Genocide and (Ongoing) Colonisation

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How should we understand indigenous peoples’ cultural and physical destruction that often occurs gradually, sometimes abruptly, within the (colonial) states in which they live? Many indigenous peoples are of the view that their lived experience as colonised peoples should be seen as a genocidal process. Such as suggestion is frequently met with derision and condemnation both from politicians resistant to indigenous ‘claims’ and also from some quarters of the scholarly community who see genocide simply as mass killing. In what follows, I will show that the indigenous understanding of genocide is far more consistent with the original meaning of the term than those who seek to dimmish their experience as colonised peoples.

A key strand of recent genocide scholarship focuses on the link Raphael Lemkin, who invented the concept, made between colonisation processes and genocidal practices.[1] Lemkin defined the genocide concept as being ‘intrinsically colonial’[2] when he stated that once the ‘national pattern’ of a victim group had been destroyed, the act of genocide involved the imposition of the ‘national pattern’ of the colonial oppressor.[3] Drawing on this connection, some contemporary writers like Churchill[4] concur that where the practice of imposing the ‘national pattern’ of the colonial oppressor is the result of governmental ‘policy’, it should indeed be considered genocidal. Jean Paul Sartre famously stated that ‘Colonialization is… necessarily a cultural genocide’[5]. This view has since been expanded by others such as Claudia Card who describes genocide as a ‘social death’[6]. For Mohammed Abed, it is this ‘social death’ that makes acts genocidal,[7] while Lemkin wrote that: ‘the destruction of cultural symbols is genocide’.[8] To destroy their function ‘menaces the existence of the social group which exists by virtue of its common culture’.[9]Lemkin also recognised that national groups do not last forever, and differentiated between cultural change and cultural genocide, when nations eitherfade away after having exhausted their spiritual and physical energies’[10] and ‘when they are murdered on the highway of world history. Dying of age or disease is a disaster but genocide is a crime’.[11]

It could be argued that the physical destruction of indigenous people cannot be described as ‘genocide’ since they are not intentionally being targeted for who they are, but rather are simply in the way of the colonizers, the land they seek to possess and an expansionist economic system, or as Rose deftly stated ‘to get in the way of settler colonization, all the native has to do is stay at home’.[12] Many scholars have sought to counter that argument, including Aimé Césaire who declared that ‘no one colonizes innocently’[13] and Curthoys who concluded that: ‘to seek to take the land whatever the consequences… is surely a genocidal process’.[14] Abed asserts that many indigenous groups are ‘territorially bounded’.[15] For him, therefore, removing these groups from their land or to control their interaction with that land is inevitably a genocidal practice. As Wolfe explains: ‘Land is life- or, at least, land is necessary for life. Thus, contests for land can be – indeed, often are – contests for life’.[16]

If, since the initial point of colonisation, contests for land and, therefore, life are ongoing, it seems logical to assume that the destruction of the ‘native’ population – within the colonized territory – becomes a likely possibility. This settler privilege inherent in this form of colonialism arguably ‘denies human rights to human beings whom it has subdued by violence… since the native is subhuman, the Declaration of Human Rights does not apply to him’.[17] We can see that for Lemkin, genocide was the attempted annihilation of a group by a variety of actions aimed at undermining the foundations necessary for the survival of the group as a group. So what about  indigenous peoples in the world today, and specifically those living under settler colonial rule? How should we think about the continued assimilationist pressures they face from the spread of global capitalism?

Regardless of whether indigenous peoples live in wealthy states like Canada, the USA, Australia or countries in South America and Africa, their stories of dispossession, environmental degradation, and appalling social statistics including endemic suicide, very high levels of infant mortality and exotic diseases are remarkably similar. Indeed, a study by the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit highlights ‘the extraordinary similarity of experiences of Indigenous Peoples across the Commonwealth – between those in First World Countries and those in Third World countries’.[18]Such ‘conditions of life’ are leading increasing numbers of indigenous representatives to describe their present situation in terms of genocide. As Australian aboriginal academic and activist Larissa Behrendt states:

‘use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe the (indigenous) colonial experience has been met with scepticism from some quarters…Yet the political posturing and semantic debates do nothing to dispel the feeling Indigenous people have that this is the word that adequately describes our experience as colonised peoples.[19]

The genocidal ‘logic of elimination’[20] that informed frontier massacres in places like Australia and North America, and the assimilationist agendas that emerged once it was clear that the natives would not ‘die out’, can in more recent times be found underpinning settler colonial expansionist land grabs driven by global capitalism. Indeed, after 1945 traditional colonial terror was transformed into a ‘genocide machine’ as the nature of capitalist domination became less overtly racist and more attuned to American corporate imperatives.’[21] Driven by corporate agendas governments frequently dispossess indigenous groups through industrial mining and farming, but also through military operations and even national park schemes – all of which routinely take no account of core indigenous rights.[22] But of all such activities, it is extractive industries which pose perhaps the biggest threat to indigenous peoples’ survival, for it is not just the accompanying dispossession which they bring but also the ecocidal ‘externalities’ of pollution and environmental degradation. A particularly acute example of it is the ‘tar sands’ mining project in Northern Alberta, Canada, an undoubted ‘ecocide’ that is producing horrendous environmental destruction with quite predictable consequences for human health.[23] Environmental pollution from the tar sands[24] has been linked to high levels of deadly diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma and colon cancer[25], in indigenous communities.[26] For George Poitras, a Mikisew Cree First Nation member affected by tar sands mining in Fort Chipewyan Alberta, the battle with industrial mining over land and resources comes down to the fundamental right to exist:

‘if we don’t have land and we don’t have anywhere to carry out our traditional lifestyle, we lose who we are as a people. So if there’s no land, then it’s equivalent in our estimation to genocide of a people.’[27]

We can see here that the victims of these policies seem to appreciate Lemkin’s assertion that genocide attacks the ‘essential foundations of the life of national groups’, much more than those writers who insist on the centrality of violent destruction for a finding of genocide. But of course, most indigenous peoples will have suffered forms of violent physical destruction at some point in the history of their colonisation such that their current cultural destruction should be seen as the tail end of a singular genocidal process that invariably began with direct physical destruction. Moreover, physical destruction need not be direct but can of course be achieved indirectly through inflicting on the group ‘conditions of life’ (such as dispossession and environmental destruction) which lead to that end. Those indigenous peoples who are currently invoking the term genocide to describe their current experiences, such as the Mikisew Cree mentioned above, are invariably referring to both physical (albeit indirect and latent) and cultural destruction.

Indigenous cultural distinctiveness and traditional knowledge systems may not just be vital form them, but for humankind more generally in the face of our ecological crisis. The possibility of viable human adaptation and survival in an even harsher environment is currently being undermined by the continuing culturally genocidal policies inflicted on indigenous peoples by settler colonial authorities. If we consider how we have responded as a species to environmental changes in the past, unlike other creatures that adjusted to change in their environment through gradual biological adaptation, humans generally created innovative ways to live and communicate, and passed such knowledge down to their children. Cultural diversity – the multitude of ways of living and communicating knowledge – gave humans an adaptive edge; developing analytical tools to identify and assess change in their environment to search out or devise new strategies, and to communicate and incorporate these strategies throughout their group. As anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston points out, ‘for the human species, culture is our primary adaptive mechanism’[28]. The continued cultural and ecological genocidal pressures on indigenous people around the world endanger not just their own survival as distinct peoples but also the adaptation potential for humanity.

[1] See e.g. Leo Kuper, Genocide: its political use in the twentieth century (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1981), Tony Barta, ‘After the Holocaust: Consciousness of Genocide in Australia’, The Australian Journal of Politics and History. 31, 1 (1985) 154-161, John Docker, ‘Are settler-colonies inherently genocidal?’ in Empire, Colony Genocide Conquest, Occupation and Subaltern Resistance in World History ed. Dirk Moses (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2008), Ann Curthoys, ‘Genocide in Tasmania’ in Empire, Colony Genocide Conquest, Occupation and Subaltern Resistance in World History ed. Dirk Moses (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2008) and Dirk Moses, ‘Empire, Colony, Genocide, Keywords and the Philosophy of History’ in Empire, Colony Genocide Conquest, Occupation and Subaltern Resistance in World History ed. Dirk Moses (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2008).

[2] Moses, ‘Empire, Colony Genocide’, 9.

[3] Lemkin, Axis rule in occupied Europe, 79.

[4] In Adam Jones, ed., Genocide, War Crimes and the West: History and Complicity (London: Zed Books, 2004), 80.

[5]Jean Paul Sartre, ‘On Genocide’ (1967) www.brusselstribunal.org/GenocideSartre.htm (Accessed 09-06-2012).

[6] Claudia Card, ‘Genocide and Social Death’, Hypatia 18, no.1 (2003).

[7] Mohammed Abed, ‘Clarifying the Concept of Genocide’ Metaphilosophy, 37, 3-4, (2006), 326 pp. 308-330.

[8] Lemkin, quoted by Moses, ‘Empire, Colony, Genocide’, 12.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lemkin n.d. quoted by Dirk Moses, ‘Raphael Lemkin, Culture and the Concept of Genocide’ in The Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies, Donald Bloxham and Dirk Moses eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 27, 19-41.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Deborah Bird Rose, Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hill Stations (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991), 46.

[13] Aimé Cesaire, ‘Discourse on Colonialism’ (1955) www.bandung2.co.uk/Books/Files/Politics/Discourse on Colonialism.pdf

[14] Curthoys, ‘Genocide in Tasmania, 246.

[15] Abed,‘Clarifying the Concept’, 326.

[16] Patrick Wolfe, ‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native’, Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 8(4), December 2006, 387, 387–409.

[17] Jean Paul Sartre ‘Introduction’ in Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (London: Earthscan Publications, 1990), 22.

[18]See www.cpsu.org.uk/index.php?id=75 .  For a detailed discussion on these issues see Samson and Short (2006) ‘Sociology of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights’, in Morris, L. (2006) (ed) Rights: Sociological Perspectives, London: Routledge.

[19] Behrendt, L. (2001) Genocide: The Distance Between Law and Life. Aboriginal History Vol. 25, pp132-147, p.132

[20] Wolfe, P 2008,

[21] Davis and Zannis in Dirk Moses, (2002) ‘Conceptual blockages and definitional dilemmas in the ‘racial century’: genocides of indigenous peoples and the Holocaust’. Patterns of Prejudice, 36(4), (2002) pp.7-36.p24.

[22] In particular the right to ‘free prior and informed consent’ of those indigenous peoples affected by them – now an established international core principle most recently enshrined in Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – available at www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/en/drip.html .

[23] Macdonald Stainsby, 20007 ‘The Richest First Nation in Canada: Ecological and Political Life in Fort McKay’. The Dominion,  Issue  48.

[24] A damning report on waterway pollution, highlighting arsenic amongst other highly toxic substances: Kevin P. Timoney, ‘A Study of Water and Sediment Quality as Related to Public Health Issues’, (Treeline Ecological Research, Sherwood Park, AB. 2007).

[25] Kim Petersen, (2007) ‘Oil Versus Water: Toxic water poses threat to Alberta’s Indigenous communities’, The Dominion, Issue 48 October.

[26] For example, the Dene, Cree and Metis communities in Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 Territories.

[27] Interviewed in Kim Petersen, ‘Oil Versus Water: Toxic water poses threat to Alberta’s Indigenous communities’, The Dominion, Issue 48 October 15, (2007).

[28] Johnston, B.R. ‘Human environmental rights’ in Pollis, A. and P. Schwab (eds) Human rights: new perspectives, new realities. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000) pp.95–113: 96.

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