Genocide Denial: Expert Assessments

This is supporting material for the article See No Evil.

Posted on, 21st May 2012

I asked four of the world’s leading genocide scholars to assess Herman and Peterson’s response to my first article about their claims, in order to discover whether I had got it wrong. Here is what they said.


Statement by Professor Adam Jones, University of British Columbia, Okanagan, author of Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction.

“Ed Herman’s shift from unmasking atrocities, as with Vietnam, to denying and concealing them in the cases of Srebrenica and Rwanda, is one of the most depressing things I have witnessed on the left. Herman began grinding a denier’s axe on Srebrenica soon after the events — perhaps out of some nostalgic attachment to the oppressive and atrocious ‘Yugoslav’ government of Slobodan Milosevic. His more recent intervention on Rwanda is truly his nadir. He has demonstrated no past familiarity or competence with this case, and yet he advances what is probably the most systematic denial of the Tutsi genocide I have ever read, at least from anyone who’s not on trial for genocide or defending them.

“Herman and Peterson present an interpretation of the events in Rwanda from April to July 1994 that is a straightforward inversion of the reality accepted, and studied in intimate detail, by every major scholar and investigator of the subject. I am not aware of a single exception in comparative genocide studies and scholarship on Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. This is quite analogous to declaring that the Jewish Holocaust did not occur, and in fact, the real victims were Germans slaughtered by Jews. Herman and Peterson contend that the ‘only well-organized’ killing force in Rwanda during this period was the Tutsi-dominated RPF. The RPF certainly committed major and possibly genocidal atrocities in Rwanda in 1994, claiming tens of thousands of victims. But this was dwarfed by the Hutu holocaust of Tutsis, which exterminated up to a million people. Herman and Peterson completely obfuscate the agents of ‘Hutu Power,’ the killing squads that roamed every corner of Rwanda available to them for week after week, hunting down every last ragged Tutsi survivor they could find, checking in and out of their day’s duties like clockwork. They were organized and mobilized by an apparatus of hate that sprang into immediate action when the Hutu president Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in April 1994. How much detailed pre-planning of the killing there was is a legitimate question. But to baldly deny that systematic and generalized killing of Tutsis occurred in those three apocalyptic months is to deny the murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings, and to do it in such a casual and malicious way that it leaves me slack-jawed.

“There is also a sense in which, while not racist in themselves, Herman and Peterson’s contentions rely on the racism once described by a central object of their criticism, the late Alison Des Forges. Talking about western inaction during the Tutsi genocide of 1994, she said that ‘Rwanda was simply too remote … too poor, too little, and probably too black to be worthwhile.’ Most people today have trouble telling Hutus from Tutsis in a country so distant from centers of power. And hey, who really cares anyway? That’s the type of widespread ignorance and callousness that Herman and Peterson exploit — the kind they need, if their nonsense is to slide past.”


Statement by Linda Melvern, investigative journalist and author of A People Betrayed and Conspiracy to Murder.

“The work of Herman and Peterson is genocide denial; it is presented under the guise of scholarly debate. It is a part of a number of statements and articles aimed at obfuscating, distorting, minimising or even denying the genocide of the minority Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.

“A programme of genocide denial was begun in April 1994 as the massacres spread. It was devised by the génocidaires themselves. Its aim was to prove to the world that the huge number of civilian deaths in Rwanda was due to “fighting” in a resumed civil war. This view was actively promoted by the Rwandan ambassador sitting in the UN Security Council in New York. Later on the campaign shifted focus and the perpetrators began desperately to try to prove that a plan to eliminate the Tutsi had never existed — there had been no Conspiracy to Murder. This one great lie would become the foundation stone of the defence case at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). It is a view actively promoted by key defence lawyers from the ICTR who claim that the genocide of the Tutsi is “a myth”. They maintain that “ a standard account” of events — or what has even been called an “idealised history” of events — is deeply flawed. Herman and Peterson have relied on genocidaires and their lawyers for their accounts of what they believe took place.

“There is overwhelming evidence to counter this common denial. The conclusions of the UN Security Council’s Independent Commission of Experts in December 1994 reported to the Council that the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of Genocide had been “massively violated” in Rwanda between April 6 and July 15. The experts had found “overwhelming evidence” to show that the extermination of the Tutsi had been premeditated and planned months in advance; a conspiracy to destroy Tutsi is confirmed as fact by judges at the ICTR.

“Over the years the manipulation of the evidence and disinformation has influenced journalists, students and academics. In France, in Belgium, in the USA, in Canada and in the UK the denial of the genocide of the Tutsi has served to detract from continuing efforts to investigate the circumstances of what happened; in my own case have been attempts to try to prevent publication of on-going research.”


Statement by Professor Martin Shaw, Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals / University of Roehampton / University of Sussex

“Edward Herman and David Peterson, in their reply to George Monbiot, do little to respond to the wave of incredulity and revulsion which their denial of genocide and its endorsement by Noam Chomsky are causing.

“They misrepresent Monbiot, a widely respected radical journalist, as a cog in a Guardian-Observer propaganda machine which – in turn – is simply churning out a version of something called the ‘Western party-line’. Such crude, amalgamated constructs not only make serious debate difficult, but are also designed to damage one of the most important arenas for critical information and debate in the mainstream media – in precisely one of the areas in which it has been strongest, reporting on and debating crimes against humanity.

“Herman and Peterson do this because, as I have argued in my full review in the Journal of Genocide Research, their Politics of Genocide ‘does not stop at raising … counter-examples to the Western mainstream. Instead, it engages in what can only be described as extensive genocide denial.’ Deniers need to block out key information and misrepresent opponents to support their perverse world-views. As the sociologist Stanley Cohen puts it in a classic study, ‘One common thread runs through the many different stories of denial: people, organizations, governments or whole societies are presented with information that is too disturbing, threatening or anomalous to be fully absorbed or openly acknowledged. The information is therefore somehow repressed, disavowed, pushed aside or reinterpreted. Or else the information “registers” well enough, but its implications – cognitive, emotional or moral – are evaded, neutralized or rationalized away.’

“What is the information which disturbs Herman and Peterson? They cannot accept what has now been established by extensive and rigorous enquiry, that in 1995 unarmed Bosniak men and boys from the Srebrenica ‘safe area’, who were captured by Bosnian-Serbian forces, were murdered in cold blood. They suggested in their book that the case was ‘extremely thin, resting in good part on the difficulty of separating executions from battle killings’. This is a classic genocide denial mechanism (which can be traced back to the Armenian genocide), representing genocidal killing as really only war, suggesting that the victims were not really civilians (they might have been killed in battle), or if they were, as killed accidentally in the course of fighting.

“Herman and Peterson believe that their trump card against Monbiot is that he ‘fails to mention that … we point out that the Bosnian Serbs “had taken the trouble to bus all the women, children, and the elderly men to safety”.’ What this shows, however, is that they do not understand genocide, which involves not just indiscriminate attacks on entire populations, but narrower, targeted violence – as often against men of military age (as potential resisters) as against women (whose sexual violation completes the humiliation of a community).

“They also cannot accept that an exceptionally large, fast campaign of mass murder was carried out by Rwandan Hutu Power forces in 1994, claiming that the ‘great majority of deaths were Hutu, with some estimates as high as two million’. Claiming that Monbiot’s objections are ‘laughable’, they ridicule him for running ‘to his readers with the scoop that we are so sloppy in our use of sources’.

“Yet the principal academic reference for Herman and Peterson’s claim is an unpublished paper, ‘Rwandan Political Violence in Space and Time’, which they attribute to Christian Davenport and Allan Stam and source to Davenport’s website, dated to 2004. Yet on page 37 of the same paper (which while citing a database compiled jointly with Stam, is attributed only to Davenport and dated 2008), are printed in black and white the following unequivocal conclusions: ‘we find that the majority of killings take place in the zone under government control (accounting for approximately 990,000 deaths). They are the ones directly responsible for almost all of the political violence.’ (Accessed on 17 October 2011)

“A charitable explanation could be that Davenport’s paper has been updated since 2004, and this conclusion added since then, although 2008 was still well before The Politics of Genocide went to press. But Herman and Peterson can hardly have missed a clear line of argument which, while qualifying previous accounts of the Rwandan genocide, does not undermine the conclusion that the majority of killing in Rwanda in 1994 was committed by Hutu Power forces. The difference is that Davenport and Stam want to raise questions about the narrative of genocide; Herman and Peterson want to fully overturn it.

“So they are sloppy with their sources: it is they, in the nice phrase they use against Monbiot, who are ‘hit-and-run intellectuals’, scooping up quotes and references without due care. As Cohen says, in denial ‘information is … somehow repressed, disavowed, pushed aside or reinterpreted.’ We find bucket-loads of all these tendencies in Herman and Peterson – and their patron, Chomsky. Indeed one suspects that, as Cohen continued, ‘the information “registers” well enough, but its implications – cognitive, emotional or moral – are evaded, neutralized or rationalized away.’

“The remaining question is why do the Chomskyites do it? The obvious answer is political: they have such a huge investment in the idea that the USA and the West are the source of all the world’s evils, that they can only process information to fit this case. More complex answers might include, that like their fellow deniers in the former LM coterie, they are building an intellectual and political niche out of contrarian positions. The danger is that such nonsense, with its pseudo-scholarly apparatus of extensive footnotes and media science, finds a ready audience among the political idealistic.”


Statement by Dr Marko Attila Hoare, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Kingston University, London.

“The extent of Herman’s and Peterson’s cynicism in their misuse of source material is simply breathtaking. Thus, they make much of the findings of Mirsad Tokaca’s Research and Documentation Centre (RDC), that total Bosnian war deaths – narrowly defined – were approximately 100,000. Yet where the RDC’s findings contradict Herman’s and Peterson’s revisionist scribblings, they pass over them in silence. Thus, they continue both to deny the Srebrenica massacre and to parrot the myth that Bosnian Muslim forces themselves massacred thousands of Serbs in the Srebrenica region. Yet the RDC’s findings have comprehensively disproved the latter myth while providing further strong evidence – if any were needed – that Serb forces massacred over eight thousand Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in July 1995.

“The RDC’s figures show that 81.06% of all war deaths from the Podrinje region – where Srebrenica and the surrounding Serb villages are located -during the whole of the war were Muslims (a total of 16,940 civilians and 7,177 soldiers) while 18.73% were Serbs (870 civilians and 4,703) soldiers. The RDC’s figures show that 10,333 people from the Podrinje region were killed during 1995; that over 93% of these were Muslims; and that 9,328 out of the 10,333 were killed during the single month of July. Conversely, the RDC has specifically investigated the Serb death-toll in the Bratunac municipality, where the bulk of Bosnian Army killings in the Srebrenica region are alleged to have taken place, and concluded that 119 Serb civilians and 448 Serb soldiers were killed there during the whole of the war. All this from a source that Herman and Peterson themselves loudly trumpet.”