The 20th century is considered one of the worst centuries in human history in terms of human-made atrocities that resulted in the deaths of millions of people. Although the progress humanity achieved in the 20th century brought many technological advances that improved the quality of life, it also caused a great amount of suffering in the numerous wars and conflicts that occurred in that century. The negative events that happened in the 20th century completely contradicted all possible principles of human morality and ethics. While there were reasons behind these actions, they are not enough to justify everything that happened in that century (Valentino, 2013).
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Inhumanity in the 20th Century
Many events that occurred during the 20th century can be considered inhumane. The most brutal among them were World War I and World War II, the Holodomor or famine-genocide in Ukraine, the Auschwitz concentration camp, the bombardment of Dresden, the use of an atomic weapon in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Gulag camps, the Burma Railway, the Vietnam War, the Great Chinese Famine, the Rwandan Genocide, the Sri Lankan Civil War, and the Khmer Rouge regime. Also, numerous minor-scale conflicts resulted in thousands of human deaths (Glover, 2012).
Statistics show that most of these events are among the deadliest in human history. Thus, the overall number of victims of World War I is approximately 40 million people. The number of casualties of World War II is more than 80 million people. The Great Chinese Famine killed 40 million people. As a result of the Holocaust, 20 million people died. The Gulag caused 3 million deaths. Technological advancements such as the atomic bomb and similar means of mass destruction used in war also contributed to the increase in the number of victims (Becker, 2014).
All the disasters mentioned above occurred for various reasons. Some of these reasons were based on good intentions but ended in disaster. For example, Mao Zedong’s motives in his Great Leap Forward were positive as he wanted to create a great communist country, but he underestimated the situation and caused the Great Chinese Famine in which millions of people died. In terms of the atomic bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the intent was to stop the war, which could be considered good, though its implementation was far from humane. Nevertheless, even good intentions cannot justify such horrible actions (Valentino, 2013).
It is certainly natural after such disastrous events for people to be determined to seek more humane approaches and not repeat past mistakes. This can also be regarded as a good intention, but considering past events, there is no guarantee of a positive outcome. In theory, it is possible to prevent such negative events from happening. However, in practice, human nature can mount a great obstacle in this process of prevention (Becker, 2014).
In retrospect, one analyzing the greatest human-made disasters of the 20th century can state that each could have been prevented. Moreover, the fact that many people know that these disasters were not inevitable cannot prevent such events from happening in the future as history, unfortunately, shows that in most cases, people do not learn from their mistakes (Valentino, 2013). However, from an optimistic point of view, there is always a possibility that people will eventually understand how not to repeat their mistakes.
Sri Lankan Civil War
One of the numerous human-made catastrophes of the 20th century, continuing into the 21st century, was the Sri Lankan Civil War. This conflict spanned twenty-six years, from 1983 to 2009. In terms of the casualties of the war, it is estimated that approximately 100,000 people were killed. Over those twenty-six years of war, several attempts were made to pursue peace. One that occurred in 2002 can be regarded as successful, as both sides managed to agree to a cease-fire. However, in 2005, the conflict continued, mostly due to numerous guerrilla attacks. In 2009, the government of Sri Lanka managed to finally defeat the Tamil Tigers, thereby ending the war. The economic cost of the war has been estimated at nearly $250 billion (Azmi, Brun, & Lund, 2016).
Causes of the Conflict
The conflict allegedly arose based on ethnic, cultural, and religious disagreements between Tamil and Sinhalese groups, but in fact, more complex issues were involved, primarily connected with the colonial legacy of the country. Namely, when Sri Lanka was a British colony, the British brought nearly a million Indian Tamil workers to the island. The foreign overseers gave various privileges to Tamils and appointed them to the highest positions, thereby discriminating against the Sinhalese and angering them.
As a result, when Sri Lanka was granted independence in 1948, Sinhalese took power and began to introduce laws discriminating against Tamils. In particular, they made the Sinhalese language official in the state, prohibited Tamils to work in the civil service, and deprived almost 750,000 of citizenship, thereby making the Tamils stateless. Thus, the Tamils’ anger grew for several decades, and in 1983, they created the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and started the insurgency (Dower, Ginsburgh, & Weber, 2017).
In 2005, after the resumption of the war, civilians began to appear on the lists of victims. Several bombs were planted in buses and trains in both Sinhalese and Tamil parts of the country. Thus, the last four years of the war saw many more casualties among civilians than earlier years, attracting the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (Azmi et al., 2016). In 2014, the Commission began an investigation into the violation of human rights on the part of the Sri Lankan government during the war.
The government refused to cooperate with the UN and restricted access to the war zones. The Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers were accused of being responsible for attacks on civilians, child recruitment, suicide bombings, execution of prisoners, and starving the civilians who lived in the war zone. Currently, the investigation is still in progress (Dower et al., 2017).
To avoid future atrocities such as those humanity committed in the 20th century, it is imperative to be able to identify them and prevent them from happening. To ensure that these catastrophes will not happen again, people must be constantly reminded of the consequences of those that happened in the past, thereby arousing in them an ethical and humane attitude toward one another.
In conclusion, it can be stated that although the 20th century is considered the deadliest period in all of history in terms of human-made disasters, there have also been numerous atrocities in earlier times. Moreover, the entirety of human history is permeated with events involving crimes against humanity.
Technological advancement in the 20th century had both a positive impact regarding the overall development of humanity and a negative one concerning the creation of weapons of mass destruction, such as the atomic bomb, that have caused many millions of casualties in various conflicts that occurred during the century. Additionally, in terms of a future perspective, it is possible that people will sooner or later learn from their past mistakes and will not repeat them.
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Azmi, F., Brun, C., & Lund, R. (2016). Between exclusion and political engagement: Conceptualizing young people’s everyday politics in the postwar setting of Sri Lanka. Politics, Citizenship and Rights, 4(2), 345-362.
Becker, A. (2014). Catastrophe vs. Tragedy. Interview with Annette Becker, historian of the Great War and of extreme violence in the 20th century. Témoigner. Entre histoire et mémoire. Revue pluridisciplinaire de la Fondation Auschwitz, 118(2), 42-47.
Dower, P. C., Ginsburgh, V., & Weber, S. (2017). Colonial legacy, polarization and linguistic disenfranchisement: The case of the Sri Lankan War. Journal of Development Economics, 127(4), 440-448.
Glover, J. (2012). Humanity: A moral history of the 20th century (2nd ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Valentino, B. A. (2013). Final solutions: Mass killing and genocide in the 20th century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.