The term genocide has been in the news recently, in particular in connection with China’s treatment of its ethnic Uighur population. But as Imogen Foulkes writes, the restrictive definition of the word makes applying the term anything but easy.This content was published on April 6, 2021 - 15:00
We’ve just come to the end of another lengthy session of the UN Human Rights Council, at which some very grave human rights situations were addressed: Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, North Korea, Belarus…and much more. No country, let’s be honest, has a perfect human rights record – when the council discussed systemic racism, it focused with good reason on recent events in the United States. Its latest reports on child poverty have shown the United Kingdom in a less than flattering light.
But there are some human rights violations which shock us to the core, which we view as more serious than all others, and for which most of us at least believe there must be accountability. Chief among those crimes is genocide. The very definition of the term is chilling: “The deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group.”
But take a look again at that definition. In fact it is quite narrow. A “large number” of people, from “a particular nation or ethnic group”. The term was first introduced by international lawyer Rafael Lemkin in 1944, to try to define the immense crime of the Holocaust, in which he lost many members of his own family.
In 1948, the United Nations Convention on Genocide was adopted, in a bid to prevent such horror ever happening again – or at the very least to ensure that those who attempted or carried out such crimes would be held accountable. Since then, as Geneva Graduate Institute Professor of International Law Paola Gaeta told me, the convention has remained pretty much “unchanged”.
Genocide, or crimes against humanity?
Paola was talking to me during our latest episode of the Inside Geneva podcast. We were also joined by Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and analyst Daniel Warner.
Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided in January to accuse (via Twitter) China of committing genocide against the Uighur community in Xinjiang, putting the term on the news agenda again. A month later, Canada’s parliament voiced a similar opinion.
Interestingly, human rights groups themselves tend to use the term genocide very sparingly. Not, as Roth explained, because events in a particular place are not “really really bad”, but because, as we saw, the definition of genocide is quite restrictive.
The slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 can fairly be termed genocide for example, but Cambodia’s Year Zero doesn’t quite fit. Not because the killings were less savage or numerous, but because in Cambodia most people were killed not for their ethnicity, but because of their political or social affiliations.
When former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, the genocide conviction related to the persecution and killing of Cambodia’s small Moslem community, the crimes against humanity charge to everyone else.
“People feel like, if you don’t call it genocide, then it’s not serious, and that’s a mistake,” Roth told me.
So do we attach too much gravity to the term genocide, and not enough to crimes against humanity? Roth believes we do sometimes “look at genocide as the sole definition of what’s really really bad”. Gaeta points out that genocide has got the status of a convention, but crimes against humanity have not “or at least not yet”.
Then again, the convention has not led to a great many convictions. The "aim of destroying” a particular nation or group is notoriously hard to prove. Genocidal intent, and the act of genocide itself, are the work of a system, or an organization, not of one individual. But the law, of course, prosecutes individuals. And by the time those individuals are brought to court, victims have often waited years for justice. Serbian general Ratko Mladic was finally convicted of genocide in 2007, 12 long years after the massacre of Srebrenica.
As Warner points out: “You can identify an individual and a chain of command, [but] how difficult it is to bring that person to justice.”
It’s a fascinating discussion, and I hope you’ll join us to hear it. And, should you be interested in hearing more about the usefulness, or not, of other conventions and treaties, here’s a shameless plug for two other recent Inside Geneva podcasts, one looking at the long road to the Ottawa Convention against Landmines, and the other at the very recently adopted Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Happy listening!