Editorials

Preventing genocide

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.313.7070.1415 (Published 07 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1415
  1. Donald Acheson
  1. Former special representative WHO's regional director for Europe in former Yugoslavia International Centre for Health and Society, University College London, London WC1E 6BT

    Episodes must be exposed, documented, and punished

    Shortly before Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler made a secret speech which set the scene for the cycle of genocide in the second world war. Addressing his top military advisers at the “wolf's lair” at Obersalzberg, Hitler set out his plans for the settlement of Poland after the successful completion of the military campaign (see p 1416).1 “Poland will be depopulated and settled with Germans,” he said. Just as Genghis Khan had “sent millions of women and children into death knowingly and with a light heart,” he had ordered the SS death's head formations to kill without mercy “many women and children of Polish origin and language.” Only thus “can we gain the living space we need.” And, referring to the lack of international condemnation of massacres of the Armenians in Turkey in the first world war, he went on to say, “Who after all is today speaking about the destruction of the Armenians?” The speech so shocked a member of the audience that a copy was smuggled out to the British Embassy and hence to the files of the Foreign Office in London. There it has lain more or less undisturbed.2

    Genocide—the deliberate wiping out of one race or ethnic group by another—is the extreme form of abuse of human rights. Until recently, the term has tended to be associated with a single historical event, the so called “holocaust”—the attempted extermination by Nazi Germany of the Jews throughout Europe. But more immediate events in Bosnia and in Rwanda and Burundi suggest that the urge within a group to “cleanse itself” of others (whether differing in colour, creed, or ethnicity) is much more general. Indeed, it may be that a latent impulse towards genocide is as old as the human race itself.

    I believe that …

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