Settler Colonialism and Genocide

Southwesternmost point of South Africa, which has a history of European settler-colonialism. Photo: Moheen Reeyad via Wikimedia Commons

By Jeanne Trubek

In December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly, by unanimous vote, affirmed that genocide is a crime under international law. It is a crime whether committed in times of peace or war.

What do they mean by genocide?  According to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, such as:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

With this definition, many past atrocities can be defined as genocide. In terms of recent genocides, there have been many – too many to include in a short article. This article will restrict itself to settler colonialism genocides and look at a few of the many examples.

What is settler colonialism and what is a settler-colonialist genocide?

Settler colonialism generally refers to a form of colonialism in which the existing inhabitants of a territory are displaced by settlers who claim land and establish a permanent society where their privileged status is enshrined in law. Many people trace the current meaning of “settler colonialism”  to Patrick Wolfe, a British-born Australian scholar. His article Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native points out that the question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism. Settler colonialism does not always result in genocide; there are examples of settler colonialism where the two groups have learned to coexist, such as Fiji. However settler colonialism is about possession of the land. To get in the way of settler colonization, all the natives have to do is exist in their homeland, to stay at home, to live where they have always lived. Settlers have come to a location in order to develop a society and this requires the ability to produce food and goods, therefore access to land. Genocide occurs when the settlers attempt to rid the area of the people who have been there.

The Trail of Tears

The treatment of the indigenous people in North America is an example of settler colonialism and genocide with which most are familiar. The Trail of Tears refers to the forced removal of the Cherokee and other Native American nations from their homelands in Georgia and Alabama to western territory in what would become Oklahoma. In 1823, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Marshall ruled that every bit of soil in North America was the exclusive property of some European power. Although the native people could occupy land, their occupancy was inferior to the Europeans’ right of domain: the Europeans could extinguish the natives’ title of occupancy as they wished. The removal of the Cherokees from their homelands was an example of this; settlers wanted this rich land for their plantations. About half of the sixteen thousand people who were forced from their land westward died during the journey.

Queensland, Australia Aboriginal Genocide

Studies have shown that Queensland must have accounted for close to forty percent of the Indigenous population of the Australian continent before British colonization. The European settlement of what is now Queensland began as a penal settlement in 1824. Free settlement began in 1838, and settlement rapidly expanded in a great rush to the surrounding land from 1840, in many cases leading to widespread fighting and heavy loss of life. The largest reasonably well-documented massacres in southeast Queensland were the Kilcoy and Whiteside poisonings, each of which was said to have taken up to 70 Aboriginal lives by use of a gift of flour laced with strychnine. The conflict in Queensland was the bloodiest in the history of Colonial Australia. About 1,500 whites and their allies were killed on the Queensland frontier during the 19th century, while upwards of 65,000 Aboriginal people were killed.

Genocide in German South West Africa

In 1884/1885 Europe divided Africa up in “the scramble for Africa”, giving Germany several colonies.   Present-day Namibia was German South-West Africa, and was also controlled by the Union of South Africa (essentially a unification of several British colonies). In January 1904, the Herero people and the Nama people rebelled against German colonial rule. On January 12, they killed more than 100 German settlers. In August, German General Lothar von Trotha defeated the Herero and drove them into the desert, where most of them died of dehydration. In October, the Nama people also rebelled against the Germans, only to suffer a similar fate. Between 24,000 and 100,000 Hereros and 10,000 Nama were killed in this genocide. The first phase of the genocide was characterized by widespread death from starvation and dehydration, due to the prevention of the Herero from leaving the Namib desert by German forces. Once defeated, thousands of Hereros and Namas were imprisoned in concentration camps where the majority died of diseases, abuse, and exhaustion.

Gaza in 2024

Replacing the existing population of Palestine with northern European Jews has been a goal of the Zionists since they began.  Theodor Herzl, founding father of Zionism, observed, “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.” The Zionists who prevailed on England to support their mission actively recruited Jews from all parts of Europe to make an aliyah – that is, to move to Palestine. Since 1948 they have been expanding the amount of the country that they control, not only by recruiting more and more immigrants but also restricting the movement of the Muslim Palestinians within the country. In this current war on Gaza they have quite openly stated that their goal is to get the Palestinians to move out – to go to a different country.  This is the essence of settler colonialism. The people of Gaza are being killed – by bombs, by guns, by starvation, by lack of medical care. The protracted blockade on Gaza, coupled with consecutive offensives, has resulted in perpetual de-development and an ongoing humanitarian crisis that have condemned the population of Gaza, including women, girls and persons with disabilities, to be left behind. Military escalations in Gaza are becoming exponentially deadlier over time 

In 2005 the United Nations adopted the Responsibility to Protect. Article 138 states:

Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability.

This does not tell us how to handle a situation such as Israel/Palestine where it is the State which is carrying out the genocide against the indigenous people.  However we CAN act on article 139 which says:

The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. 

All nations should be doing this NOW.  We have a responsibility, as stated here, to protect the people of Gaza from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.