academic field – even to texts like Adam Jones’ edited Genocide, War Crimes and the West: History and Complicity (2004),# which might have provided partial support for the argument. The other “expert” works adduced are popular handbooks like Roy Gutman and David Rieff’s Crimes of War (1999)#and Christiane Amanpour’s TV documentary, Scream Bloody Murder (2008). It is clear that Herman and Peterson, having dismissed the utility of our field’s main concept, are not interested in what genocide scholars have to say, either.

But let us proceed further with the allegations in this quotation. Herman and Peterson charge genocide experts with ignoring the US attacks on Indochina and the deaths that have followed from the US’s and NATO’s recent wars. For them it is not good enough, moreover, that Power and many others note the role of the US attacks on Cambodia in producing the Khmer Rouge genocide – they also want the direct death toll from US bombing discussed in the genocide framework. But part of the problem is Herman and Peterson’s resolute indifference to conceptual questions. Sure, calling “their” violence “genocide” and “ours” merely “collateral damage” could be not-very-subtle political labelling. But is there any difference at all between “war” and “genocide”? Does saying that the US invasion of Iraq, for example, was war rather than genocide necessarily legitimate the deaths and destruction produced? Or is there a sociological difference between war and genocide, even if they are both morally objectionable? Herman and Peterson are only interested in the numbers of people killed, not in the rationales behind the killings. From their point of view, the difference between Auschwitz and Hiroshima would be only the larger number of people killed in the former. But should we not take into account the different, even if both deeply immoral, aims and motives of the perpetrators in these two events?

The problems of the Herman-Peterson approach are clearly displayed in their treatment of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath. Quick to entertain an estimate of “more than one million” deaths, they claim that “the media and intellectuals rarely treated Iraqi deaths as a consequence – direct or indirect – of the invasion-occupation, let alone as a deliberately imposed bloodbath, crime against humanity, or ‘genocide’” (p 34). Nowhere are the arguments for much lower death tolls (for example, in the careful estimates of Iraq Body Count, according to which currently about 100-125,000 Iraqi civilians may have died since 2003) addressed.# Nor is there any discussion of who is directly responsible for what is (even on this more conservative estimate) still a very substantial toll, although the majority of deaths are almost certainly directly attributable to Iraqi factions rather than US-UK forces. In this way, an emotive label – “deliberately imposed bloodbath, crime against humanity, or ‘genocide’” – is simply left hanging, so that we are implicitly invited to believe that any or all of these could apply to Western intervention. Paradoxically, the result of this comic-opera treatment is that the authors never pin clearly on the USA and UK either their proper share of the direct responsibility for casualties or their general, indirect responsibility for the mayhem following the invasion.

Herman and Chomsky are the authors of a standard book about mass media, Manufacturing Consent (1994).# Not surprisingly, then, Herman and Peterson’s chief empirical measure of the abuse of “genocide” language is the frequency with which certain key media apply the term to different historical and contemporary events, which is then cross-referenced to their death tolls to suggest the varying ratios of media mentions to deaths. Unfortunately, all the calculations developed from this crude yardstick and scattered throughout this book are undermined if we admit that genocide could actually be a different type of political violence from war. For example, Herman and Peterson make a good deal of the (estimated) 5.4 million victims of the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the low salience of media use of “genocide” language in this case, compared to Rwanda. But they never stop to consider the differences between the two cases. The complicated set of armed conflicts in the DRC involved multiple actors over the course of a decade, each fighting each other in changing alliances as well as variously targeting civilians, with most of the claimed death toll attributed to the disease, hunger, and dislocation which the fighting caused. In the relatively simpler case of Rwanda, a highly coordinated campaign of mass murder was developed during a two-sided war over a few weeks in 1994. There are certainly big “genocide” questions in the DRC wars, but there are good reasons (as well as the bad ones alleged here) to distinguish the application of “genocide” in the two cases.

If there may be good conceptual and analytical reasons for distinguishing between events with similar death tolls, a single quantitative measure cannot straddle the corresponding qualitative divides. Without exploring this question, all Herman and Peterson have done is to provide some evidence of the varying and growing use of the term “genocide.” Of course, related to this, in their haste to assert the significance of Western atrocities, the authors completely sidestep the question of whether, granted that Western democracies commit or are complicit in very serious mass crimes, there is any difference in type between their crimes and those of other regimes; or, indeed, whether there are any significant historical changes in the Western production of mass death, between – say – the eras of Vietnam and Iraq. But Herman and Peterson are not interested in such nuances. Their starting and end point is that “[a] remarkable degree of continuity stretches across the many decades of bribes and threats, economic sanctions, subversion, terrorism, aggression and occupation ordered-up by the policy-making elite of the United States” (p 13).

This whole book is little more than an elaborate demonstration of this and a few (equally simple) related assertions. Naturally, since the USA and the wider West are certainly not innocent of war crimes and complicity in genocide, and since official discourse does indeed tend to assume that “our” actions are justified, our enemies’ nefarious, and our allies’ condonable, Herman and Peterson’s blunderbuss approach achieves some hits. If the mass death produced by the USA in Vietnam and Cambodia did not constitute genocide, we certainly need to ask why. If the Rwandan Hutu Power regime murdered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, that does not mean we should ignore the death tolls attributable to the Rwandan Patriotic Front before and during 1994, or indeed afterwards in the DRC. If Serbian “ethnic cleansing” constituted genocide, there is no good reason not to examine Croatian expulsions of Serbs, during Operation Storm in 1995, within the same frame. If campaigning in the USA helped to establish Darfur as the prime early-21st-century genocide, it may also have simplified the political and military situation there. These and a number of similar issues, raised by Herman and Peterson, are certainly cogent – and indeed are recognized as such by critical genocide scholars.

However, The Politics of Genocide does not stop at raising these kinds of counter-examples to the Western mainstream. Instead, it engages in what can only be described as extensive genocide denial. Consider two cases. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, our authors claim, the West “demonized” the Serbs, engaged in “remarkable inflation of claims of Serb evil and violence … with fabricated ‘concentration camps,’ ‘rape camps’ and similar Nazi- and Auschwitz-like analogies” (p 46). They criticize the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for agreeing that “genocide could occur in one ‘small geographical area’ (the town of Srebrenica), even where the villainous party had taken the trouble to bus all the women, children and elderly men to safety – that is, incontestably had not killed any but ‘Bosnian Muslim men of military age’” (p 47). “The case for eight thousand ‘men and boys’ being executed,” they say, “is extremely thin, resting in good part on the difficulty of separating executions from battle killings” (p 48). (So, suddenly, they want to distinguish genocide from war, after all.) They point to the eventual acceptance of lower overall Bosnian death tolls (c. 50-100,000 rather than the 200-250,000 initially argued) as evidence of Western “gullibility” in the face of Bosnian Muslim propaganda – ignoring the fact that initial estimates are frequently revised downwards in such situations, and notwithstanding their own eagerness to accept without discussion problematically large counts (like the “over one million” excess deaths in Iraq since 2003, or 5.4 million in the DRC) when it suits their claims. They claim that “the word ‘genocide’ was used lavishly for the Bosnian Serbs’ conduct” (p 49), ignoring the emergence of “ethnic cleansing” as an alternative concept precisely in this period, partly because Western officialdom wanted to avoid recognizing genocide in Bosnia. (Herman and Peterson want to insist on the norm of Western interventionism despite all the evidence produced by Power and many others that often Western governments do their utmost not to intervene.)

If anyone is offering “an insult to the memory of victims,” it is clearly Herman and Peterson, who give credence to Serbian nationalist denialism which has been widely discredited. Yet, if anything, their position on Rwanda is even more outrageous. The Western establishment has “swallowed a propaganda line on Rwanda that turned perpetrator and victim upside-down” (p 51). The RPF not only killed Hutus, but were the “prime genocidaires” (p 54), their “large-scale killing and ethnic cleansing of Hutus by the RPF long before the April-July 1994 period” (p 53) contributing to a result in which “the majority of victims were likely Hutu and not Tutsi” (quoted with approval, p 58). Indeed, “a number of observers as well as participants in the events of 1994 claim that the great majority of deaths were Hutu, with some estimates as high as two million” (p 58). When we check the reference for this shocking statement, it turns on no more than a letter from a former RPF military officer and personal communications from a former defence counsel before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda – both participants (n 127, p 132). It does not seem to have occurred to the authors that if “theaters where the killing was greatest correlated with spikes in RPF activity” (p 58), killing could just as easily have been committed by the threatened Rwandan regime (as Scott Straus argues in The Order of Genocide)# as by the RPF themselves. But Herman and Peterson do not engage with Straus, or with much at all of the now very considerable literature on Rwanda. Certainly the “established narrative” needs to be questioned, the RPF’s own violence acknowledged, and the ICTR’s inability to deal with the latter (in contrast to the ICTY’s prosecution of perpetrators from many sides, which of course our authors could never credit) criticized. But this is hardly a licence to dismiss the idea of “800,000 or more largely Tutsi deaths” as RPF and Western propaganda, and the authors’ keenness to do so does as much as anything to utterly discredit this study.

This book therefore shows inadvertently that the politics of genocide are multi-directional. Certainly, official Western propagandists may sometimes minimize “our” crimes and represent those of “our” enemies in oversimplified ways. But it seems that anti-Western propagandists, among whom we must count Herman, Peterson, and Chomsky, are guilty of the same tendency from the other side of the fence. They suggest that in official Western narratives, “our victims are unworthy of our attention and indignation, and never suffer ‘genocide’ at our hands” (p 104, italics in original). In anti-Western, Chomskyan narratives, a similar process occurs: the West’s enemies, whether Serbian nationalist or Rwandan Hutu Power, have never committed “genocide.” For the journalist John Pilger, hyping this volume on its cover, Herman and Peterson “defend the right of all of us to a truthful historical memory.” Evidently this does not include the Srebrenica men, the massacred and expelled Kosovo Albanians, or the slaughtered Rwandan Tutsis, who are “unworthy victims” for these left-contrarians. For scholars of genocide studies, this is rich source material. It is not a serious contribution to analysis.

A fully referenced version of this review can be found here.

Also relevant: ‘Mediating Denial‘, my review of Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman, editors, Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, London: Pluto, 2000.

A new article on openDemocracy.

letter published in the New Statesman, 17 May 1999

Your complacency about Kosovo (Editorial, 10 May) will go down as one of the least heroic episodes in the New Statesman‘s history. You misrepresent the nature of the war and its politics. “The war was launched . . .” you write; but Nato did not begin it. There have been “atrocities” in Kosovo, you say; this is an utter failure of understanding, in the face of the most complete genocide in Europe since 1945. Slobodan Milosevic is not “personally responsible”, you say, because “ethnic groups in the region show no signs of co-existing in peace” and there was previously war in Bosnia. Yet ethnic groups co-existed in peace for 45 years until Milosevic (yes, he) began wars of “cleansing” in Croatia and Bosnia. You want to “re-state the international principle that the proper occasion for war is when international boundaries are breached”. What about the international principle that all states have a duty to prevent genocide?

Your tidy separation of “internal” and “international” went out with the Holocaust. In our world, state sovereignty must answer to global principles of human rights as well as retaining legitimacy with the people. On both criteria, Milosevic has wiped out what little authority Serbian rule in Kosovo possessed. The Kosovars have rightly appealed for international support; it is to Russia’s and China’s shame, not Nato’s, that the UN could not respond.

Your quaint belief that this is an “internal” matter is shared by the 674 academics and writers, led by Bourdieu, Said and Chomsky, who also write about the war without mentioning the word “genocide” (Letters, 10 May). Like you, they seem more worried by Nato’s misconceived and bungled intervention than Serbia’s planned, murderous expulsion of a whole population. As Melanie McDonagh’s excellent article (“Why partition is no good for Kosovo”) in the same issue shows, both editorial and letter simply do not answer the realities of this war. The old anti-Americans march hand in hand with the Old Statesman: we look for more from Britain’s premier journal of left opinion.

Martin Shaw

Further letters appeared in response to this, and I replied twice to misrepresentations of my position. For the texts, see the New Statesman archives at

In a letter published on 22 November 1999, I attacked John Pilger’s attempts to deny the Kosova genocide in his New Statesman column.

See also review of Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq (John Pilger, ITV, 6 March 2000)

It will always be necessary to raise questions about the scale of episodes of mass killing and their exaggeration for propaganda purposes: Kosovo is no exception. However John Pilger’s article (15 November) abuses uncertainties about the numbers of dead to claim: ‘the Nato bombing provoked a wave of random brutality, murders and expulsions, a far cry from systematic extermination: genocide. … No one can doubt [the Milosevic regime’s] cruelty and atrocities, but comparisons with the Third Reich are ridiculous.’

‘Random brutality’ ignores the year-long campaign of burnings and killings which had made an estimated quarter of a million homeless before Nato’s intervention – a campaign escalated during the Rambouillet talks (in which, according to earlier Pilger columns, Nato spurned Serbia’s plans for peace). It ignores evidence of organised Serbian military and police (as well as paramilitary) activity in rapidly forcing three quarters of a million people out of Kosovo. It ignores evidence of ‘Operation Horseshoe’, suggesting murderous expulsions were a planned response, not spontaneous reaction, to Nato bombs.

Pilger must know that his identification of genocide with extermination is simplistic, and that no serious commentator or even politician has compared the scale or intensity of Serbian actions to the Nazis’. The international convention defines genocide as the deliberate destruction of a national, racial, ethnic or religious group ‘in whole or in part’. Clearly a range of activities are covered by the term. A campaign can be genocidal without approximating the maximum case of a ‘final solution’. The balance of evidence suggests that Milosevic intended to destroy the Kosovars as a people, using mass killing and terror as adjuncts to expulsion.

It seems that every holocaust brings forth its denial, with pilgered language downgrading planned butchery to unfortunate atrocity. I am glad, however, that your columnist never took this approach to claims of Indonesian terror in East Timor.

  • You can see the edited version of the above letter published in the New Statesman, Pilger’s original article and his reply of 29 November 1999 in which he accuses me of being ‘a propagandist not a professor’, at
  • The following short response was made to Pilger, but not published (although trenchant comments on Pilger from John Palmer appeared on 6 December 1999):

John Pilger (letters, 29 November) erects a sadly predictable smokescreen of abuse and distortion, but fails to defend his contemptible excuse that Serbian atrocities in Kosovo were products of ‘random brutality’ rather than genocidal planning. What blighted vision leads him to deny that Serbian crimes were of a kind with those of the Indonesians in East Timor? I leave readers to decide which of us is the ‘propagandist’ guilty of ‘crude sophistry’.

The trial of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is a test of justice and accountability over terrible crimes. But the trend of events in Bosnia itself also demands the international community’s urgent attention, says Martin Shaw.

The trial of Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Serbian nationalist regime in Bosnia in the early 1990s, resumed in The Hague on 27 October 2009. The accused initially refused to appear in court on the basis that he needed more time to prepare his defence, but announced in a letter to the presiding judge on 2 November that he would indeed be present to face the court at a procedural hearing the following day.

Karadzic is charged with genocide over the attempt “to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims [Bosniaks] and Bosnian Croats from the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed as Bosnian Serb territory” between 1992 and 1995, as well as over the infamous massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995. The other charges include extermination; murder; persecutions; deportation; inhumane acts; acts of violence the primary purpose of which was to spread terror among the civilian population; unlawful attacks on civilians; and the taking of hostages.

These can be seen not as a series of different crimes but as components of a single campaign of genocide. Indeed the charges potentially broaden the overall legal assessment of the Serbian genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which in earlier judgments – like that of the International Court of Justice in February 2007 – has been restricted to Srebrenica; the importance of the charges against Karadzic is that this enables understanding that Srebrenica was only the most murderous moment in the three years during which Serbian forces systematically targeted the destruction of the non-Serb population in the areas they controlled (see “The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide”, 28 February 2007).

The trial – which starts sixteen months after Karadzic’s arrest in Serbia in July 2008, following thirteen years in hiding there – is widely seen as the last major case of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which is scheduled to begin winding down from the end of 2009 – despite the scandalous failure to arrest Karadzic’s fellow indictee Ratko Mladic, who commanded the Bosnian-Serbian forces at Srebrenica. The ICTY has had considerable success in arraigning secondary war-criminals of all nationalities, but no settling of the accounts of the post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s will be complete until Mladic joins Karadzic in the dock. The fact that prime architects of Yugoslavia’s ethnic destruction in the 1990s – Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic’s (who died in March 2006, during his trial) and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman (who died before he could be indicted) – escaped justice, means that the tribunal’s record will appear even more seriously flawed unless Mladic and Karadzic are successfully tried.

The new trial will doubtless rekindle the deep divisions which Bosnia opened in western publics in the 1990s. A reminder of these came on 29 October 2009 when Ed Vulliamy, the Guardian reporter who (with colleagues from the broadcaster ITN) exposed the Serbian concentration-camps at Omarska and Trnopolje in August 1992 – published an open letter to Amnesty International to protest against its invitation to the radical academic Noam Chomsky to give the annual Amnesty lecture in Belfast on 30 October 2009. Chomsky, says Vulliamy, has encouraged the “revisionist” view which denied the character of the camps (even if it was others such as Thomas Deichmann, writing in Living Marxism magazine, who were the direct authors of this denial [see Ed Vulliamy, “Poison in the well of history”, Guardian, 15 March 2000]).

In 2005, Chomsky told a Guardian interviewer: “Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true.” Vulliamy reminds Amnesty that he directly witnessed the situation he described, and went on to collect hundreds of testimonies; he accuses the human-rights organisation of “giving comfort” to Mladic and Karadzic through its invitation to Chomsky.

The logic of Dayton

The political realities on the ground in Bosnia put some of these controversies in perspective. Radovan Karadzic may be in the dock in The Hague, but the Serbian statelet of Republika Srpska (RS) which he founded is firmly entrenched. The first phase of the Serbian campaign in 1992-93 left RS in control of a formerly mixed territory, from which 90% of the non-Serb population (principally Muslims and Croats) were expelled through the brutal methods described in the ICTY’s indictment of Karadzic.

The Serb forces failed fully to defeat Bosnian and Croatian forces, but the diplomatic settlement of November 2005 – the Dayton (Ohio) peace accords, agreed by Bill Clinton (the United States president), Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman, and Alija Izetbegovic (Bosnia’s president) – left the Serbian nationalists in control of the RS, even if it was reincorporated into a nominally unified and internationally supervised Bosnia-Herzegovina. The international regime was supposed to support the return of refugees to RS (as to Croatian- and Bosnian-controlled areas). In the event, the small number of returns achieved have not altered the outcome of the genocidal war: Serbs today form almost 90% of RS’s population.

The Dayton settlement thus (in Marko Attila Hoare’s words) “established a Bosnia-Hercegovina that was more partitioned than united”, and subsequent developments have reinforced the partitionist logic. For every year that the Dayton settlement persists it brings Bosnia another step closer (Hoare again) “to full and complete partition. Every year, Republika Srpska further consolidates itself as a de facto independent state; the Office of the High Representative [OHR; Bosnia’s international overseer] declines in power and authority; the international community’s will and ability to coerce the Republika Srpska are that much weaker; the already dim prospect of Bosniaks and Croats returning to Republika Srpska recedes further; and the share of the Bosnian population that can remember the unified, multinational country that existed before 1992 becomes smaller.”

Even in late 2007 it was possible for Peter Lippman to argue that the international regime was having some success in integrating the police and the army into a unified Bosnian force (see “Crisis and reform: a turnaround in Bosnia?”, 18 December 2007). Two years on, the low-key current international efforts to move Bosnian politicians towards reform are completely deadlocked. Serbian secessionist impulses – part-cause and part-consequence of this situation – are never far from the surface. Moreover the current RS administration of Milorad Dodik is growing in its defiance of the international regime and (a linked matter given the statelet’s provenance) its denial of the very crimes of which Karadzic is accused.

Dodik, who has denied that genocide was committed at Srebrenica, further provoked the non-Serb population of Bosnia in September 2009 by pointedly denying one of the worst Serbian atrocities of the war: the massacre of seventy young people in a square in Tuzla in May 1995. (In this context, Ed Vulliamy is right to say that the questioning of well-documented atrocities such as the concentration-camps by western commentators is no academic matter; and that Noam Chomsky’s attitude to these issues raises questions about Amnesty’s choice of lecturer).

Against this background, even a conviction in the Karadzic trial – assuming the accused’s spoiling tactics are unsuccessful – will be a hollow victory for his victims. The danger, Hoare suggests, is that “however monstrous the injustice that Bosnian partition would represent, with every year that passes, the injustice is further forgotten by the world and full partition – like death – draws nearer. We need only look at the other injustices that have become realities on the ground: the three-way partition of Macedonia in 1912-13; the dispossession of the Armenian population of Anatolia; the dispossession of the Palestinian population of present-day Israel – these are realities on the ground” (see “Bosnia: weighing the options”, Bosnian Institute, 13 October 2009).

The cost of failure

It is difficult to gainsay this bleak assessment of the historical record: partitions have always involved appalling injustices which have rarely been reversed (see Sumantra Bose, “The partition evasion”, 23 August 2007). The Indian partition of 1947 is one of the worst examples. For a century, western “statesmen” have been tempted to draw lines on maps and consign hundreds of thousands of people to suffering; all the more reason by now to have learned from these experiences.

If the partition of Bosnia is indeed steadily becoming irreversible, this should cause alarm across Europe. It should not be assumed that Balkan politicians’ need for European recognition and funding will always inhibit radical moves that would once again destabilise the region. The integration of southeastern Europe into the European Union and western institutions has not proceeded so far as to provide full insurance against a new Bosnian – or even wider Balkan – war.

The situation of Bosnia, and especially of its Bosniak majority areas, is – under the pressure of Serbian separatism – getting more serious. It is time for western politicians, having accepted responsibility for Bosnia, to consider and take the steps necessary to prevent this already divided country from moving towards new and dangerous schisms.

Peter Lippman also argued in 2007 that “nationalist leaders – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks” had a responsibility “to show that they are serious about developing the reforms that would allow Bosnia & Herzegovina to exist as a functional state that can join the European Union on its own.” But it is even more urgent that “the international community and the OHR maintain a robust stance with regard to these reforms, in order to prompt and encourage Bosnian leaders to see them through.” The Radovan Karadzic trial is a reminder of the worst that could happen if they fail.