In the U.S. and UK progress is being made, while in Europe it is the Netherlands that may take the lead.
by Bikash Chowdhury Barua, president European Bangladesh Forum; Harry van Bommel, former Member of Parliament in the Netherlands; and Anthonie Holslag, anthropologist and member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars
On March 25, 2023, it is exactly 52 years since the Pakistan army began Operation Searchlight with the intention to eliminate all Bengali opposition in Bangladesh. Eventually, this operation led to one of the largest genocides of the 20th century, but finally there are international political steps towards recognition of this “forgotten genocide,” as it is often referred to. Recognition of genocides is of great importance for the prevention of this crime and for the remembrance of the victims.
During World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874‒1965) described Germany’s actions in Europe as “a crime without a name.” After the war, that crime was given a name with the United Nations’ adoption of the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” This convention defines a genocide as “acts committed with the intent to target a national, ethnic, religious group, or destroy, in whole or in part, a group of a particular race as such.” This definition of this particular crime is included virtually unchanged in the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court.
International recognition of genocides is not easily acquired, though. The genocide of the Armenians in 1915, for example, is recognized by a number of countries. The Dutch Parliament openly spoke out about it, its judgment being guided by rulings of international courts, unambiguous scientific research and conclusions of the UN, as stated in the coalition agreement of the third goverment of the Netherlands led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte from October 2017 to January 2022.
The Dutch House of Representatives is now charting its own course and in early 2021 declared that genocide is taking place in China against the Uyghur minority. And in July of that year, the House labelled as genocide the acts of the Islamic State against the Yazidi in the Middle East.
Bangladesh’s independence, declared on March 26, 1971, saw the birth of what at the time was called East Pakistan and was soon accompanied by a genocide committed by the West Pakistani army. Ten million people were displaced, more than 1.5 million people were murdered, and some 300,000 women were raped. The international community knew about these crimes but ignored them. Pakistan was an ally of the United States of America and played a bridging role in normalizing diplomatic relations with China. Therefore, the US continued to support Pakistan militarily. Moreover, Washington feared India’s close ties with the Soviet Union. In doing so, the Bangladeshis indirectly became a victim of the Cold War.
The issue whether Bangladesh’s independence was accompanied by genocide is hardly controversial. Three renowned institutes come to that conclusion: Genocide Watch, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. They call on the international community, and by extension the UN, to recognize the genocide of Bangladesh in 1971. Today we undersigned call on the Dutch House of Representatives, and other Parliaments in the world to join this plea and formally declare that there was genocide in Bangladesh.
The Netherlands would not be the first Western country to pay political attention to the genocide of Bangladesh. In October 2022, U.S. Congressmen Steve Chabot (Republican) and Ro Khanna (Democrat) submitted proposals for recognition of genocide. Earlier that year, it was proposed in the British Parliament to come to recognition. It would be to the credit of the Netherlands to strengthen its early involvement in the fate of the Bangladeshis with recognition of the genocide.
On February 11, 1972, the Netherlands was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, that independence was accompanied by indescribable suffering for the Bangladeshis. That should not be forgotten: it should be recognised worldwide.