Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in Our Times: from the Holocaust to the Rohingyas

Ben Kiernan

This article has been modified from a lecture at Trinity College Dublin, November 2017.

In August 1941, Winston Churchill described Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union: “whole districts are being exterminated. . .  Since the Mongol invasions of Europe in the Sixteenth Century, there has never been methodical, merciless butchery on such a scale . . . We are in the presence of a crime without a name.” News was also leaking out about the ongoing Nazi slaughter of nearly six million Jews in Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic states, and other Nazi-occupied territories. In 1943, the Polish Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” for the Holocaust of the Jews, the Armenian Genocide in World War One, and other cases in global history. In 1945, the world said “Never Again.”

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide came into force as an international treaty in 1950. It has been signed and ratified by 140 nations. The Convention defines genocide as acts such as “killing members of the group” that are perpetrated with the intent to destroy, “in whole or in part,” a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Acts of genocide also include “[d]eliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”

Three points are worth making about genocide in international law:

1) political and social groups are not protected by the Genocide Convention – only national, ethnic, racial and religious groups. Social scientists object to this. Judges have to ignore them.

2) it is not necessary for a perpetrator to intend to destroy an entire group. Acts committed with the intent to destroy a substantial part of a protected group constitute genocide.

3) the perpetrator’s motive is not mentioned in the 1948 Convention. The particular motive or purpose of the crime is irrelevant in determining guilt. Racial hatred, like that of the Nazis for Jews, may be the main motive. But the motive for other genocides may be, for instance, territorial conquest, economic gain, or religious domination. The intent is what matters: that the destruction of the group is consciously desired. So, although the Holocaust gave rise to the term “genocide,” not all cases of genocide are the same, or perhaps as extreme, as the Holocaust.

The term “ethnic cleansing” was used in World War Two and then again by Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s. It means the forcible expulsion of a community from its home region. Ethnic cleansing can be accomplished by committing genocidal massacres to terrorise survivors and make them flee, or it can be achieved without genocide. But it too is a crime against international law. In 2002 the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ratified by 119 states) recognized that forced displacement and deportation, even in peacetime, constitute Crimes against Humanity when they are “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.”

Since the Nazi Holocaust, “extermination” has also been a crime against humanity. Extermination is slightly different from genocide. It includes massacres, but also “the intentional infliction of conditions of life,” that is “calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population.” The purpose of these crimes is not relevant to guilt, nor do charges of crimes against humanity require proof of specific “intent to destroy” a group. And in the case of a crime against humanity like extermination, unlike genocide, the persecuted group could be a social or a political group.

Although many regard genocide as a twentieth-century phenomenon, only the term itself and the 1948 criminalization of the act are specific to the twentieth century. Similar acts, and similar concepts, have existed for millennia. Examples are mentioned in the Bible, and by Thucydides. Rome committed genocide against Carthage in 146 BC. Crusaders perpetrated genocidal massacres against Jews in Europe and against Arabs and Jews in Palestine. Mongols committed genocide against several thriving cities in the thirteenth century. In the fifteenth, Vietnam perpetrated genocide against the neighbouring kingdom of Champa. In the sixteenth century Spaniards did so in Hispaniola, as did Japanese invading forces in Korea.

Though the term “genocide” did not yet exist, the concept and the acts did, and other terms served. In 1574 England’s Earl of Essex drew up a plan for Ulster, to ensure that “the Rebell shalbe utterlie extirped.” O’Neill resistance, Essex wrote to London, demanded war “to expulse him, and utterlie to roote him out, or else so to weaken him by takinge awaie his dependanntes.” To achieve that, Essex’s troops surprised several hundred Clandeboye O’Neills at a Christmas feast, and slaughtered them. Essex sent London an unconvincing denial: “I never mente to unpeople the Cuntrie Clandyboy of their naturall inhabitanntes.” But he had.  

Soon afterwards in the southern Irish province of Munster, an English officer wrote of “pitifull murther, for man, woman and child were put to the sworde.” Captain William Pelham recorded how in 1580, “We . . . executed the people wherever we found them.” The Earl of Ormond reported putting to the sword “about 4000 common people caught in cabin and field.” The Irish Annals of the Four Masters recorded that “they killed blind and feeble men, women, boys and girls, sick persons, idiots and old people”.

Edmund Spenser described how English forces then starved Munster by preventing people from farming. “Out of every corner of the woods and glynnes they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legges could not beare them; they looked like anatomies of death, they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves; . . . that in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentifull countrey suddainely left voyde of man and beast.” Lord Burghley said that Munster had been “dispeopled.”

As European colonialism expanded across the world and settlers took up new lands from indigenous peoples, they provoked local resistance, and genocide was sometimes the result. Almost the entire continents of North America, Australia, and Africa were conquered by American and European empires in the nineteenth century alone. Genocides occurred on all three continents.

By 1900, the world had become smaller, the great powers greater, and contests for territory closely fought. A new phenomenon emerged: genocides perpetrated by dictatorships that had seized control of tottering, shrinking, or new empires, aiming to reverse territorial losses or conquer new regions from established powers.

The twentieth century offered mass murderers new technological, political, or organizational opportunities. Large-scale armaments production, telegraph communications, widespread civilian enlistment into military organizations, and rapid mass transportation by land and sea all facilitated projects as ambitious and extensive as genocide. The advent of “total war” and totalitarianism now offered prospective genocidists not only cover and ideological rationales for their crimes but unprecedented efficiency.

Greater population pressure on the land also increased the numbers of potential victims. The estimated worldwide population, which doubled to nearly 1 billion from 1500 to 1800, almost doubled again in the nineteenth century, to around 1.75 billion people by 1910. Land became scarcer, and human resources in less demand. For expansionist regimes, mass killing now presented potentially greater benefits with less risk of labor shortages. For new twentieth-century totalitarian party-states propounding race or class ideologies, entire groups of people became inimical or expendable. While the Nazis pursued their racial victims and territorial conquests, the Communist giants, Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China, pursued mass killing of domestic political enemies and social “classes.”

During the Cold War that followed the Nazis’ defeat, political massacres and genocides occurred on both sides. In 1965-66, the U.S.-backed Indonesian army supervised the murder of half a million or more communists and alleged communists, and then went on a decade later to invade East Timor and kill another hundred thousand people in what a UN-sponsored Truth Commission called “extermination as a crime against humanity.” In 1971 the Pakistani military conducted a genocide in Bangladesh, and in 1975 Pol Pot’s Cambodian Communist Party took power and subjected Cambodia to a genocide that ended 1.7 million lives in four years. The Guatemalan military regime committed genocide against ethnic Mayan Indians in 1981-83.

Throughout this Cold War period, the 1948 Genocide Convention was never enforced. The United States did not even ratify the Convention until 1988.

The end of the Cold War saw no reduction in the occurrence of genocides, but it finally ushered in the first enforcement of the Genocide Convention. War crimes committed in Bosnia provoked the UN Security Council to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to try perpetrators like Ratko Mladic. Then the 1994 Rwandan genocide of the country’s Tutsi minority, in three months the fastest episode of mass killing since the Holocaust, obliged the UN to set up another tribunal for Rwanda. In 1998, the former mayor of Kigali became the first person to be convicted of genocide in an international court, fifty years after the Genocide Convention came into being.  

As the court found in convicting Mladic last year, the massacre of Bosnian Muslim men at Srebrenica in 1995 fit the international legal definition of genocide. To “totally destroy North Korea,” a country of 25 million people, as Donald Trump threatened to do in 2017, would also be to commit genocide. The same applies to the threats of Kim Jong-un’s North Korean regime, which asserted: “The four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb,” adding that “Japan is no longer needed to exist near us.” And, the statement went on, “Let’s reduce the U.S. mainland into ashes and darkness.” North Korea and the United States are both signatories to the Genocide Convention. In Trump’s case it was unprecedented for a leader of a state that has signed it to mount a U.N. platform, as he did in the General Assembly last year, and flout this core component of international criminal law. The UN Security Council, of which the United States is a member, is charged with implementing the Convention, and Trump’s threats of genocide, even if not carried out, only weakened its mandate.

In 2017 the fate of the Rohingyas in Burma, or Myanmar, became the most pressing current case of ethnic cleansing. In September, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called their mistreatment a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. UN Secretary-General António Guterres added: “When one third of the Rohingya population had to flee the country, can you find a better word to describe it?” By the end of 2017, about 700,000 Rohingyas had fled into Bangladesh.

A Muslim minority of approximately 1.4 million in a largely Buddhist country, Rohingyas have lived in the Arakan region of what is now Burma since the 15th century or earlier. In 1799, the British scholar Francis Buchanan wrote of the Rohingya people as “long settled in Arakan.” He mentioned “three dialects, spoken in the Burma Empire, but evidently derived from the language of the Hindu nation.” One was “that spoken by the Mohammedans, who have long settled in Arakan, and who call themselves Rooinga, or natives of Arakan.”[1]

When British colonial rule ended in 1948, the Rohingyas became citizens of a democratic, independent Union of Burma. But the Burmese army seized power there in 1962, and deprived Rohingyas of their citizenship in 1982. Meanwhile military abuses and pressure on them only increased.

In 1978, more than 200,000 Rohingyas fled into Bangladesh from their homes in Burma’s Rakhine (Arakan) State. From late 1991 to mid-1992, another 250,000 Rohingya refugees crossed the border. Burmese military personnel had reportedly warned two women who arrived in Bangladesh in January 1994 that they should leave the country. “Why are you staying here?,” they asked one of the women, who was “specifically told by the military that she would be beaten by the military personnel.”[2]

The oppression continued, provoking resistance, and escalated into the current crisis after the 2015 elections brought into government the longtime political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). On October 9, 2016, “Rohingya men and boys armed mostly with sticks and knives attacked three police outposts, reportedly killing nine police.” In a massive overreaction, the Myanmar Army led attacks “on Rohingya civilians in approximately 40 villages in Maungdaw Township, displacing more than 94,000 civilians.”[3]

On August 25, 2017, a small Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked military posts. The army, now alleging that the insurgents were affiliated with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), escalated its attacks on Rohingyas as a group. Commentator John Pennington noted that ARSA’s predecessor organization, The Faith Movement, “was launched in 2012 by exiled Rohingyas in Saudi Arabia,” but that “there is no evidence suggesting ARSA and ISIS have joined forces.”[4]

In December 2017, the head of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, took the matter to another level when he said that “that Myanmar’s security forces may be guilty of committing genocide.” On February 1, 2018, the Associated Press published detailed evidence of five mass graves of Rohingya victims of “systematic slaughter.”[5]

The U.N. special envoy on human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, concurred that the Myanmar army's violence against Rohingya Muslims bears “the hallmarks of a genocide.” Lee told reporters that she couldn’t make a definitive declaration about genocide until a credible international tribunal or court had weighed the evidence, but “we are seeing signs and it is building up to that.” She described her recent visit to refugee camps in Bangladesh and other areas in the region to discuss the Rohingya crisis. The government of Myanmar refused her entrance to the country.

Yanghee Lee added that “we've called for a fact finding mission ... and access for international media” to the areas in northern Rakhine state where the Rohingya live. Lee said that Myanmar's actions were “amounting to crimes against humanity.” “These are part of the hallmarks of a genocide,” she said. “I think Myanmar needs to get rid of this baggage of 'did you or did you not,' and if proven that they did, then there has to be responsibility and accountability. No stones must be left unturned because the people, the victims, the families of the victims definitely deserve an answer,” she went on.[6]

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, head of the UN Human Rights Council, reiterated this accusation more strongly on March 7, when he warned that the brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims by the government of Myanmar since August 2017 may be classified as “acts of genocide.”[7] He told the Human Rights Council of the bulldozing of mass graves in what he considers a “deliberate attempt by the authorities to destroy evidence of potential international crimes, including possible crimes against humanity.”

After decades of military violence against them, and the NLD’s silent neglect, it is perhaps predictable that ISIS might find some sympathizers among the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. Targeting all Rohingya, however, is ethnic cleansing or genocide, an international crime. China aids the Burmese regime and shields it from UN Security Council action, while the Burmese military, backed by Aung San Suu Kyi, has continued to block a UN inquiry commission.[8]

In the absence of an official UN commission, over a 21-month period the non-government organization Fortify Rights gathered testimony from 254 survivors, officials and aid workers. On July 19, 2018, it released a 162-page report entitled “They Gave Them Long Swords”: Preparations for Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity Against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar. This report documented “eight crimes against humanity—murder, extermination, rape, deportation or forcible transfer, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, and persecution—as well as three acts of genocide committed with a special intent to destroy the Rohingya in whole or in part.”[9]

Importantly the report also documented the preparations, which began after the attacks of October 2016, for these crimes. According to Fortify Rights, from that date “the Myanmar military and civilian authorities: 1) “disarmed” Rohingya civilians, systematically collecting sharp or blunt objects from Rohingya civilian homes; 2) systematically tore down fencing and other structures around Rohingya homes, providing the military with a greater line-of-sight on civilians; 3) trained and armed local non-Rohingya citizens in northern Rakhine State; 4) deprived Rohingya civilians of food and other aid, systematically weakening them physically; 5) built up state security forces in northern Rakhine State to unnecessary levels;” and imposed discriminatory curfews against Rohingya civilians.[10]

The 2017 crimes against humanity and genocide were perpetrated by at least 27 army combat battalions composed of 11,000 troops and 900 members of three police combat battalions.[11]

Fortify Rights also reported that in both 2016 and 2017, “a large number of soldiers acting under military control” committed crimes in northern Rakhine State without interruption over many months, “in a similar fashion throughout multiple locations.” In some cases, “Myanmar Army commanders were physically present while assemblages of soldiers raped and gang-raped women and girls, fatally shot and cut the throats of men, women, and children, and burned people to death, including infant children. Eyewitness testimony shows that in multiple locations and on similar timelines, Myanmar Army soldiers massacred large numbers of civilians and discarded their bodies in mass graves or burned piles of bodies, all in the presence of large numbers of soldiers. The fact that different bands of soldiers performed these same actions repeatedly and across disparate locations further suggests knowledge by commanders of the crimes.”[12]

The genocidal persecution of the Rohingyas and the purported appearance of ISIS in Burma are symptoms of the challenges the international community faces. The 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq, based on the false premise of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and conducted without UN support, spawned an international insurgency that transformed into ISIS. It seized territory in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. It conducted genocide against Yazidis in Iraq, ethnic cleansing against Shia Muslims and Arab Christians, and war crimes against Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian forces. Now losing ground in the Middle East, ISIS is active in Southeast Asia. Its fearful reputation, and the apparently false report of its activity in Myanmar have only fuelled the violent Islamophobia of the Burmese military and Rakhine Buddhist activists, and sparked off the region’s worst episode of ethnic cleansing and quite possibly genocide since Pol Pot’s genocide of ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims in the late 1970s.

While the Myanmar military was carrying out criminal acts against the Rohingya people in 2017, Donald Trump was threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea, and China blocked any UN investigation into the plight of the Rohingyas. The great powers must reform their reckless rhetoric and dangerous policies, and set to work to tackle this continuing international tragedy. The United States and China should cooperate with the UN to end genocide.


[1] Francis Buchanan, “A Comparative Vocabulary of Some of the Languages Spoken in the Burma Empire,” Asiatic Researches 5 (1799): 219-240, reprinted in SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 1, No., 1, 2003, p. 55.

[2] U.S. Committee for Refugees, The Return of the Rohingya Refugees to Burma: Voluntary Repatriation or Refoulement ?, Issue Paper, Washington, D.C., 1995, pp. 1, 3, 13.

[3] “They Gave Them Long Swords”: Preparations for Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity Against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, Myanmar, Fortify Rights, July 2018,, p. 11.

[4] “What are the links between the Rakhine Crisis and ISIS ?,” ASEAN Today, October 23, 2017,

[5] “AP finds mass graves, latest evidence of Rohingya genocide in Myanmar”, CBS, Associated Press, February 1, 2018,

[6] UN says Myanmar's treatment of Rohingya Muslims has the 'hallmarks of genocide'”, Business Insider, Associated Press, February 1, 2018,

[7] Stephanie Nebehay and Simon Lewis, “‘Acts of genocide’ suspected Against Rohingya in Myanmar: U.N.,” Reuters, March 7, 2018,

[8] “They Gave Them Long Swords”, p. 40.

[9] Ibid., p. 13.

[10] Ibid., p. 41.

[11] Ibid., pp. 14, 115, 131; see also Hannah Beech, “Myanmar Military is Accused of Plotting Genocide,” New York Times, July 20, 2018.

[12] “They Gave Them Long Swords”, p. 123.