genocide in world politics
contemporary warfare and society
war, state & society
social science of conflict
sociology of global politics
home page
the global site
subscribe for news
IR & Politics programme
University of Sussex

Martin Shaw 

'random brutality' and the denial of genocide

 In a letter published on 22 November 1999, I attacked John Pilger's attempts to deny the Kosova genocide in his New Statesman column. 

See also review of Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq (John Pilger, ITV, 6 March 2000)

It will always be necessary to raise questions about the scale of episodes of mass killing and their exaggeration for propaganda purposes: Kosovo is no exception. However John Pilger's article (15 November) abuses uncertainties about the numbers of dead to claim: 'the Nato bombing provoked a wave of random brutality, murders and expulsions, a far cry from systematic extermination: genocide. ... No one can doubt [the Milosevic regime's] cruelty and atrocities, but comparisons with the Third Reich are ridiculous.'  

'Random brutality' ignores the year-long campaign of burnings and killings which had made an estimated quarter of a million homeless before Nato's intervention - a campaign escalated during the Rambouillet talks (in which, according to earlier Pilger columns, Nato spurned Serbia's plans for peace). It ignores evidence of organised Serbian military and police (as well as paramilitary) activity in rapidly forcing three quarters of a million people out of Kosovo. It ignores evidence of 'Operation Horseshoe', suggesting murderous expulsions were a planned response, not spontaneous reaction, to Nato bombs.

Pilger must know that his identification of genocide with extermination is simplistic, and that no serious commentator or even politician has compared the scale or intensity of Serbian actions to the Nazis'. The international convention defines genocide as the deliberate destruction of a national, racial, ethnic or religious group 'in whole or in part'. Clearly a range of activities are covered by the term. A campaign can be genocidal without approximating the maximum case of a 'final solution'. The balance of evidence suggests that Milosevic intended to destroy the Kosovars as a people, using mass killing and terror as adjuncts to expulsion.

It seems that every holocaust brings forth its denial, with pilgered language downgrading planned butchery to unfortunate atrocity. I am glad, however, that your columnist never took this approach to claims of Indonesian terror in East Timor.

  • You can see the edited version of the above letter published in the New Statesman, Pilger's original article and his reply of 29 November 1999 in which he accuses me of being 'a propagandist not a professor', at www.newstatesman.co.uk
  • The following short response was made to Pilger, but not published (although trenchant comments on Pilger from John Palmer appeared on 6 December 1999):

John Pilger (letters, 29 November) erects a sadly predictable smokescreen of abuse and distortion, but fails to defend his contemptible excuse that Serbian atrocities in Kosovo were products of 'random brutality' rather than genocidal planning. What blighted vision leads him to deny that Serbian crimes were of a kind with those of the Indonesians in East Timor? I leave readers to decide which of us is the 'propagandist' guilty of 'crude sophistry'.

online texts
topical commentary
Global Society & IR
Civil Society and Media
Dialectics of War
war & genocide project
civil society