Mike Charney (SOAS)
Are we as scholars guilty of negligence in allowing genocides to happen?
I recently saw on twitter a tweet from the US State Dept that it believes that “China has committed genocide & crimes against humanity against #Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Uyghurs & other Turkic Muslim minorities must be protected against future atrocities & those in detention immediately released.” We have seen the Myanmar Govt ruled against in the ICJ for the same act against the Rohingyas. We certainly believe this has happened elsewhere.
Without absolving these countries of their guilt, I also raise the issue of our own negligence in allowing these acts to happen without taking action BEFORE they happened. Of course, it’s hard to prevent a crime before it happens or even before the first steps are taken in that direction. And certainly, some of us have said a lot (many, many, many more have not) since these acts took place.
If our scholarly work is going to influence policy and be effective in saving lives, it cannot simply be mobilised AFTER a crime has taken place. It must actively seek to INFORM policymakers in the global community BEFORE they or branches of their governments and militaries go on a criminal course.
Let’s consider genocide and ethnic cleansing. 159 countries have ratified or acceded to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as of 2019. The leaders and key diplomats at the time of signing and those involved in the discussions at the were probably aware of what was spelled out and signed. But who ensures that a broad understanding of what genocide is shared by subsequent leaders and policymakers, generals and soldiers, villagers, clerics, and monks? And who does this in particular in societies where civil society has been suppressed, where freedom of the press is gone, and where educational systems and critical thought has slumped?
If scholars and those who study the law, the past, politics, and policy do not take up this role, if we do not ensure that there is a global understanding or awareness of what constitutes crimes against humanity, how can we absolve ourselves of guilt at some level when serious transgressions occur. Do we not share some of the burden for what happened to the Rohingya, for example, by not doing more to reach Myanmar decision makers BEFORE the 33 Light Infantry Regiment started attacking Rohingya villagers in August 2017?
Historians are not mindreaders, they do not have crystal balls. We could not see in advance what exactly would happen. But from 2012 in particular and for many decades before, the signs there that there COULD be serious problems for the Rohingya. We should have done more work from the start to ensure that everyone who had any voice was clearly aware of what genocide was, what the consequences would be, and should have spent much more time challenging racist, ethno-religious paradigms. We should have been much more pro-active in strengthening civil society groups that promoted human rights. And we should have convinced our own policymakers at home to take a harder line with the NLD using the leverage that states and international organisations have that we as scholars do not.
We can’t change what has happened, but we can prevent genocide again. If you’re waiting for policymakers to prevent things on their own and save you the trouble so you can take a well-funded research trip and sit outside a coffee shop in Naypyitaw or Yangon, why should the rest of us be interested in reading anything you have to write? History should mean something.