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01 April 1999

Genocide: what's in a word?

Mick Hume, editor of LM, challenges the propaganda war over Kosovo

As NATO has intensified its air strikes against Serbia, so the NATO governments have cranked up their war of words. And 'genocide' is the word that New Labour and its allies have fired against an uncertain public opinion like a Cruise missile.

Defence Secretary George Robertson has not missed an opportunity to declare that President Milosevic is 'intent on genocide' and 'ethnic extermination' in Kosovo, insisting that the NATO air strikes have 'one purpose alone and that is to stop the genocidal violence' against ethnic Albanians. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has also talked of genocide and of refugees being 'concentrated' in camps by the Serbs.

President Bill Clinton has said that the USA must act because it cannot allow 'ethnic cleansing or genocide anywhere we can stop it'. German defence minister Rudolf Scharping has claimed that there is 'serious evidence' in Kosovo of 'concentration camps like there were in Bosnia', and of 'systematic extermination that recalls in a horrible way what was done in the name of Germany at the beginning of World War II'. Predictably the Russian government has replied in kind, the foreign minister accusing NATO of committing genocide against the Serbs.

The less sure NATO leaders become of their war aims, or of the solidity of public support, the more they fall back on this kind of emotive rhetoric to justify themselves. The language of genocide and concentration camps invokes almost the only remaining moral absolutes of the modern age. (Incidentally it also, under the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, provides the only possible justification for a NATO-style intervention under international law.) The deployment of this language is designed to give an air of moral certainty to NATO's 'non-war' against Serbia. Yet its real effect can only be to cloud the issues further.

'Genocide' is not just another word for brutality, making people homeless, putting people on trains, or even murder. It means, according to the OED, 'annihilation of a race'. The word was first used in the 1940s, specifically to describe the Nazi campaign to wipe out European Jewry.

Similarly, for more than half a century, 'concentration camp' has not meant a place where large numbers of people are concentrated, even if it is against their will. Everybody should know that it means a death camp, on the Nazi model, designed for the industrial implementation of a policy of genocide.

The likes of Robertson, Cook, Clinton and Scharping must either be fools (Cook has talked about the 'Siberian forces' in Kosovo), liars or both to use this language today. Of course the situation in Kosovo is a human tragedy and people are suffering. Beyond that, nobody in Britain knows what is really happening in Kosovo.

We do know, however, that it is inevitable that refugees will flee a war zone, where the Serbs are cracking down on the Kosovo Liberation Army and NATO is stepping up its bombing campaign, without any need for 'ethnic cleansing'. Serb refugees are also getting out of Kosovo to the north.

We do know that the atrocity stories which have been repeated uncritically by government ministers and the media are currently just that - uncorroborated stories. Some of the most dramatic ones, like the allegation that 10 000 men are being held in a 'concentration camp' in a Pristina football stadium, have simply been lifted straight from KLA propaganda statements.

We do know that reports that Serbs have murdered leading ethnic Albanian politicians like Fehmi Agani and Ibrahim Rugova have already been exposed as untrue. (The resurrected Rugova not only held a press conference in his house, which the Serbs were supposed to have destroyed, but announced that the air strikes 'must stop'.)

And we do know that, from the embellished tales of Belgian nuns maimed by Germans in the First World War, to the bogus reports of Kuwaiti babies thrown from incubators by Iraqis during the Gulf War of 1991, horror stories coming out of a war zone should always be viewed with a sceptical eye.

But even if the worst accounts of Serb reprisals we have heard to date were true, it would still be wrong and dangerous to use the term genocide.

Anybody who tries to compare Nazi Germany, the dominant and best-armed European power of its age, with Milosevic's militarily weak and economically powerless Serbia, is in danger of losing all sense of proportion.

Such comparisons risk seriously distorting the image we have of the Balkans today, by branding the Serbs as the evil new Nazis against who anything becomes permissible. Even more importantly, they risk belittling the horror of the real Holocaust, by putting the slaughter of six million Jews on a par with a local conflict, bloody though it may be, in Kosovo or Bosnia.

This is a point which LM has insisted upon throughout the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It is why we exposed the truth about ITN's famous pictures of Bosnian Serb 'concentration camps', and have fought the ensuing libel case for more than two years. See http://www.informinc.co.uk/ITN-vs-LM/ for details.

The attempt to treat the situation in Kosovo as akin to the Nazi experience is a cheap propaganda trick - but one that will exact a high price, in terms of both the body count and the truth. There is nothing lower than exploiting the Holocaust in order to justify a war like NATO's adventure in Kosovo. But of course, as New Labour and the other members of the war party (official organ: the Guardian) have made clear, we cannot question any of this without being guilty of 'appeasement' or even 'Holocaust denial'. Truth was not just the first casualty of this war. It has been the victim of another cold-blooded massacre in every day's news.

Mick Hume will be speaking at an LM public meeting on 'Kosovo: the truth behind the headlines' at International Students House, Great Portland Street, London W1, on Friday 9 April 1999, 7.30pm. For more information phone +44 171 269 9224

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