When the World Ignores Genocide–in 1941 and 2011

by Rafael Medoff

On June 8, seventy years almost to the day that the Holocaust began, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court will speak to the United Nations Security Council and try to accomplish what others were unable to do in 1941: convince the world’s powers to pay attention to genocide.

ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo will speak to the UN about Darfur, the region in Sudan where government-sponsored Arab militias have massacred hundreds of thousands of non-Arab Africans in recent years. And he will speak about the ICC’s indictment of Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir for his role in the genocide.

The problem is that Moreno-Ocampo will be speaking to representatives of the very regimes that have defended, supported, or turned a blind eye to Bashir.

The permanent members of the UN Security Council include China and Russia, which have extensive oil dealings with Sudan and provide weapons to the Bashir regime. They have repeatedly tried to protect Bashir from sanctions or arrest. The current rotating members of the Security Council include Nigeria, which has friendly relations with Bashir, and Lebanon, which, along with other members of the Arab League, regards the ICC indictment as an anti-Arab conspiracy.

Still, there are a few glimmers of hope. Council member South Africa has threatened to arrest Bashir if he ever tries to attend an international conference there. And Luiz da Silva, then president of Brazil, another Security Council member, walked out of a banquet in Qatar in 2009 rather than sit next to Bashir.

The big question mark is the United States. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama criticized the Bush administration for not actively intervening in Darfur. But as president, Mr. Obama has adopted a surprisingly cautious approach. The Obama administration has not even verbally criticized the various Arab and African countries that have hosted visits by Bashir–including major recipients of U.S. aid, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Is the world’s response to today’s perpetrators of genocide much different than the response 70 years ago?

In June 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union, accompanied by mobile death squads known as Einsatzgruppen. In town after town, they rounded up thousands of Jews, forced them to dig huge pits, and then machine-gunned them into the mass graves. In a short time, more than one million Jews were slaughtered. The Holocaust was underway.

News about these massacres began reaching the West in the months to follow. An article in the New York Times in October 1941 reported that as many as 15,000 Jews had been slaughtered en masse in Galicia. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency in November described how “52,000 Jews, including men, women, and children, were systematically and methodically put to death in Kiev.”

An official of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee revealed in March 1942 that in the Russian city of Borisov, “the Nazis had ordered Jews to dig a communal grave, into which 7,000 men, women and children–some shot to death, others only wounded–were thrown and covered with earth,” and because of “the living breath of those interred,” the field was “heaving like the sea.”

Sadly, these and similar reports had no real impact on Allied policy.

The British continued to prevent all but a handful of Jewish refugees from reaching Palestine. “This [refugee] traffic is favoured by the Gestapo,” Lord Moyne, the Colonial Secretary, absurdly claimed in December 1941.

The Roosevelt administration, for its part, continued its policy of keeping immigration to the United States far below the levels allowed by law. Even State Department official George Warren admitted, in May 1942, that the system his colleagues created to restrict immigration was “one of incredible obstruction to any possible securing of a visa.”

Few Western leaders even mentioned the massacres of Europe’s Jews. “They treat us as a pornographical subject,” the artist and refugee advocate Arthur Szyk charged. “You cannot discuss it in polite society.” Genocide proceeded without interruption.

On June 8, ICC prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo will speak to the UN Security Council about Darfur and Bashir. He will remind the council members that the most notorious perpetrator of genocide in our time is still walking free. Their response to him will reveal much about whether the international community has really learned any lessons from the Holocaust.

June 2011