Imperialism, Anti-Imperialism and the Problem of Genocide, Past and Present



In recent years, there have been signs of a significant ‘anti-imperialist’ turn in genocide studies. Challenging what has been described as a hitherto predominantly liberal approach, a number of genocide scholars have adopted a more critical attitude towards the history of imperialism, and projected a broader arc of explanation, linking genocides committed by western states in the construction of their empires to genocides committed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There is too much insight, undoubtedly, in an anti-imperialist approach to contemplate discarding it. It helps us understand why genocides undoubtedly committed by western imperialist states took place in the past. It provides important elements of a vital critique of the international order, fashioned by western imperialist states, within which some postcolonial states have been able to commit genocide. It helps us understand why some western states colluded with or facilitated genocide, as in Indonesia in the 1960s or Guatemala in the 1980s, or blocked intervention to halt or prevent it, as in Bangladesh in the 1970s and Rwanda in the 1990s. But it cannot do everything, and some of the difficulties identified here will arise when it is taken too far, when there is an attempt to fit everything within a framework of analysis that cannot bear the weight put upon it. Imperialism has been at times and in places central to the occurrence of genocide, but not everywhere, not at all times, and to a very large extent not since the Convention.