Thinking about the “G”-word
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 16 2015
“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”
The purpose of language is to convey ideas as succinctly and accurately as possible under the aegis of a common understanding. Definition is crucial. We must define our terms logically, sensibly and consistently if we are to have a productive dialogue – otherwise we are talking at cross-purposes.
Way back in the mists of last century, I worked in the child protection field. The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) sent me a report alleging that 50 % of girls and 25% of boys under the age of 16 in the UK had been victims of child sexual abuse. This was shocking news. When I analysed the raw data of the NSPCC survey, a different picture emerged. One is horrified at the idea of innocent children being raped. However, one might be less upset at girls encountering a flasher or hormonal boys seeking out pornography. The NSPCC’s definition of sexual abuse of children encompassed consensual sexual relations between teenagers below the legal age of consent and obscene language. The NGO was pursuing its fund-raising agenda by propagating sensational statistics, which covered a wide continuum of behaviour. Reading the small print one could see that: “Sexual abuse takes many forms: explicit sexual talk; showing pornography; sexual touching; lack of privacy to bath or undress; masturbation; and sexual intercourse.”
The Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution alleging that successive national governments of Sri Lanka have been following a policy of genocide against Tamils in Sri Lanka.
What is genocide? The etymology is hybrid, coming from genos (Greek for family, tribe, or race) and -cide (Latin for killing). Has the entire race of Tamils in Sri Lanka been killed? Has there been any official plan or policy to exterminate Tamils in Sri Lanka? Is Humpty Dumpty a member of the NPC?
The word “genocide” did not exist until 1943. This does not mean that there was no genocide before that date. Many Irish people believe that Oliver Cromwell engaged in genocide. The ground for Cromwell’s actions was prepared under the Tudors in a manifesto written by the poet Edmund Spenser. In his “View of the Present State of Ireland” (1596), Spenser argued that starvation was the best way to control the fractious Irish. Spenser described how the starving Irish population would “consume themselves and devour one another”.
The Irish quite naturally resisted . Cromwell re-conquered Ireland with a death toll of possibly 40% of the entire Irish population. There was wholesale burning of crops and killing of civilians and many were sent to the West Indies as indentured labourers. A recent book, God’s Executioner by Mícheál Ó Siochrú, is a forceful restatement of the prosecution case that Cromwell’s campaign was genocidal. Cromwell’s programme achieved the almost complete dispossession of the Catholic landed elite. The native ruling classes were destroyed and replaced by the Protestant Ascendancy.
There was a plan. Hitler, Mengele and Baldur von Shirach might have learnt a thing or two from Sir William Petty (1623-87) – mathematician, mechanic, physician, cartographer and statistician – who devised a public-private partnership for “fusing science and policy”. Petty explored the idea of breeding the “meer Irish” out of existence by deporting 10,000 Irishwomen of marriageable age to England every year and replacing them with a like number of Englishwomen.”The whole Work of natural Transmutation and Union would in four or five years be accomplished.” Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal to lampoon Petty’s ideas. Swift suggests that impoverished Irish might profit by selling their surplus children as food for the rich.
Because of the famine that followed the potato blight of 1845, Ireland’s population fell by 25%. One million people died of starvation and typhus. Millions emigrated over following decades. Some 2.6 million Irish entered overcrowded workhouses where more than 200,000 people died. In his book Three Famines, Thomas Keneally, the Australian novelist who wrote Schindler’s List, quotes a contemporary observer: “Insane mothers began to eat their young children who died of famine before them; and still fleets of ships were sailing with every tide, carrying Irish cattle and corn to England”. The 1911 Census showed that Ireland’s population had fallen to 4.4 million, about half of its peak population. Broadcaster and historian Robert Kee suggested that the Irish Famine of 1845 is “comparable” in its force on popular national consciousness to that of the “final solution on the Jews,” and that it is not infrequently thought that the Famine was something very like, “a form of genocide engineered by the English against the Irish people”.
Kee mentioned the horror that is the benchmark for genocide in the 20th Century. There is no doubt that Hitler had long had a plan to exterminate all the Jews in Europe and he succeeded in killing six million of them. It is an affront to logic to give the name of genocide both to what happened to the Jews under the Nazis and to what happened to Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Raphael Lemkin (June 24, 1900 – August 28, 1959) coined the word “genocide”. Lemkin was a Jewish Polish lawyer who immigrated to the United States in 1941. He first used the word in print in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (1944), and defined it as “the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group.”
By Lemkin’s original simple definition, it would seem obvious that many Sri Lankan Tamils are using the word genocide incorrectly and mischievously. Whatever heinous crimes may have been perpetrated against Tamils in Sri Lankan the “ethnic group” has clearly not been “destroyed”. According to the 2012 census, there were 2,270,924 Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka, 11.21% of the population. Sri Lankan Tamils constitute an overwhelming majority of the population in the Northern Province and are the largest ethnic group in the Eastern Province. The current Chief Justice is Tamil and Tamils occupy many senior positions.
Lemkin took an interest in the subject of genocide while studying the killing by Turkish forces of 1.5 million Armenians. In 1913, a triumvirate of Young Turks, consisting of Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal, assumed dictatorial powers and concocted a plan to create a new Turkish empire, a “great and eternal land” called Turan with one language and one religion. On 24 April 1915, Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. There had been prior preparations. In fact, one argument for defining this as genocide is that it had been brewing for at least a century. In 1913, Turks disarmed the entire Armenian population. About forty thousand Armenian men served in the Turkish Army. In the autumn and winter of 1914, all their weapons were confiscated and they were employed as slave labour to build roads or used as pack animals. There was a very high death rate. Along the way, they were frequently set upon by Kurdish tribesmen, who had been given license to loot and rape. Kurds are seen today as victims of the Turkish state but they played a major role in the persecution of Armenians.
It is still dangerous in modern Turkey to talk about the genocide. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk was accused of having violated Section 301 of the Turkish penal code, which outlaws “insulting Turkishness.” An optimistic feature in today’s Turkey is that many non-Armenians are prepared to speak out and many Kurds in particular are taking reconciliatory measures to atone for the crimes of their ancestors.
The simple definition of genocide – the attempt to exterminate an entire race- has been expanded to cover a continuum that undermines the usefulness of genocide as a concept. Tamils who support the NPC resolution say that it fits the UN convention of 1948. According to that genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:
- killing members of the group;
- causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction;
- imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- forcibly transferring children of this group to another group.
To say that the whole GOSL campaign against the LTTE was a genocide against the Tamil people is just plain wrong. To say that genocide has been going on since 1948 is ludicrous. It does not help victims of real child sexual abuse to bump up the statistics by including minor offences. While dirty talk might be unseemly and inappropriate, it is not the moral equivalent of raping a baby. Action should be taken against sexual crimes and against violations of human rights. However, racial discrimination is not on a par with the extermination of a race. It does not help victims (Sinhalese and Muslim as well as Tamil) of the GOSL to pretend that Sri Lanka has had a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao or a Pol Pot or a Cromwell or an Ahmed Djemal. (Although a successful Tamil businessman spoke to me vehemently in those terms about Dickie Jayewardene.)
Martin Shaw is a research professor of international relations at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals and Sussex University best known for his sociological work on war, genocide and global politics. He is a frequent contributor to the website Open Democracy. I asked Professor Shaw about the question of genocide in Sri Lanka but he hedged and prevaricated. Commenters on Open Democracy have been critical of his writings on genocide. “What Shaw and his post-modernist ilk contend is that we should move in the opposite direction and expand definitions to points ad infinitum.”
Dr Rhadhika Coomaraswamy has been described as a brilliant scholar and there is no doubt that she is a doughty champion of human rights. She was the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict until 13 July 2012. She wrote in response to the NPC resolution: “some Tamil nationalist lawyer has suddenly woken up to the fact that if we use the “G” word then there is a legal case for a separate state. This of course is a delusion of theoretical lawyers… Accountability for war crimes and human rights violations is a completely different frame of action than the claim for a separate state”. She continued: “We as a community have had enough of all this name-calling- genocide, traitor, nation- all that is just unnecessary hyperbole at this time in our history. There are so many problems that have to be solved through discussion and dialogue that affect people in their everyday life”.
Dr Coomaraswamy argues that it is time to abandon the victim mentality that lies behind the NPC resolution: “Let us regain our self -respect and our self-confidence, stand tall, look our Sinhalese and Muslim brothers and sisters in the eye, start acting as their equals and begin to build lasting partnerships.”