"The Holocaust is the basis for genocide"

Rwandans place the skulls of several hundred Tutsi civilians into bags after a memorial for 12,000 Tutsi massacred by Hutu militia in and around the western town of Kaduha in 1994 Reuters

Humans are pre-programmed for mass murder, a Jewish academic tells at a forum on the prevention of genocide.

This content was published on April 6, 2011 minutes

Nevertheless, Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes himself as a “realistic optimist”.

Bauer was one of many experts and state representatives speaking at the Third Regional Forum on the Prevention of Genocide, held in Bern and organised with the foreign ministries of Argentina and Tanzania.

In his opening speech, Peter Maurer, the Swiss secretary of state for foreign affairs, said genocide was the worst violation of human rights, adding that despite international and regional efforts a lot of work remained to prevent it. He said decisions and measures were often taken too late. You say there have been 55 cases of genocide since the Second World War, resulting in tens of millions of victims. Will it ever be possible to prevent genocide?

Yehuda Bauer: It is possible because humans have conflicting capacities. On the one hand, we are pre-programmed in a way for mass murder, which has been going on since time immemorial and before that; and on the other hand, because we live in herds – whether we call it clans, tribes, nations, ethnicities or whatever – we have developed the capacity for sympathy and love and cooperation. These two preconditions in the human make-up fight each other all the time.

So it’s possible to prevent genocide, but it’s extremely difficult because of conflicting economic and political interest. There has been progress, no doubt about it. International law has developed. Three or four hundred years ago no conference such as this could have possibly taken place because people just didn’t care when millions of people were killed.

That said, there has been too little progress and if we don’t try to prevent it in the foreseeable future, there will most certainly be more genocides. [Prevention] can’t happen from one day to the other – it’s a process which will inevitably have ups and downs, but it is a possibility. Peter Maurer said one achievement of such forums is the lowering of the threshold to discussing genocide and the international responsibility to protect. What did he mean?

Y.B.: One can today talk about [genocide] and get responses, which one couldn’t get two generations ago. And I think Switzerland has been a leader in this. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union so it doesn’t depend on 27 foreign ministers to make a decision. And its leadership is absolutely crucial as a neutral state without any major economic interests in Asia, Africa or wherever.

It’s extremely important that a country like Switzerland should take the lead – a small country that can then influence the United Nations and the Security Council through creating these alliances with other states on these issues. What lessons can we learn today from the Holocaust?

Y.B.: The Holocaust is the basis, because it is the most extreme case of genocide so far – not because the Jews suffered more than anyone else, but because the plan was to murder a whole people without any exception, to the last person. This is unprecedented.

After that people said, “look, we’ve got to do something”. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (see box) was based on the Holocaust and on the genocide of the Polish people, because it says “in whole or in part”. The whole was the Jews and the part was the Poles. And that was the basis for the convention; the Holocaust is the base from which genocide has to be discussed. Speaking to you, I don’t know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. What are you?

Y.B.: If I wasn’t an optimist, I wouldn’t do this. But I’m a very realistic optimist, so I realise the tremendous dangers. The genocide in Darfur was not prevented because of a Chinese veto – it wasn’t actually a veto, they said they would veto if [the other countries] did something against the Sudanese government that was killing the people in Darfur. Why? Because [China] had oil interests there and because in principle they were against the intervention in the sovereignty of another people. That was because they didn’t want anyone to intervene in their sovereignty.

So the question of sovereignty and a multinational approach is still there. You find it in the Middle East, in Israel, in other places – “we insist on our sovereignty!” This is all wrong. Sovereignty has its limits. If you do irresponsible acts, then somebody from the outside should stop it – not militarily but in other ways.

Yehuda Bauer

Yehuda Bauer is Professor Emeritus of History and Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and academic advisor to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial centre and education and research institute.

Bauer was born in Prague in 1926. His family migrated to Israel in 1939.

He received his PhD in 1960 for a thesis on the British Mandate of Palestine. 

In 1961, he began teaching at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was the founding editor of the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.   

In 1998, he was awarded the Israel Prize, the highest civilian award in Israel, and in 2001 he was elected a member of the Israeli Academy of Science.

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Definition of genocide

[…] genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

(Source: the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide)

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Genocide Forum

The Third Regional Forum on the Prevention of Genocide was held in Bern from April 4-6.

Main issues up for discussion included: How can genocide be prevented? What roles and responsibilities do state and non-state actors have? How can states guarantee the protection of civil populations? What lessons can be learnt from the past?

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