During the summer of 1941, British intelligence began intercepting radio reports from Nazi mobile killing squads in Poland about mass exterminations taking place there in the wake of the German invasion. Not wanting to give away the fact that the British were intercepting these communiqués -- and still not aware of the full dimensions of the Final Solution -- Winston Churchill referred to the information only cryptically in his now-famous August 1941 radio speech when he said, "We are in the presence of a crime without a name."
Once the horrors of the Holocaust became known, the world community vowed solemnly that such things could never be allowed to happen again. Addressing the United Nations on Monday in a special, first-ever session to mark the anniversary of the Jan. 27, 1945 liberation of Auschwitz, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan spoke of the failures of the international community since 1945: "On occasions such as this, rhetoric comes easily. We rightly say 'never again.' But action is much harder. Since the Holocaust the world has, to its shame, failed more than once to prevent or halt genocide."
More than once is right. "The second half of the twentieth century didn't include cases of such large scale" as the Holocaust, says Dr. Ben Kiernan, director of the Yale Genocide Studies Program, "but there were more incidents." Some chalk up the failure of the world powers to stop the killing to the difficulties of defining genocide. Others cite the fact that exact rules for intervention aren't clear enough in international law. Whatever the reason, the world has repeatedly failed in its promise of 'never again.' While there is disagreement about which post-1945 massacres constitute genocide -- some experts say that there have been 37 incidents since 1945 -- there are several that everyone can universally agree upon.
The war for liberation that broke out in March 1971 in Bangladesh stemmed from the election of the Awami League, which demanded independence for Bangladesh, in what was then East Pakistan. The genocidal "Operation Search Light" was carried out against Bengalis by the West Pakistan army as a response. The ten months of killing resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 to 3 million people, mostly Hindus. "Kill three million of them," then-Pakistani President Yahya Khan reportedly said at the time, "and the rest will eat out of our hands." None of the Pakistani generals involved in the genocide has ever been brought to trial, and remain at large.
East Timor, 1975-1999
On December 7th, 1975, after the Portuguese left the island of East Timor in Indonesia following hundreds of years of colonial rule, the Indonesian army invaded, provoking a long war of independence. During the 25 years of struggle, 200,000 East Timorese, or about a third of the total population, are estimated to have been killed. After a referendum for independence was finally held in 1999, violence again broke out, resulting in thousands of deaths as UN peace-keepers stood by.
In April of 1975, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge defeated the US-backed Lon Nol regime in Cambodia and took control of the city of Phnom Phen, and with it the country. Thus began a brutal campaign of mass murder that eventually took the lives of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. Once in power, the regime suspended all civil and political rights and began sending the entire urban population of Cambodia to the countryside to work in the failed agricultural experiment known as the "killing fields," where millions died through execution, forced labor and starvation. The Khmer Rouge rule ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. A UN attempt to create an international court to try Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide failed in 2002 when the Cambodian government couldn't assure UN inspectors it could provide impartial trials.
In the history of Guatemala's bloody 36 years of civil war from 1960 to 1996, the early 80s stand out as a period of particular viciousness. In what became known as "The Silent Holocaust," the Guatemalan army methodically worked its way through the country's Mayan communities, killing men, women and children. A total of 200,000 people died during the war, many thousands of them Mayan victims of genocide.
In the nationalist soup that became the Balkans after communism fell, Bosnian Serbs fought against the Bosnian and Croatian Muslims seeking independence. Over 200,000 Muslim civilians were systematically murdered, and 2 million became refugees. In the spring of 1993, the UN "safe area" of Srebrenica became the site of Europe's worst massacre since World War II while the blue-helmeted troops of the UN peace keeping force stood by doing nothing. More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed. It was during the war in Bosnia that the international community coined the euphemism "ethnic cleansing," thus avoiding the legal responsibilities the term genocide carries. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke called Bosnia "the greatest failure of the West since the 1930s."
After Rwandan President Habyarimana's plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, Hutus in Rwanda began a mobilized campaign of massacre against Tutsis and moderate Hutus that last 100 days and killed 800,000 people. The nation-wide massacres were organized in part by broadcasts like those of Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines, which originally announced the president's death and in the ensuing days called on Hutus to "get to work" ridding Rwanda of its Tutsi population. News of the slaughters caught the world's attention, but again the international community failed to prevent many innocent deaths. Despite the fact that the UN had troops on the ground when the killing began, it refused Commander Roméo Dallaire's request for reinforcements and, in fact, ordered him and his force to withdraw.
Darfur, Sudan, 2004 - ????
While testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2004, Colin Powell concluded that "genocide has been committed in Darfur, and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility, and that genocide may still be occurring." Despite this, both the US and the UN have done little to intervene in the country, where non-Arabs have been singled out and killed by Janjaweed troops supported by the ruling Arab Muslim government. China vetoed a strongly worded UN resolution due to its involvement in Sudan's rich oil fields and the US -- which is hoping to invest in Sudanese oil -- was hesitant to derail the peace process being negotiated to end the north-south civil war that consumed the land for decades until last month's cease fire. Violence in Darfur, however, continues and over 70,000 people have died and more than 1.5 million are refugees.
There is, perhaps, one hopeful sign: The development of the International Criminal Court. "Since 1990 there has been a world response that, although inadequate, is moving in the right direction and may help to deter future cases from occurring," says Kiernan. With the collapse of the Cold War, he says, "there was an increase of ethnic conflict, which in turn lead to an increase in genocides in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. At the same time, though, there has been an increase in prosecution, with the founding of the International Criminal Court and various international criminal tribunals." When the court begins trying cases later this year, Darfur is likely to be one of its first. If nothing else, it may show that the world is finally getting serious.