A leading world expert on genocides explain how crimes against humanity are perpetrated and justified.
by Ruth Ingram
Genocidal states cover their tracks under a cloak of secrecy, layers of subterfuge and denial, ensuring that the architects are buried under an expertly crafted chain of command. Capitalizing on hate narratives planted in the bedrock of the general population, regimes find little resistance to their plans for the target group.
Called as an expert witness at an extraordinary third sitting of the Uyghur Tribunal in London, Dr Ton Zwaan, retired associate professor of social science and genocide studies at the University of Amsterdam and the Netherlands Institute of War, Holocaust and Genocide studies (NIOD), described the furtive machinations of governments or individuals bent on the annihilation of a group of their people, and the almost impossibility of proving intent.
Drawing from his analysis of genocides such as the Jewish Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Cambodia and Yugoslavia, Dr Zwaan described the lengths governments will go to to justify ridding themselves of “troublesome” or “threatening” groups in their midst.
In alarming comparisons with events in recent Uyghur history, past genocides have been characterized by replacing large groups of citizens with the minority population they have deported, enforced mass movements of laborers, barefaced atrocity denial and justifications that fall on the fertile soil of a primed majority population, ready to accept and even forgive them, mass arrests and incarcerations, sterilizations and torture.
The involvement in these atrocities of hundreds of thousands of citizens, ranging from petty officials and laborers up to the very highest echelons of power, ensures the instigators usually escape accountability. Paper trails are vague or nonexistent with decisions made verbally at highest levels. “If relevant documents are retrieved, they are often fragmentary and difficult to interpret, and are usually written in veiled language and coded words,” reported Dr Zwaan who pointed out the ease with which potentially incriminating messages and orders can be deleted in this digital age.
“Through propagandistic means such regimes may even actively mislead and deceive the larger public, which happened for instance with the infamous filmed inspection visit of members of the International Red Cross to the special German concentration camp at Theresienstadt,” he said. The infamous BBC footage of singing, dancing bright eyed Uyghur youth from a re-education camp in 2019 is a case in point.
While conceding that establishing intent on the part of the perpetrators is important, Dr Zwaan’s historical-sociological research has focussed not simply on the architect, but upon the events themselves, how they were carried out and their reason.
Collective behavior during a genocide involving myriad players and countless motives cannot simply be explained by one individual, he said. He described three layers of command. Typically the highest level of instigators launches the process, middle level planners accept the concept and plan the details, and regional officials at the base level are charged with carrying out the “dirty work,” the torture and the killings.
Explaining motivation, “Collective violence in genocidal processes is systematic and organized and includes many different participants, who usually have their own and various reasons to participate,” said Dr Zwaan. “Genocidal campaigns involve different levels of authority, which are more or less arranged in a hierarchy, and they typically are carried out by multiple organizations with different chains of command.” “Intentions must often be ‘deduced’ from ‘what happens on the ground,’” he stressed.
These tend to evolve and develop over time, he explained, citing the anti-Jewish speeches made by German National Socialists in the 1930’s whose anti semitic rhetoric took seven years to germinate into full blown anti-semitism that resulted in the mass killings of World War II.
Examining historical genocides he has observed that ruthless political regimes spurred on by ideological convictions target groups in their midst to persecute or destroy, not because of individuals who differ from them, but because the group itself has been targeted for destruction. The ideologies typically embody a loathing for political freedom, freedom of expression and association and civil rights, human rights and the rule of law.
“They prefer instead dictatorship and authoritarian rule, the police state, and the will of the leader, sometimes disguised in a populist way as ‘the will of the people,’” he explained. “Violence is not seen as an ‘ultima ratio,’ a last resort to solve disputes and conflicts within a state-society when all other means have failed, but as a preferred political instrument to be used internally and externally,” he concluded.
These ingredients Dr Zwaan has concluded are all typical vestiges of the Mao era, which have left deep and lasting scars on the people of China whose not such distant history saw the killings and unnatural deaths of between 44–72 million people and mass starvation. “And this horrible recent past, for which the Chinese Communist Party bears a large share of responsibility, has never been dealt with or psychologically processed publicly in any extensive way. It is largely repressed, and the CCP is still in power,” he said.
The driving force of many of President Xi Jinping’s policies lie grounded in a disdain for “hostile foreign powers” including the Islamic world, which are suspected of conspiring against China. A deep-seated legacy of mistrust for “barbarians” who hover on the edge of the Middle Kingdom has also given rise to a deep-seated suspicion of non-Han Chinese which contains strong racist features. These elements are convenient hooks on which to hang anti “barbarian” policies and persecution. “Because these people could hurt us,” is the subliminal message woven into justifying a genocide and the endorsement of it.
Describing the treatment of Tibet, also considered another border region, the aim of the authorities seemed to be to deprive the indigenous population of their own way of life, their language, religion, social organization, culture and thereby of their identity, dignity, and meaning. In this way, he explained, they had been transformed into second rate, obedient citizens, or rather “subjects,” of the Chinese state.
Referring to events in Xinjiang, Dr Zwaan considered the repression to be not simply tragic for the majority Islamic inhabitants from other ethnicities of the border region. “It is outright dangerous,” was his stark conclusion.
Worried that current CCP policies are driven by “an unfounded fear of Islam and possibly terrorism,” he is concerned that following the branding of the minority as a “threat” or “the enemy” anything might be permitted against them.
“The Chinese authorities may refrain from genocidal mass killing, but the regime and its security services dispose of many means of what are called ‘crushing techniques’—already developed in Mao’s time: sharp surveillance, forced ‘re-education’ in ‘schools’ (detention centers, camps), forced labour, and endless restrictions and harassments. The victims may stay alive, but their freedom of living is nevertheless to a high degree destroyed,” he warned.