What led to your visit in Bangladesh?
I ended up coming to Bangladesh about three years ago, mainly linked by the fact that Bangladesh carries a national justice process for the genocide committed in 1971. Argentina, too, carries national trials. Therefore, we try linking scholars from Argentina and Bangladesh, and Cambodia as well, which has a sort of hybrid process of justice.
What is the Latin American experience of coming to terms with genocide?
The experiences are very varied. I would say that the dictatorial processes started in 1954 with the overthrow of President of Guatemalan Árbenz. There are always economic interests behind coups and unrest. Many scholars believe genocide happens in times of war or economic hardship. I think it’s the opposite. I believe the economic system sets the ground for war or economic hardship, deliberately. It is a clear consequence, planned by the financial and economic system that has been in existence since, let’s say approximately, the second half of the twentieth century up until now.
Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay all had dictatorial processes during the 1970s, with the aim of establishing neo-liberal economic policies. Some of the countries never reached any form of justice. For instance, Uruguay put the issue to referendum, but the people voted ‘no’, because they wanted to live in the present, not the past.
In the Christian genocide by ISIS, very few Christian people have been killed. But their culture, their identity and everything that represents them has been destroyed
Brazil did not have any form of justice either. A few years ago before Dilma Rousseff was impeached, she started a national commission to find out about human rights violations during the dictatorial period. Argentina, Chile and Guatemala are the only ones that started national trials for the crimes committed by the States during the dictatorial regimes. Colombia also has an internal justice process for the crimes committed during the internal conflict.
Each of the countries has had different experiences. Argentina and Guatemala recognise genocide. Chile recognises crimes against humanity. Guatemala, in the beginning of this year, finally recognised sexual violence against women in the context of the internal conflict. And this was a big step. Now, sexual violence is included in the peace agreement in Colombia, and it’s not part of the amnesty for the guerrillas, which is very important. Because sexual violence was also committed by the guerrilla organisations.
Bangladesh originally did a lot more for recognising sexual violence compared to the Latin countries, by recognising the ‘biranganas’.
At what point does the genocidal process start? Is it with the slaughter or at the point when the political conditions for genocide are created?
In the original concept of genocide, the term did not mean only mass killing. This is of course my opinion as a genocide scholar. The term was originally established by Raphael Lemkin after the Holocaust, the genocide of the Jewish population. The idea of Lemkin was not to create a term just to describe the physical destruction of a group. It meant the destruction of the identity of the group, which had an enormous cultural aspect to it.
In many cases when a genocide occurs, the actual number of the people killed may not be very high. For instance, in the Christian genocide by ISIS, very few Christian people have been killed. But their culture, their identity and everything that represents them has been destroyed. So, there is a cultural genocide of the Christians, and therefore, there is an actual genocide in the actual understanding of the term.
But the definition of genocide under international law does entail acts carried out to destroy a people, wholly or partially.
Unfortunately, only four groups are included in the Genocide Convention. It was a political decision as well. If you look at the origins of the Genocide Convention, the Rome Statute comes later, but if you look at the 1948 Convention, then you will see that it reflects Lemkin’s original idea. But the General Assembly of the UN later created the definition of genocide in a much narrower way, protecting only four groups: the national, ethnic, racial, and religious. So, any other group that is slaughtered but doesn’t fall within the four groups, it’s not genocide. That is ridiculous. And it violates the principle of equality before the law.
Going back to the original question, when does a genocide begin?
I believe that genocide has a strong economic aspect. Many scholars believe that genocide arises in the context of war or economic hardships, like I said, because the social and political friction can bring about the construction of hate towards a group or groups.
One of the main reasons for 20th century genocides has been colonialism. We have seen that here in the conflict between Pakistan and Bangladesh - segregating groups and creating within the same nation the idea of the ‘other’. When you create the idea of the negative ‘other’, humanity is taken away from that ‘other’ group. We are seeing this in the case of the Rohingya, the discrimination started a long time ago, and we are now seeing an outbreak of very strong violence. The slaughter can actually be the end of the genocidal process, of the total or partial destruction of the group.