In September 2020 Sir Geoffrey Nice announced the creation of the Uyghur Tribunal to ‘investigate China’s alleged Genocide and Crimes against Humanity, against Uyghurs, Kazakh and other Turkic Muslim populations’. On 23 March last year, 17 British MPs signed a parliamentary motion condemning the ‘Atrocities against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang’. On 6 May, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled ‘The Atrocities Against Uyghurs and Other Minorities in Xinjiang’. Between October and December, ‘atrocities’, ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ filled the pages of the international press from the Guardian to Turkish dailies to Ha’aretz. On 20 January this year, a majority in the French parliament ‘officially recognised the violence perpetrated by the People’s Republic of China against the Uyghurs as constituting crimes against humanity and genocide’.

The words ‘atrocities’, ‘massacres’, ‘genocide’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘torture’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ are used interchangeably in such denouncements. In other cases, reference is often made to ‘war crimes’. These terms have become so embedded in the news cycle that they scarcely induce any reaction at all. Their routine inflation weakens their capacity to appal, to stir, even to prompt reflection.

We rarely pause to consider that up until the end of the nineteenth century, such categories were alien to political discourse. They were exceedingly rare objects of moral indignation (see, for instance, Bartolomé de las Casas on the massacre of the indios), which had not yet solidified into justifications for political or military intervention. Nobody had ever been convicted of ‘war crimes’. Acts committed during war were never considered more culpable than the war itself. Vanquished enemies were enslaved or deported, but they weren’t cast as criminals; defeat – and everything it implied – was punishment enough.  

The substantive difference between ‘war crimes’ and ‘atrocities’ is that the former are tried and convicted once a war is over, as a sanction against the defeated party and legitimation for the victors. ‘Atrocities’, on the other hand, are more often mobilized in the interest of waging war; they are one method by which modernity constructs an enemy. The same act can be defined as an ‘atrocity’ before a war is declared and a ‘war crime’ once a war is over. The Uyghurs are certainly persecuted and oppressed by the Chinese state, but the persistent use of ‘atrocities’ by the Western security establishment is a semantic escalation that signals a political transition: away from peaceful diplomacy, towards New Cold War confrontation.

Before the Enlightenment, jurists used the word ‘atrocity’ when discussing punishment – though never with critical intentions, Foucault tells us, for the atrocity of the supplice (torture, quartering) was seen as proportionate to the atrocity of the crime, a formula which laid bare a specific conception of power: ‘a power exalted and strengthened by its visible manifestations…for which disobedience was an act of hostility…a power that had to demonstrate not why it enforced its laws, but who were its enemies, and what unleashing of force threatened them’. It was to eliminate this form of punishment that the Enlightenment introduced a new conception of atrocity, to substitute forms of retribution ‘not in the least ashamed of being “atrocious”’ with ‘punishment that was to claim the honour of being “humane”’. Atrocity was ‘the exacerbation of punishment in relation to the crime’, a novel surplus, irreducible to the accounting of crime and retribution, an excess in relation to the existing economy of infringement.

Another century was needed, however, for the atrocity to acquire its political definition. The first deployment – to my knowledge – of the term ‘atrocity’ by a Western statesman (who, in fact, used it as evidence of a ‘just’ cause for a possible war), was in an invective Gladstone addressed to the Ottomans in 1896: ‘…this is not the first time we have been discussing horrible outrages perpetrated in Turkey, and perpetrated not by Mohammedan fanaticism, but by the deliberate policy of a Government. The very same thing happened in 1876’, but the Sultan’s government, ‘declared that there were no atrocities, no crimes committed by Turks or by the agents of the Government’. Should the Sultan continue to commit these crimes and massacres, Gladstone concluded, ‘England …should take into consideration means of enforcing, if force alone is available, compliance with her just, legal, and human demand.’ 

It wasn’t just any politician, then, who inaugurated the discourse of ‘atrocities’. For over forty years (1852-94), Gladstone dominated British politics (he was Prime Minister for 13 years, Chancellor for another 13, and leader of the House of Commons for 9). It was Gladstone, above all, who invented humanitarian imperialism, or ‘liberal imperialism’ as it was then known, whose heyday would come in the American Century.

Why is it that atrocities hardly appear as an issue in the fifty preceding centuries? Because atrocities were taken for granted. It was common knowledge that power kills, tortures, sweeps away. Nobody threatened to wage war on Charles V for the ‘atrocities’ committed by the Landsknechte when sacking Rome (1527). Before the second half of the twentieth century, the United States never even questioned the genocide of native Americans, the victims of which were in the tens of millions.

Nowadays, atrocities mark the limit of acceptable or legitimate violence. Indignation towards them has become a key part of political etiquette – a means of demonstrating one’s respect for the rules of war, just as one would display one’s manners in a distinguished salon. Like all etiquette, this involves a great deal of hypocrisy. Outrage at ‘excessive violence’ serves to soften or conceal the ubiquitous violence described by Nietzsche, whereby humans inflict harm simply because they can. Exhibiting concern for atrocities is a means of of civilizing the struggle for global power, as if a more ennobled form could somehow change its content. This discourse has the effect of reintroducing an ideological element to war that was largely absent since the peace of Westphalia (1648). Peter the Great of Russia fought the Swedish king Charles X not for ideological reasons, not for civilization, not for good to prevail over evil or to put an end to any genocide, holocaust or massacre, but simply and purely to accrue more power.

The principle according to which only just wars should be fought, or, better still – that a war should first be ‘rendered just’ before it is waged – is a somewhat bizarre and thoroughly modern idea, rooted in the confluence of three long-term tendencies. The first is the Reformation, with its exigency for a redemptive motive for every human action (even for profiting). The second is colonialism, and the notion that wars against the colonized served to civilize them (what Kipling famously called ‘the white man’s burden’). Third is the emergence of public opinion. For it is before this audience that atrocities are paraded in order to justify moving against a constructed enemy (the absence of ‘public opinion’ is another reason why the issue had never been raised in preceding millennia). The atrocity must create a scandal, otherwise it’s ineffective. From this perspective, the politics of atrocities is a symptom of mass communication: first newspapers, then radio and TV, now social media.

In the 1890s, Britain witnessed the triumph of popular newspapers: from 1854 to 1899 the number of dailies in London grew from 5 to 155. Millions of readers were suddenly distressed by stories of atrocities taking place in exotic countries; dark skins, naked bodies, violence. It’s no coincidence that the first great revelations of this type came from the Congo, then the Amazon: atrocities against the ‘savages’. In 1885, the Berlin Conference assigned the Congo to the Association Internationale Africaine, an ante litteram NGO – or ‘humanitarian’ association – which had once employed the famous American explorer Henry Morton Stanley (‘Dr Livingston, I presume?’), and was controlled by the Belgian King Leopold II. This stretch of property measuring 2.6 million km2 was intended to resolve the rivalry between two major colonial powers in Africa, Britain and France (the birth of Belgium in 1830 was a consequence of the defeat of Napoleon, cutting off France’s northeastern provinces, which were integrated into Belgian Walloon). It’s not surprising, then that the campaign against the Belgians’ atrocities in the Congo flared up at exactly the moment Gladstone delivered his speech, nor that it was fanned by the Anglophone press.

When the British government commissioned the Irish diplomat Roger Casement to write a report on the matter, completed in 1904, the document served to establish the rhetorical canon for all future reports on atrocities: accounts of genocide, famine, farced labour, imprisonment, torture, rape, mutilation. One particular episode, reinforced by photographs, struck contemporaries’ imagination: the hands of dead enemies were amputated, so that local conscripts to the Force Publique (the Congo’s military police) could prove that they had really used their bullets, rather than pocketing them. The report enjoyed a global reception, thanks also to Mark Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1907) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo (1909). As a result, in 1908 the Congo was transferred from Leopold’s private holdings to public ownership by the Belgian state.

Casement also wrote the second great report on atrocities: those committed in the Peruvian Amazon’s Putumayo region, where he was sent to investigate in 1910-11, as the company that held the right to exploit the area’s rubber was registered in London and hired Barbadian labour – that is, British subjects. Here the report also certified mistreatments, malnutrition, forced labour, rape, murder, amputations, torture. In 1911, Casement was knighted for his findings. On the extraordinary life of this figure who went from international human rights superstar avant la lettre to concluding his earthly sojourn on the gallows at Pentonville, two texts are worth reading: Colm Tóibín’s ‘Roger Casement: Sex, Lies and the Black Diaries’ (2004) and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (2012).

A great contributor to the dissemination of Casement’s report on Putumayo was the then British ambassador in Washington, Lord James Bryce, noted in the United States for his book American Commonwealth (with its lapidary verdict: ‘in Latin America, whoever is not black is white, in German America, whoever is not white is black’). With the advent of the First World War, it was Bryce that London would entrust in 1915 with the task of compiling a report on German atrocities committed in Belgium. The Bryce Report collected testimonies of various ‘outrages’ perpetrated by German soldiers, but global public opinion was particularly enflamed by one specific case, so much so that it would be cited by states that had until then remained neutral – Italy, the US – as justification for entering the war. The report outlined that ‘a third kind of mutilation, the cutting of one or both hands, is said to have taken place frequently’. A form of historical lex talionis: a decade earlier, photos circulated that showed the Force Publique practicing the very same punishment, now subjected to the Belgians that had introduced it.

The truth is, even if the Germans committed countless ‘outrages’, these specific accusations eventually proved unfounded, though they were still taught in French elementary schools in the 1930s. This leads us to the problems involved in campaigns against atrocities. For one, do they correspond to reality, or do they bend it to their advantage, in order to make the bad guys look a little worse? What’s more, not all atrocities become an object of scandal. Despite its similarity to the very worst of the Putumayo incursions, the British colonists’ hunting of aboriginals in Tasmania never generated comparable clamour.

Finally, efficacy. Sometimes scandals provoked by atrocities prove to be sharp tools. King Leopold’s crimes forced the Belgian state to take the reins of sovereignty in Congo; German atrocities in Belgium facilitated the entry of neutral powers into the war; the Nanjing massacre of December 1937 prepared American public opinion for war against Japan; the My Lai massacre in March 1968 accelerated Americans’ revolt against the Vietnam War; the atrocities at Srebrenica in the summer of 1995 built the foundations of the anti-Serbianism that precipitated intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

Yet there are just as many incidents that produce no such results: after the Putumayo ‘scandal’, Peru wasn’t sanctioned, and indigenous Amazonians continued to be oppressed, if more discreetly. In Rwanda, after the massacres of 1994 everything was forgotten. In such cases, the horrors registered in photographs and documentaries were initially transformed into a sort of monster by which humanity was transfixed, eager yet impotent to fathom the sheer quantity of evil for which it was responsible. The scandal became an occasion for contemplating the heart of darkness inside each of us. But it also induced an inurement to horror. An unintended consequence of the proliferation of campaigns against atrocities has been a kind of mithridatisation, in which we all become peaceful cohabitants with monstrosity.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Tor Krever, ‘Dispensing Global Justice’, NLR 85.