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South Asian, Palestinian, and Zionist politicians and thinkers also participated in this discourse of national liberation and state-foundation. They too sought to guarantee permanent security for an imagined people by constructing ethnic homogeneity or guaranteeing ethnic dominance over minorities. Permanent security entailed a nation being housed in “its” state; the consonance of the cultural and political nations. In addition to partition and population transfer, another modality of permanent security was “communal hostage taking”: the “occupier” can imagine minorities as potential hostages, objects of possible reprisal for perceived mistreatment of their own nationals likewise “stranded” across the border. These mental operations were necessarily global in projection and meta-reflective in practice, as leaders of states-in-waiting not only studied political dramas in other parts of the world but also scrutinized the lessons that their rivals drew from them. A political history of ideas can show how national security thinking was embedded in practices of analogy making.
This chapter historicizes the intersecting keywords of the “language of transgression” – shock, conscience, and mankind / humanity – since the early modern period when, I argue, we can locate its operation for the first time. The analysis focuses on the Western maritime empires that colonized the Americas, Oceania, and later Africa. Because we are interested in laying out the linguistic context from which Lemkin invented “genocide,” as well as the vested interests that went into its restricted legal meaning, this chapter highlights its operation and development as an instrument of power. The keywords in the language of transgression were naturally open to interpretation. And yet, a common feature in all their uses was the framing of exploitative and violent excesses – atrocities – as “barbaric.” Significantly, atrocities were understood not only as punctual events but as the outcomes of corrupt political and economic processes.
This book argues that the problems of genocide are as much conceptual as empirical: that the crowning of genocide as “crime of crimes” depoliticizes the language of transgression; and that depoliticization means screening out how genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the wanton infliction of collateral damage are driven by the permanent security imperatives of states and political movements seeking to found states. As a consequence, the connections between the postwar order of nation-states, the violence with which they were founded, and the international legal order are largely hidden from view. However, the appeal of making the world “safe for democracy” and “saving strangers” in the name of humanity has waned with the election of populist nationalists who express disdain for “globalism” and emphasize national security. Even so, whether in the name of an “international rules-based order” or making one’s country “great again,” US geopolitical domination is the enduring imperative that drives the permanent securitization of subaltern actors that challenge liberal empire.
Genocide is a problem in two ways: not only the terrible fact of mass death, but also how the relatively new idea and law of genocide organizes and distorts our thinking about civilian (that is, noncombatant) destruction. Taking the normative perspective of civilian immunity from military attack that international law and norms ostensibly prioritize, this book argues that their implicit hierarchy, atop which sits genocide as the “crime of crimes,” blinds us to other types of humanly caused civilian death, like bombing cities and the “collateral damage” of missile and drone strikes, blockades, and sanctions. In other words, talk of genocide functions ideologically to detract attention from systematic violence against civilians perpetrated by governments, including Western ones. The Problems of Genocide also contends that this violence is the consequence of “permanent security” imperatives: the striving of states, and armed groups seeking to found states, to make themselves invulnerable to threats. Permanent security is the unobtainable goal of absolute safety that necessarily results in civilian casualties by its paranoid tendency to indiscriminate violence. To solve the problem of genocide concealing permanent security, this book proposes replacing the former with the latter: permanent security should be illegal.
The North American and Israeli scholars who founded Genocide Studies in the 1980s and 1990s also insisted on genocide’s Holocaust archetype. These scholars successfully resisted the “conceptual stretching” of genocide to include political criteria in its definition. Domestically, they advocated an apolitical “toleration” pedagogy as genocide’s antidote. The US victory in the Cold War in the early 1990s sidelined the lively critique of the US national security state and gave rise to a new age of interventions. Vietnam-induced doubts were left behind as “the indispensable nation” became the world’s hyper-power. Although the founders of Comparative Genocide Studies were liberals who opposed the Vietnam War, they eagerly adopted the role of academic handmaiden to US global aspirations: the field anointed the US as the benign force to police the non-West in the form of humanitarian interventions to prevent genocide, other “atrocity crimes,” and to wage “war on terror.”
Imperial formations of one kind or another have been the political form in which most humans have lived for thousands of years. Permanent security practices enabled imperial expansion and consolidation through the ages. To tease out its function since the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of the Americas in sixteenth century, it is necessary to distinguish between empires of exploitation and settler colonies. The language of transgression developed to simultaneously conceal and expose permanent security in the process of state formation and originary accumulation: first by justifying settler colonial warfare against indigenous resistance, and second by condemning the illiberal permanent security practices of imperial rivals, whether the Iberian powers in the early modern period or the fascist and communist ones in the twentieth century. Liberal permanent security in the form of settler colonialism normalized its modality of settlement, state-formation, and originary accumulation as a theodicy, a story of civilizational progress that benefitted humanity.
“Genocide” became an option to codify the Martens Clause when Axis Rule was published in late 1944. But “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity,” and “crimes against peace” were the favored options among Allied authorities in the first half of the 1940s. Genocide’s breakthrough as a politically viable legal concept was dependent less on Lemkin’s well-known energetic advocacy than on its repositioning in a field of conceptual options over which he had no control. Lemkin’s achievement was not to invent a “new word … to denote an old practice in its modern development” but to contrive a conceptual artifice that enabled a new coalition of small states and civil society groups like the WJC to create a new reality by combining the “crippling” and “extermination” of nations after the disappointing outcome of the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. In doing so, he introduced definitional instability into the concept. Genocide’s redefinition in the UN Convention negotiated between 1947 and 1948 made the Holocaust the archetype of genocide.
The language of transgression has been multidirectional from its beginnings. Using it to expose abuses, as in the campaign to stop the system of labor exploitation in the Congo in the name of humanity and civilization, was common. Violating the sovereignty of another European power’s colonial possessions was a potential in this discourse, especially when the state that purported to represent human freedom in general could align this universal ideal with its interests. Britain’s campaign to end the slave trade embodied this posture in the nineteenth century. In this respect, Britain’s rival was less Germany than the USA, whose developing naval power and trading capacity combined with its anti-colonial self-understanding and republican civilizing mission to produce world-ordering aspirations. These would be realized in the League of Nations when “international conscience” and the “public mind” were joined in the reformist imperial project of tutelage over “backward” peoples” in its mandates system.
Genocide is a problem: not only the terrible fact of mass death but also how the relatively new idea and law of genocide organizes and distorts our thinking about civilian destruction. Taking the normative perspective of civilian immunity from military attack, this book argues that the implicit hierarchy of international law, atop which sits genocide as the “crime of crimes,” blinds us to other types of humanly caused civilian death, like bombing cities, the “collateral damage” of missile and drone strikes, blockades, and sanctions. In other words, talk of genocide functions ideologically to detract from systematic violence against civilians perpetrated by governments. The Problems of Genocide also contends that this violence is the consequence of “permanent security” imperatives: the striving of states, and armed groups seeking to found states, to make themselves invulnerable to threats. To solve the problems of genocide, this book proposes replacing it with permanent security, which should be criminalized.
These demographic transformations caused by partitions and population “transfers” in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia after 1945 were and remain foundational for the postwar order. The imperative to omit this foundational violence from legal proscription and moral purview informed the negotiation and ultimate formulation of each constituent element of the human rights revolution. These states set the threshold of what “shocks the conscience of mankind” to exclude liberal permanent security from legal proscriptions and moral condemnation. The language of transgression we use today narrowed and crystallized at this moment in global history. This chapter reconstructs how the notion of human rights developed as a function of liberal permanent security from the 1920s until the 1940s among British, Czechoslovak, and Zionist politicians and thinkers.
To understand how and why Germans imagined the most radical vision of illiberal permanent security, this chapter suggests that the “political imaginary” offers historians a fruitful way to integrate human agency with historical processes. It shows how an imperialist political imaginary functioned in sections of the German political class between the 1890s and 1930s. Then it examines how Adolf Hitler utilized this imaginary for his own purposes: his raiding of the imperial archive to construct permanent security for Germans. Fearing Germany’s destruction due to its catastrophic territorial and biopolitical losses after the First World War, he concluded that exploitation and genocide had attended European imperial expansion over the centuries. Jews figured as the ultimate enemy in his and Nazi thinking. We will also see that, as a project of imperial conquest, the Nazi empire entailed a consciously radical combination of imperial conquest and settler colonialism.
The academic and popular fixation on Raphael Lemkin confuses biography with historical explanation of the genocide concept. An actual intellectual history of genocide needs to attend to his context rather than rely on his misleading autobiography, Totally Unofficial. His conception of humanity as comprising distinct nationalities did not originate in the liberal cosmopolitanism he postulated upon arriving in the USA, but in a lifelong Zionist commitment to Jewish statehood in Palestine. Similarly, Lemkin couched his appeal to end genocide not in terms of abstract human rights, let alone crimes against humanity, but in relation to an ideal of world civilization whose constituent parts were national, religious, and racial groups. His fixation on such groups and “small nations” led him to ignore the category of “the civilian” and other forms of civilian destruction, such as interwar debate about aerial bombing on cities. In doing so, he contributed to the depoliticization of the language of transgression.