Money, Law, and Genocide

excerpted from the book

The Splendid Blond Beast

by Christopher Simpson

Common Courage Press, 1995


... the events of the Armenian Genocide and of the Holocaust ... reveal a basic dynamic in the relationship of great powers to mass crimes. The problem is fundamentally structural; it is built into the system and not simply a product of a particularly evil or inept group of men. The terms of international law concerning war crimes were articulated at the turn of the century primarily by the countries then dominating international affairs: the major European powers, czarist Russia, and the United States. The big powers crafted the Hague and Geneva conventions to help manage the expensive arms race of the day and to set new, ostensibly more rational rules for wars and occupation of disputed territories. The conferees limited "legal" wars to those fought among regular, uniformed armies-a provision that greatly favored the larger and established powers, for they had the clear advantage in such conflicts. They asserted the absolute sovereignty of nationstates over their subjects; declared most revolutions, most forms of civilian resistance to occupying armies, and colonial rebellions to be war crimes; and strengthened the claims of heads of state to legal immunity for acts in office. They set out detailed rules for commerce during wartime that tended to insulate business and trade from the disruptions of war to the greatest degree possible. Nevertheless, these treaties did lead to some important humanitarian advances, particularly in improving treatment of prisoners of war.

This structure for international law was put to the test during World War I, and failed. Despite some amelioration of the conditions for soldiers on the battlefield, the new framework of law did not confront or contain one of the signal crimes of the day: the Turkish Ittihod government's destruction of some one million Armenians. Nor did existing international law achieve justice for the Armenians when the killing was over, in part because Britain, France, and the United States saw greater advantage in cooperating with Turkey in a new division of Middle Eastern oil than they did in bringing Ittihad criminals to justice.

The failure to do justice in the Armenian Genocide can be traced in important part to the overlapping, interlocking dynamics of economics, international law, and mass murder. The more predatory aspects of international law dovetailed well with the destructive social patterns of the Turkish killing. The law proved to be incapable of prosecuting genocide without drawing more "conventional" aspects of colonialism, national development, and international trade into the dock as crimes as well.

The legal and economic precedents set in the wake of World War I had considerable impact on the course of the Holocaust during World War II, just as the more widely understood political precedents did. Hitler himself repeatedly raised the international community's failure to do justice in the wake of the Armenian Genocide to explain and justify his own racial theories, and the Germans' pattern of "learning through doing" genocide was similar in important respects to that of the Turks. While the two crimes were different in important respects, they both were led by ideologically driven, authoritarian political parties that had come to power in the midst of a deep social crisis. Both the Ittihad and the Nazis-each originally a marginal political party-managed to perpetrate genocide by enlisting the established institutions of conventional life-the national courts, commercial structures, scholarly community, and so on-in the tasks of mass persecution and eventually mass murder. In both cases, the ruling party achieved its genocidal aims in part by offering economic incentives for persecution, the most basic of which were the opportunity to share in the spoils of deported people and the ability to transfer the costs of economic crisis onto the shoulders of the despised group.

... The U.S. State Department and its allies orchestrated an effort preserve and rebuild Germany's economy as quickly as possible as an economic, political, and eventually military bulwark against new revolutions in Europe, even though much of the corporate and administrative leadership of German finance and industry that they wished to preserve had been instrumental in Hitler's crimes. Many critics, not least of whom was the U.S. secretary of the treasury, accused this State Department faction of anti-Semitism, blocking rescue of refugee Jews, appeasement of Hitler, and protection of Nazi criminals in the wake of the war.

... The similarities between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust suggest that the "Nazi problem" in postwar Germany is only partially traceable to the pressures of the cold war. Throughout the twentieth century, regardless of the prevailing atmosphere in EastWest relations, most powerful states have attended to genocide only insofar as it has affected their own stability and short-term interests. Almost without exception, they have dealt with the aftermath of genocide primarily as a means to increase their power and i preserve their license to impose their version of order, regardless of the price to be paid in terms of elementary justice.

Several dozen new international treaties intended to defend human rights have been signed since the end of World War II, including conventions against slavery, torture, race and sex discrimination, apartheid, and genocide. Each new agreement suggests that there is broad popular support for fundamental change in this aspect of state behavior and international relations. This sentiment is embodied, albeit imperfectly, in the United Nations, the European Commission on Human Rights, the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights, a similar intergovernmental organization in Africa, the private association Amnesty International, and many other groups that monitor human rights issues and publicize offenses. Today's popular resistance to crimes against humanity is more sophisticated, better equipped, and better informed than ever before in human history.

But the actual implementation of these treaties and the legal framework supporting human rights efforts remains notoriously weak. The horror of the Nazi gas chambers was unambiguously condemned in the wake of the Holocaust, for example, but both sides' practice of bombing civilians (and its tactical cousin, missile attacks on cities) has not only escaped criminal prosecution, it has become the centerpiece of the major powers' postwar national security strategies. Usually there is little effective protest on behalf of the people living under the bombs.3 Similarly, after dragging its heels for four decades, the U.S. Senate in 1986 nnally approved a simple international convention declaring genocide to be a crime. At the same time, however, the senators wrote a restriction into their endorsement that effectively barred any U.S. court from actually enforcing the measure until the Congress passed new implementing legislation-which it has yet to do.4 Such loopholes are present in virtually all international agreements concerning crimes against humanity.

In each of these examples, the institutions purportedly regulated by international agreements have succeeded in creating a legal structure that permits abuses to thrive. For many senior policymakers in the U.S. and abroad, international law remains "a crock," as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, when it imposes any limit on one's own government.

The logical question, then, is, What should reasonable people make of the defects in international law on issues of war, peace, and mass murder? For some, there will be a temptation to conclude that humanity might be better off discarding the present body of international law altogether and somehow start again with a fresh slate.

But there is no such thing as a truly fresh slate, of course. The gutted and imperfect form of international law concerning war crimes and crimes against humanity that is presently embraced by the major powers is better than none at all, at least so long as those who seek the law's protection have no illusions about its scope. Compassion and good sense demand that the best features of international law be preserved and extended, even when existing treaties provide for little more than moral suasion in defense of human rights.

International law has often been a kind of pact between strong and weak nations. Not surprisingly, the powerful have stipulated most of the terms. But the weaker nations and peoples are not powerless, and for manifold reasons they are today gathering force. This means that they can at times obtain the rights and responsibilities written into international laws and legal precedents such as the Nuremberg Charter. The same is true, though to a much lesser degree, for individuals facing brutality at the hands of their governments. International law has to that extent become a tool for human progress; it has sometimes ameliorated the suffering of prisoners, helped contain those who would resort to aggression, and provided some platform, however fragile, for the assertion of basic rights by indigenous peoples.

Perhaps some additional hope for the future can be derived from the way in which the frustrated ideals of an earlier era are sometimes taken quite seriously by later generations. True, many aspects of the Nuremberg principles have yet to be implemented by national and international courts. But millions of people have nonetheless accepted some sense of these principles as a reasonable standard of justice that they have a right to expect. Thus, Nuremberg's impact has sometimes been felt in popular demands for human rights, justice, and humane treatment for the victims of war even in countries where the courts refuse to recognize the Nuremberg principles as legally binding.

For exactly that reason, some powerful nations today view international law and the Nuremberg precedents with greater suspicion than previously. The most powerful forces working against an evenhanded application of international law today are those that have up to now usually gained the most from its terms.

Major powers continue to cynically exploit international law to support propaganda claims against their rivals. They call for strict enforcement of international sanctions when it suits their purpose, but they ignore rulings by international courts when it is opportune to do so. In recent years U.S. administrations (and the media, "opinion leaders," and so on) have consistently invoked international law to justify actions against Libya, Iran, Iraq, Grenada, Panama, and other enemies du jour. U.S. leaders usually present themselves as the only real defenders of international order in a world that would otherwise be cast into anarchy. Yet, they maintain an icy silence when the law is less to their liking, as when the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled that the U.S. mining of Nicaraguan harbors, shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner, and a list of similar acts constituted serious international crimes. The fact that such obvious deceits pass by largely without comment in most parliaments, newspapers, and journals vividly illustrates the extent to which double-think on genocide and human rights remains ingrained in the present world order.

Who then, or what, is the splendid blond beast? It is the destruction inherent in any system of order, the institutionalized brutality whose existence is denied by cheerleaders of the status quo at the very moment they feed its appetite for blood.

The present world order supplies stability and rationality of a sort for human society, while its day-to-day operations chew up the weak, the scapegoats, and almost anyone else in its way. This is not necessarily an evil conspiracy of insiders; it is a structural dilemma that generates itself more or less consistently from place to place and from generation to generation.

Much of modern society has been built upon genocide. This crime was integral to the emergence of the United States, of czarist Russia and later the USSR, of European empires, and of many other states. Today, modern governments continue extermination of indigenous peoples throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, mainly as a means of stealing land and natural resources. Equally pernicious, though often less obvious, the present world order has institutionalized persecution and deprivation of hundreds of millions of children, particularly in the Third World, and in this way kills countless innocents each year. These systemic atrocities are for the most part not even regarded as crimes, but instead are writ- | ten off by most of the world's media and intellectual leadership as acts of God or of nature whose origin remains a mystery.

It is individual human beings who make the day-to-day decisions that create genocide, reward mass murder, and ease the escape of the guilty. But social systems usually protect these individuals from responsibility for "authorized" acts, in part by providing rationalizations that present systemic brutality as a necessary evil. Some observers may claim that men such as Allen Dulles, Robert Murphy, et al. were gripped by an ideal of a higher good when they preserved the power of the German business elite as a hedge against revolution in Europe. But in the long run, their intentions have little to do with the real issue, which is the character of social systems that permit decisions institutionalizing murder to take on the appearance of wisdom, reason, or even justice among the men and women who lead society.

Progress in the control of genocide depends in part on confronting those who would legitimize and legalize the act. The cycle of genocide can be broken through relatively simple-but politically difficult-reforms in the international legal system. It is essential to identify and condemn the deeds that contribute to genocide, particularly when such deeds have assumed a mantle of respectability, and to ensure just and evenhanded punishment for those responsible. But the temptation will be to accept the inducements and rationalizations society offers in exchange for keeping one's mouth shut. The choice is in our hands.

Splendid Blond Beast

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