Skip to main content

The Secession of East Pakistan in 1971 and the Question of Genocide

Dirk Moses, Woodrow Wilson Center Australian Scholar

Date & Time

Dec. 15, 2010
3:00pm – 4:30pm ET


Drawing from documents from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Dirk Moses, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Australian Scholar, reconstructed British governmental and public reaction to the violence in East Pakistan between March and June 1971 that some months later led to the formation of Bangladesh. This period of turmoil has been generally characterized either as a "civil war" or as "genocide" perpetrated by the (West) Pakistani military against the people of East Pakistan. Moses carefully looked at how the British diplomats interpreted the violence in terms of a civil war framework, which suggested armed struggle on both sides, as well as "communal riots" generally associated with South Asia. On the other hand, the British opposition supported the Bengali (and Indian) rhetoric of genocide, implying the one-sided mass killing of innocent civilians.

According to Moses, the British Tory government, sympathetic to the Pakistani government, cast the crisis as civil war. Seeing both India and Pakistan as "buffers" against Soviet influence in Asia, London was keen on maintaining a balance between the two South Asian states. Moses observed that the FCO and the British government, like most other states at the time, were committed to the concepts of state sovereignty (for Pakistan's unity) and non-interference in Pakistan's internal affairs. Therefore, the British government ignored appeals for intervention from the Bengali Awami League.

Moses described how the official British government position was challenged by the political opposition. John Stonehouse, a parliament member close to the Bengali community in the United Kingdom, alluded to notions of "genocide" in the House of Commons by citing affidavits from Bengali refugees in India that documented Pakistani army violence. Another account by Member of Parliament (MP) Michael Barnes detailed how the refugees in India had suffered from a "deliberately unleashed wave of atrocity." Also, MP Peter Shore told the House of Lords that the refugee crisis was "brought about by the actions of a highly disciplined army" rather than communal rioting. In Dacca, British diplomats observed a "reign of terror" in the Pakistani army's indiscriminate killings of staff and students at Dacca University, yet refrained from making any criticism since they depended on the local Pakistani military leadership to evacuate British nationals.

The media, in Moses's view, was more inclined to portray the conflict as genocidal. Both the British media and public sided with the East Pakistan position. Notably, Simon Dring of The Telegraph provided first-hand accounts witnessing "cold-blooded murder" at the destruction of the Iqbal University Student Hostel that killed 200 students. Tikka Khan, head of Pakistan's military, rejected Bengali accusations of genocide, claiming that they were wildly exaggerated by the press. Like most Pakistan elites, Khan believed that these correspondents, who were mostly based in West Bengal and Delhi after their expulsion from Pakistan, channeled only the Indian viewpoint.

India, which had to accommodate up to 10 million refugees who fled East Pakistan, and the Soviets tried to raise the matter in United Nations, placing it in a bind: Article 2(7) of the UN Charter guaranteed "non-interference" in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of any state, while Article 1(2) encouraged developing "friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples." The Pakistanis and their supporters in the UN invoked Article 2(7) while the Bengalis and their supporters invoked Article 1(2). Despite the violence, the international community, including China and the Arab/Muslim states, adhered to the norm of non-interference in the internal affairs of a state by siding with Pakistan. Consequently, the issue was not presented before the Security Council until later in 1971 when war became imminent between India and Pakistan.

There are lessons for the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudanese president, Omar el-Bashir for war crimes, Moses suggested. Sudan's African neighbors would not arrest el-Bashir, negatively affecting the work of NGOs in Darfur and peace-marking efforts in Sudan. Moses concluded that there are no easy answers for cases in which genocide is alleged and state sovereignty is at stake. In the end, these allegations become matters of diplomatic haggling. For that reason, Moses is naming his forthcoming book on the subject, The Diplomacy of Genocide.

By Sue Levenstein
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program


Hosted By

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.