It’s been a big week for genocide apologies. On Friday, German Foreign Minister
asked Namibia and the descendants of its Herero and Nama peoples to forgive Germany for actions that “from today’s perspective” were a “genocide.” After bloodily crushing a revolt against colonial rule, in the 1900s German authorities confined Herero and Nama in concentration camps, where a majority of inmates are believed to have died of starvation and illness. In many cases, the tribal land Germany confiscated—the taking of which triggered the rebellion—is still held by settlers’ descendants today. Berlin’s apology came with a pledge of €1.1 billion (around $1.3 billion) for development and reconstruction projects over the next 30 years as recompense.
Meanwhile in Rwanda Thursday, French President
acknowledged France’s “terrible responsibility” in the 1994 genocide, but without offering a formal apology or financial compensation. French forces played no direct role in the attacks that killed hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, but as Mr. Macron acknowledged, they supported the “genocidal regime” that carried out the murders. A French inquiry acknowledged in March what had been well-known to observers for decades: “French officials armed, advised, trained, equipped, and protected” the Rwandan government that prepared and carried out one of the most horrific actions by any non-Communist government since World War II.
The apologizers, as usual, seem less enthusiastic at their tasks than the genocidaires were in theirs. A representative of the Herero people denounced the German apology and compensation offer as “a total insult to our intelligence” and vowed to “fight to hell and back” against closing the books on the German colonial atrocities. The leading Rwandan genocide survivor group expressed disappointment that Macron didn’t offer “a clear apology.”
The problem for apologetic states in part is a legal one. Germans don’t want to set a precedent in Namibia that would strengthen the case of, for example, Greeks who demand close to €300 billion as compensation for Nazi crimes in World War II. Similar concerns have dogged Japan’s efforts to resolve the issue of crimes against Koreans during the era of colonial rule, which ended in 1945. Apologies carefully vetted by lawyers rarely sound truly heartfelt.
But if genocide apologizers are having an active year, genocidaires are even busier. Walking through my neighborhood in Washington earlier this spring I saw a crowd of people shouting “Stop the Genocide!” and it took me a few minutes to figure which contemporary atrocity they had in mind.
Was the protest about Chinese actions in Xinjiang? About the continuing plight of the Rohingya, whose circumstances have worsened following the coup in Myanmar? Were the protesters worried that vengeful Azerbaijanis, at the time advancing victoriously across land Armenians seized in 1994, would massacre any Armenians left behind in the retreat?
It turned out to be none of the above. The protesters were ethnic Tigrayans getting early reports from friends and relatives in Ethiopia about mass murder and ethnic cleansing against civilians as Ethiopian and Eritrean forces moved into the restive province.
This is not what the post-Cold War world was supposed to look like. In the 1990s many believed the fall of the Soviet empire, a global surge of democracy and the West’s military and economic preponderance had led humanity into a “posthistorical” liberal world order. During the 1991 Gulf War, when
George H.W. Bush
and his team organized a global coalition with United Nations backing that reversed
conquest of Kuwait, humanity briefly glimpsed the shape of a better world.
A generation later, that world is distant. New genocides and bloody campaigns that bear genocidal hallmarks are taking lives faster than halfhearted apologies can be made for the old ones. The “international community” hasn’t been this morally weak or politically divided since the depths of the Cold War.
The Biden administration, commendably, wants to heave the arc of world history in a more hopeful direction, but it will be difficult. Americans in both parties are disturbed and disheartened by the meager accomplishments of Washington’s past 30 years of world-order-building policy. And there isn’t much demand for “responsibility to protect” interventions like President Obama’s ill-fated Libya campaign.
Human-rights campaigners often think the problem is a lack of “awareness.” This is surely wrong. When powerful governments worry over past sins and the bloody evidence of modern atrocities is plastered all over the web, we live in a golden age of genocide awareness. But sadly it is also a golden age for genocide.
What’s really missing is strategy: a serious plan to restore the moral and political foundations of our fraying world order. The world needs less moral grandstanding and more hard thought.
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