If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: Why Does Genocide Still Happen

After the Holocaust, the world vowed to never again permit the crime of genocide. In the many decades since, genocide and mass violence have played out again, and again. Why?
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What did the United States have to do with the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia?
  2. What group of people did the Iraqi government, under Saddam Hussein, subject to a campaign of mass killing?
  3. What evidence does the author provide that propaganda played a role in the Rwandan genocide?
  4. What groups were involved in the Rwandan genocide?
  5. What evidence is there to suggest that religion played a role in the Bosnian genocide and continues to play a role in the ongoing Rohingya genocide?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Respond to the question posed by the author: “If the common language of the international community is indeed human rights, and genocide continues to happen, what does that say about human rights and the collective morality of our global community?”
  2. Why do you think the macro (big) and micro (small) levels of human interaction meet in a way that allows for thousands and even millions of people to murder each other? Is it a matter of big ideas or small ones?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Why Does Genocide Still Happen?

A photograph of a stone memorial. It is built of several large stone blocks and reads “Never again” in several languages.
By Bennett Sherry
After the Holocaust, the world vowed to never again permit the crime of genocide. In the many decades since, genocide and mass violence have played out again, and again. Why?

Never again

Historian Samuel Moyn has called human rights the "moral lingua franca" of the international community. That is, all countries speak the language of human rights. As you've read, the international horror at Nazi atrocities during World War II is what many historians say led to the rise of human rights. As knowledge of the Holocaust spread, the world promised, "never again."
In the decades since the Holocaust, our species has walked on the moon and created the internet, yet we've made no progress stopping genocide. The military in Myanmar is—at the time of this writing in 2019—committing genocide against the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in that country. Since World War II, in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and many other places, people have committed genocide and mass violence against civilians. Why does genocide still happen? A better question might be: why is genocide not prevented?
A photograph of a stone memorial. It is built of several large stone blocks and reads “Never again” in several languages.
A memorial at Dachau Concentration Camp, with the words “Never Again” written in five languages. Forrest R. Whitesides, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Genocide is organized murder. There are many conditions that leaders must exploit when they start killing civilians within the borders of their country. However, it is the indifference or collaboration of people in other countries that allows genocide to continue. Protection of national sovereignty has repeatedly trumped the lives of civilians. In most cases, the great powers of the world and the United Nations have either failed to act or acted to fail.
Organized violence against groups of people is common to most places and time periods. You've read about the Armenian genocide in the early twentieth century. But in the second half of the twentieth century, the international community reaffirmed "the dignity and worth of the human person" in the United Nations Charter. The UN passed a Convention on the Prevention and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide in 1948. But it was not enforced until 50 years later, when the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda tried those responsible for the Rwandan genocide. Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Sudan, and Myanmar were all party to the convention while genocides occurred within their borders.

Cambodia and Iraq: Genocide during the Cold War

In 1975, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge military government killed 1.7 million people—21 percent of the country's population. Political Scientist Karl D. Jackson claims that the Cambodian genocide was "the greatest per capita loss of life in a single nation in the twentieth century."
A map that the majority of states across the entire world participated in the genocide convention
States participating in the Genocide Convention. By Allstar86, CC BY-SA 3.0.
To understand why the Cambodian genocide started and why no one stopped it, you must understand the American war with Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military bombed Cambodia to kill North Vietnamese guerilla fighters hiding in the countryside, and they killed Cambodian civilians in the process.
Many survivors joined the rebel group known as the Khmer Rouge, fighting against the U.S.-backed Cambodian government.
Led by a former school teacher who called himself Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge seized control of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, in 1975. They quickly sought to eliminate anyone deemed an enemy of the revolution, especially targeting ethnic and religious minorities.
An airplane, flying above the clouds, drops a line of arrow-shaped bombs.
An American B-52 bomber drops bombs on Cambodia in 1969. By the National Museum of the United States Air Force, public domain.
The UN knew of these atrocities early on. Why did no international force act to stop the killing? The five members of the UN Security Council—United States, Soviet Union, China, France, and Britain ¬– had the power to intervene. However, any member of the Security Council can veto an action by the UN. Both the Soviet Union and China refused to violate Cambodia's national sovereignty through UN intervention. These major powers had their own repressive regimes in Eastern Europe and Tibet. They feared a yes vote might set a precedent that could eventually hurt their interests in those regions.
Beyond the inaction of the UN, the United States and China both actively supported the Khmer Rouge. When Vietnam—America's former enemy—invaded Cambodia in 1979 to put an end to the genocide, the United States provided aid to the Khmer Rouge. President Jimmy Carter said that the United States was choosing the "lesser evil." (Yes, just three paragraphs ago in 1975, the Khmer Rouge saw the U.S. as the enemy, but things change fast in war and politics.)
Four thousand miles away from Cambodia and only a few years later, the Iraqi government, led by Saddam Hussein, launched a campaign to kill and subdue Iraq's Kurdish population. The Kurds are a large ethnic minority who live in the land where Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq border each other. In the 1980s, almost a quarter of Iraq's 18 million people were Kurds. The Iraqi government claimed its attacks were aimed at Kurdish terrorists they said were helping Iran attack Iraq. Hussein's military murdered and displaced tens of thousands of Kurdish men, women, and children. Their weapon of choice was poison gas.
As in Cambodia, two members of the UN Security Council supported the state committing genocide. Both the Americans and Soviets provided financial and military aid to Iraq in its war against Iran. The Americans eventually worked with the UN to protect civilians, but that was only after 100,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees crossed the border into Turkey, an American ally.
A photograph shows a pair of green, toddler sized sandals.
Exhumed Shoes of Child Victim of Anfal Genocide, 3rd International Conference on Mass Graves in Iraq, Erbil, Iraq. By Dr. Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Photograph of an artwork made up of the bones of Genocide victims. The artwork is in the shape of a map of Cambodia and is made up of mostly human skulls.
A map of Cambodia made from the bones of victims of the Khmer Rouge, which hung in the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide in Cambodia from 1979 to 2002. BY Donovan Govan, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Bosnia and Rwanda: American indifference after the Cold War

The end of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of its empire in 1991 thrust Eastern Europe into a period of rapid change. The country of Yugoslavia erupted into violence in 1992, when Serbian nationalists exploited the country's religious and ethnic divisions.
A vast field of gravestones.
Gravestones at the Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica. By Michael Buker, CC BY-SA 3.0.
As Serbian generals shelled the Bosnian city of Srebrenica and murdered tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, the UN struggled to stop the violence. Yet the aggressors persisted, and when Western powers failed to provide the necessary money and troops for a UN peacekeeping force, ethnic violence escalated. To make matters worse, the new Russian government blocked any serious UN action in the Security Council. Inaction by the Americans and Europeans and obstruction by the Russians placed UN peacekeepers in danger. Serbian forces captured UN peacekeepers and used them as human shields.
Decolonization was a major shift in the global balance of power. This shift increased tensions in many African nations. In the Central African country of Rwanda, a century of German and Belgian imperialism had divided people on ethnic linesstart superscript, 1, end superscript. When the country gained its independence in 1962, tensions between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority started a cycle of violence. In 1994, it culminated in an attempt by Hutu leaders to eliminate the Tutsi people from Rwanda.
Behind a window, bordered with the words “NEVER AGAIN”, is a display of bones of the victims of Rwandan Genocide.
Display of Skulls of Victims - Courtyard of Genocide Memorial Church - Karongi-Kibuye - Western Rwanda. By Dr. Adam Jones, CC BY-SA 3.0
Hutu militias roamed the countryside killing Tutsi and other minorities, often with a machete in one hand and a radio in the other. The radios played racist propaganda intended to incite regular civilians to murder their neighbors. This radio station was one of the most effective tools of the genocide. And it is a glaring symbol of an international failure to act.
When presented with evidence of genocide, politicians often say, "we didn't know." This is a lie. In one violent example after another, world leaders had detailed knowledge of atrocities like those in Rwanda. The UN had a peacekeeping force on the ground in 1994, and a UN general pleaded for more troops. But, as in Bosnia, the UN failed to find the political will and funding for a larger peacekeeping force. The American government actually tried to remove peacekeepers from Rwanda, and refused even to shut down the radio broadcasts, arguing that it would be too expensive and ineffective. One Pentagon official went so far as to say, "Radios don't kill people. People kill people." In 1994, the Rwandan government and Hutu militias murdered 800,000 people in 100 days.

Darfur and Rakhine: Genocide in the twenty-first century

The twenty-first century is proof that we have failed to learn how to stop genocide. The first genocide of this century started in a western region of Sudan called Darfur in 2003. Like Rwanda, Sudan's independence from Britain in 1956 worsened ethnic and religious divisions. Civil wars between government forces and rebels as well as between Christians and Muslims have resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Millions more children, women, and men have been sexually abused, forced into military service, or forced to leave their homes.
Photograph shows protestors gathered behind metal gates, with signs attached that read “China: Extinguish the Flames of GENOCIDE in Darfur”. People are holding green balloons and signs that read “China: Listen to the Dalai Lama”.
Protesters against China’s support of Sudan in San Francisco, 2008. Note the sign calling for a free Tibet alongside signs urging China to intervene in Darfur. By BrokenSphere, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Many nations, including the United States, at least pressured Sudan to end the killing, with the American government declaring a genocide in Darfur in 2004. But Russia and China have prevented serious action within the Security Council, refusing to violate Sudan's national sovereignty. And while American officials might condemn the violence with words, they have taken few concrete steps to stop the killing. A UN peacekeeping force was deployed to Darfur in 2007, nearly four years after the start of the genocide. This force however, is relatively small and lacks proper funding and support.
In 2017, the military and Buddhist militias in Myanmar launched attacks against the country's Muslim Rohingya minority. Like Rwanda and Sudan, years of European imperialism fueled ethnic tensions. Since 2017, the military and Buddhist majority have carried out a campaign of extermination that has systematically and brutally abused, murdered, and displaced millions of people. The largest refugee camp in the world is a Rohingya camp in Bangladesh.
In 2018, the United Nations declared these atrocities a genocide. In the same year, investigators working for the U.S. State Department agreed. The State Department, however, has refused to officially adopt that language, and a declaration isn't enough to stop bullets. International indifference has condemned hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to death, rape, torture, and homelessness.
A photograph of a baby, seated on the ground on a narrow walking path between rows of thatched huts.
Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Public domain.

Conclusion: Again, and again

Genocide happens because of choices people make. Within a society, hatred makes some people decide to murder people whom they see as different. Other people decide to sit by and allow it to happen, without acting to defend those being attacked. At the international level, as well, genocides continue to happen because the leaders of powerful states decide not to intervene, or not to let the United Nations intervene, to stop it.
Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, argues that early action is critical to stop genocides. Since the Second World War and the Holocaust, major states such as the Soviet Union and China have often voted against intervention to stop genocide. However, Power believes that the United States was the country most capable of stopping genocide. Of all the countries in the world, it had the resources to take action outside the framework of the UN. In almost every case, it chose not to take action. Power argues that the American government's inaction was not a failure of the American system. The system, she says, with understandable cynicism, "is working" as it was intended. She makes the point that "no U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference."
Again, and again, the powerful nations of the world have turned a blind eye to atrocities. Why? In each of the six cases above, a member of the UN Security Council restrained UN action. In several cases, powerful nations—states with the money, power, and influence to prevent genocide—actually gave aid to those killing civilians.
Genocide still happens because the post-WWII international system was not only designed to protect human rights; it was also designed to ensure the power of the powerful. The veto power of the Security Council ensures that the UN cannot act meaningfully to stop genocide if even one of the five permanent members disagrees. Again, and again powerful countries decide to protect the concept of national sovereignty or to advance their own international agendas rather than stop the mass murder of civilians. The international system is not failing. It is operating exactly as it was designed.
If the common language of the international community is indeed human rights, and genocide continues to happen, what does that say about human rights and the collective morality of our global community?
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in History from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a Research Associate at Pitt’s World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

Want to join the conversation?