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The term genocide quickly evokes associations with the Holocaust. However, many other genocides have taken place in recent decades – events hardly known to the general public and not labelled ‘genocide’ as such. The University of Amsterdam’s summer programme ‘Hidden genocides: Overshadowed by the Holocaust’ turns the spotlight on these far less well-known genocides.

Armenian Genocide Memorial, Yerevan Photo: Anthonie Holslag

The term genocide and its definition were formulated in 1943 by the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, using the Armenian issue as an example: the mass murder of hundreds of thousands (or possibly up to a million) Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. According to Lemkin, one of the most important attributes of genocide is the intent to destroy a people or an ethnic group.

 Anthonie Holslag, programme coordinator of the ‘Hidden Genocides’ summer programme, has for years been conducting research into both well-known and lesser-known genocides all over the world. One might call him an activist researcher – in 2014 he wrote an open letter to policymakers sounding the alarm about the situation in northern Iraq. A genocide had been underway in this region for months and something needed to be done immediately, Holslag argued in his letter, which has since been signed by over eighty genocide and human rights  researchers.

Holslag: ‘The world has a responsibility to intervene in the event of genocide – just read what the UN resolutions have to say about this. Currently people too often spend time bickering about whether something constitutes genocide or not.’

The definition of genocide is pretty clear. But there are quite a few genocides that are or were not recognised as such; actually, that’s the theme of the summer programme. How can this happen?

‘Whether something is genocide or not ultimately comes down to a legal decision. It’s essential to have incontrovertible proof, which is often lacking because evidence is covered up. You’ll never find documents signed by a government which say that the state is planning to exterminate an ethnic group. Even in Nazi Germany they never had documents like that. So you have to look for other kinds of evidence – take Treblinka, for instance. They built a so-called railway station there, including a real platform, where music was played when the trains arrived. After leaving the train, sick people had to walk to the left and healthy people to the right. After leaving the platform the sick people were shot dead in a pit while the healthy people were led straight to the gas chamber. Things like this are a pretty clear proof of the intent to kill.   

In other genocides, such as that committed by the Serbs against the Bosnians, the proof is much harder to pin down. But in these cases you can very clearly identify at least several preliminary stages of genocide, such as discrimination and exclusion of specific ethnic groups and the restriction of their rights. So even if according to the legal definition some events cannot not be called genocide, from a social science perspective they certainly can.’

FMG Hidden Genocides - portrait Anthonie Holslag
Anthonie Holslag: 'You can’t participate in this programme without being emotionally affected' Photo: UvA

What hidden genocides are we talking about?

‘There are so many. Take the genocide in Burundi in 1972 – that time the Hutus were the victims of mass murders committed by the Tutsis. Or the three current conflict zones in Africa: the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Congo region. In all these genocides we see the same phases occurring as described by Gregory H. Stanton (Genocide Watch): first the classification of peoples or ethnic groups as “different”, then stigmatisation, then discrimination, exclusion and finally the extermination of these groups. The book Hidden Genocides, which lends its name to our summer programme, gives countless examples. The book’s author, Alexander Hinton (also Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights in Newark), is one of the lecturers at the summer programme.’

Genocide often raises the question: how could things have come to this?

‘That’s something we still need to research a lot more: how do genocides come about, how do you recognise the warning signs, what are the similarities and differences? We already know a fair amount, for instance that it’s not a feeling of superiority that plays a role, but one of inferiority: a people or nation may view itself as a “victim”, for example, and feel an increasing need to invent or reinvent its own identity. In the process, there is another ethnic group that is systematically described as “different” and “inferior”. The “others” are dehumanised, ultimately leading to their extermination.’

It’s a sombre theme.

‘Genocide is a totally devastating and shocking experience for the bereaved and for those involved. Two experts in dealing with trauma in war zones will be coming to give lectures on this theme. One of them is Devon Hinton, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard; he is one of the leading authorities in the field. 
We are aware that the emotional responses of students also play a role. That’s why we are devoting specific attention to this in the summer programme. We are asking students to write a blog in which they describe their feelings about what they read, hear and see during the programme, and it’s something we talk about during the lectures, too. You can’t participate in this programme without being emotionally affected.’