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Ultranationalist Genocides: Failures of Global Justice in Nigeria and Pakistan

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This article focuses on two failed attempts during the Cold War to mitigate the severity of minority-led secessionist wars by punishing the crime of genocide. The failures involved the secessions of East Pakistan and Biafra. In these conflicts, the crime of genocide proved to be impossible to prevent or punish in the absence of a standing international criminal tribunal. Minority leaders in Nigeria and Pakistan made unsuccessful efforts to get military dictators charged with genocide. These attempts failed, as backing by permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council rendered the devastation of entire regions of the world immune from the reach of world justice, even after the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Although the laws failed, the debate contributed to international action to prevent the total destruction of the victim groups.

Critics of British and American policy in Africa, including most letter writers to the US Congress, supported Biafra. Senator Edward Kennedy argued shortly after the election of President Nixon that 10,000 were dying each day, and that this might reach 25,000 per day. He proposed an international arms embargo on Nigeria, and argued that ten million Biafran people had suffered famine and attacks. Senator Eugene McCarthy condemned US policy as an open “acceptance of the death of millions”....

The genocide in Bangladesh was also significantly larger in absolute terms than those in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, if the upper end of estimates of the dead is used for each case. Diplomats estimated that the Pakistani army killed 200,000 Bengalis in less than three months. The total death toll including hunger and disease was one to three million....

The US Consul in Dacca reported to the Secretary of State that “non-Bengali Muslims are systematically attacking poor people’s quarters and murdering Bengalis and Hindus”.... An official on a USAID contract in Pakistan reported in 1971 that “the mass killing of unarmed civilians, the systematic elimination of the intelligentsia, and the annihilation of the Hindu population is [sic] in progress”.