Genocide is a big word; much bigger than it might at first appear to be.
The term did not exist until the aftermath of the Second World War, when it was coined in reaction to the Nazi attempt to physically eliminate millions of European Jews as well as to enslave and culturally degrade whole populations of Slavs, and wipe out Gypsy and other minorities. It was legally defined by the United Nations in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.
The definition is specific:
"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."
It had other precedents, even before the rise of Nazism. The mass deportations of Armenians from eastern Turkey to Syria, during the first world war, constituted a genocide. While few in the West understand it, Koreans see the campaign by Japan to wipe out their culture, in the decades when it ruled over their peninsula, similarly; Koreans were forced to take Japanese names at birth, and were routinely massacred by their overlords. Japan is also accused of genocidal crimes by the Chinese. Joseph Stalin committed genocide when he induced a famine in Ukraine in 1932-33, resulting in millions of dead. Nikita S. Khrushchev, who eventually succeeded him, said Stalin would have sent all the Ukrainians to the gulag, but there were too many of them.
Nazi Germany and imperialist Japan were not the only Axis powers to engage in genocidal practices. Fascist Italy, although reluctant to adopt Nazi anti-Jewish policies, sought the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Slovenes and Croats and their replacement by Italian colonists in territories it occupied on the eastern Adriatic coast. The threatened Slavs then joined the Tito Partisans en masse.
But the Ustasha regime in Croatia, a puppet state whose domain was divided between Germans and Italians, was busy carrying out its own murderous assault on the large Serb minority in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina The result was an uprising in July 1941, about which the Bosnian historian Enver Redzic, of Muslim origin, has written, "The establishment of the Independent State of Croatia under the protection of German and Italian occupying forces was accompanied by systematic pogroms against the Serbian population throughout the entire Croatian territory. Bosnia-Hercegovina was transformed into a slaughterhouse in which unbridled hatred raged against Serbs. The outbreak of rebellion could not have been prevented by any military force or by the threat of wholesale extermination."
Stalin imitated the Nazis during the second world war by liquidating thousands of Polish officers and deporting entire nations from the Caucasus, mainly Muslims - thus wiping out half of the Ingushes and some 40 percent of the Chechens. This partially explains bad Chechen-Russian relations today.
Large-scale slayings of Armenians, Koreans, Jews, Chinese, Slavs, Caucasian Muslims, and others were immense, bloody undertakings that deeply stained the 20th century. But the term "genocide" was, almost from the time it was introduced, also abused for political purposes. In 1951, American Communists, pushed by the Soviets to paint the United States as a fascist regime, declared "We Charge Genocide!" in a petition to the UN, alleging that denial of African-American civil rights was equal in evil to Nazism. One would never have imagined, reading such absurd rhetoric, that President Harry Truman, then in office, had ordered the desegregation of the U.S. military. Truman's civil rights platform enraged the southern white leadership in the Democratic party, leading to their separate "Dixiecrat" presidential campaign in 1948. But the Soviets and their agents were hardly sticklers for consistency in propaganda.
Still, the lesson was learned by "progressives" - "genocide" was a word that could be thrown around at will. I distinctly remember a day in 1983 in San Francisco when I heard a leftist mob, protesting U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, happily chanting, in the merriest of voices, "Ronald Reagan, you can't hide, we charge you with genocide!" The upbeat, buoyant tone of the chorused allegation unintentionally undermined its seriousness, and made the term "genocide" seem ridiculously trivial.
Genocide in Mexico?
But genocide is not frivolous, and Mexican judge Julio Cesar Flores reaffirmed its seriousness on July 24, when he refused to charge former president Luis Echeverría Alvarez, who ruled Mexico from 1970 to 1976, with that crime.
Echeverría, or LEA as he was universally known, was a stalwart of the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, which ran Mexico as a de facto one-party state from 1928 to 2000. In truth, it would be absurd to minimize the crimes of the PRI-ocracy, especially after it began abandoning its populist and reforming legacy, with the election of president Manuel Avila Camacho in 1940. By 1946, and the presidency of Miguel Alemán Valdés - since 1934 Mexican presidential terms are limited to six years, without the right of reelection - the party and its leaders swam in corruption. Mexico's élite benefited fabulously from the country's trade with the U.S. during the second world war. Mexico's poor remained poor, or came north across the border, legally or illegally.
PRI rule was a kind of Sovietism without class ideology, although the PRI's claim to represent the "brown" indigenous masses of the country also made it resemble fascism. The PRI bought off the entire leftist intellectual class by providing them with government positions requiring no work. The corruption of the intelligentsia was so extensive that when, after of the horrific massacre of leftist students in Tlaltelolco Plaza, in Mexico City in 1968, the poet Octavio Paz resigned from his ambassadorship in India, few of his peers believed he was serious. Paz was sincere in his protest, but for other Mexican writers it was simply impossible to imagine life without PRI patronage.
The PRI kept its grip on the working class through its system of state labor unions, and on the peasants, consumers, and indigenous groups through parallel "people's" organizations, while also maintaining rigid control of education and repression of the Catholic church. The price of dissent in PRI-ocratic Mexico was steep. Striking workers, discontented peasants, and rebellious indigenous communities were all susceptible to the punishment meted out to the student left in Tlaltelolco on the evening of October 2, 1968: the murder of hundreds of demonstrators, whose bodies were removed and buried secretly.
The next day the Mexican government daily Excelsior reported that just after 6 p.m., the Plaza of the Three Cultures was lit up by two flares, and gunfire "poured from all sides, from the top of a building of the Unidad Tlaltelolco as well as from the street, where military forces in light tanks and armoured vehicles fired machine gun volleys almost without interruption… Three hundred tanks, assault units, jeeps, and military trucks had surrounded the entire zone… they permitted nobody to enter or leave unless they could satisfy a rigorous identity check."
The atrocity was ordered by then-president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, and coordinated by Echeverría, who served him as secretary of the interior, with responsibility for the maintenance of internal order. Indeed, Echeverría was the "tapado" or "hidden one," the PRI-ocratic successor personally chosen by Díaz Ordaz, whom he replaced two years later. In 1971, Echeverría summoned gangs of thugs to attack student leftists in the streets of Mexico City, leaving some dozens dead.
The charge of genocide, which current Mexican special prosecutor Ignacio Carrillo sought to bring against Echeverría, was based on the 1971 events and drawn under a 1967 Mexican statute.
Nobody doubts the responsibility of Echeverría in either atrocity. But the PRI itself asks if a genocide accusation would not represent a form of political revenge by the post-2000 administration of Vicente Fox. Fox is the leader of the National Action Party or PAN, a Catholic movement that labored under political restrictions for many years, and to which even many disfranchised leftists, who sprang from the people and not the élite, turned for succor against the PRI-ocracy. Fox is the first non-PRI chief executive in Mexico in more than 70 years. (Most of his immediate predecessors are better designated "thief executive," like President Carlos Salinas, who ruled from 1988 and 1994, and whose brother organized at least one political assassination while he was in office. President Salinas fled to Ireland, but eventually returned to Mexico.)
The greatest irony of Echeverría's history is that even while he spilled the blood of his fellow-citizens on the hot pavements of the Mexican capital, he presented himself to the world as a "progressive," a friend of the Palestine Liberation Organization no less than of Fidel Castro, whose government Mexico long supported as evidence of its independence from its powerful northern neighbor. When Salvador Allende's socialist regime fell in Chile in 1973, Echeverría took in hundreds of radical refugees from the South American republic. Yet perhaps that was no irony at all, since most leftist rulers - the kind-hearted Allende having been an exception - have shown brutal yearnings, if not habits, in office.
The Milosevic Comparison
Here is how the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic for genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina read, at his trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, in The Hague:
"COUNTS 1 and 2
"GENOCIDE OR COMPLICITY IN GENOCIDE
"From on or about 1 March 1992 until 31 December 1995, Slobodan MILOSEVIC, acting alone or in concert with other members of the joint criminal enterprise, planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted the planning, preparation and execution of the destruction, in whole or in part, of the Bosnian Muslim national, ethnical, racial or religious groups, as such, in territories within Bosnia and Herzegovina.... The destruction of these groups was effected by:
"a. The widespread killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims during and after the take-over of territories within Bosnia and Herzegovina... In many of the territories, educated and leading members of these groups were specifically targeted for execution, often in accordance with pre-prepared lists. After the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, almost all captured Bosnian Muslim men and boys, altogether several thousands, were executed at the places where they had been captured or at sites to which they had been transported for execution.
"b. The killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in detention facilities within Bosnia and Herzegovina...
"c. The causing of serious bodily and mental harm to thousands of Bosnian Muslims during their confinement in detention facilities within Bosnia and Herzegovina... Members of these groups, during their confinement in detention facilities and during their interrogation at these locations, police stations and military barracks, were continuously subjected to, or forced to witness, inhumane acts, including murder, sexual violence, torture and beatings.
"d. The detention of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in detention facilities within Bosnia and Herzegovina… under conditions of life calculated to bring about the partial physical destruction of those groups, namely through starvation, contaminated water, forced labour, inadequate medical care and constant physical and psychological assault."
Milosevic has yet to be judged, and the opponents of U.S. intervention to save the Bosnian Muslims, as well as Serb nationalists and others who have made themselves his defenders for reasons of their own, typically challenge the Hague indictment. But the whole world knows what Milosevic did, and what genocide is. To apply that word to the ordinary habits of corrupt Mexico under the PRI is to devalue the term and dishonor both groups of victims - the many millions of dead at the hands of Nazis, Stalinists, Serb extremists and others, and the too-numerous corpses piled up by the PRI-ocracy. Mexican judge Flores acted correctly in rejecting the indictment of ex-president Echeverría.