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February 5, 2009
Debate continues over what constitutes genocide

Turkey admits to World War I-era mass killings in Armenia but denies that it was genocide. A memorial in Yerevan, Armenia, commemorates the killings.

The word genocide was coined in the wake of the Holocaust.

Since then, the term has been used in varying contexts to describe modern conflicts, from Rwanda to Darfur. But the term itself has become a source of conflict, as many look to whether or not governments and leaders recognize and punish genocide.

The United Nations defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” and a convention criminalizing genocide became law in 1951.

Some people have been prosecuted and found guilty of genocide, including Rwandan politician Jean-Paul Akayesu and Serbian General Radislav Krstic.

However, while the U.S. has pointed to genocide in Darfur, the United Nations has refrained from using that term to describe the killings in Sudan.

The “Killing Denouement” blog discusses the historical use of the term and modern debates surrounding its usage:

Is Gaza a genocide; is Darfurgenocide? Where do you draw the lines between ‘land conflict’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide’, and what are the political value(s) of doing so? And how does something get designated as genocide anyway – is it, legally, only when the ICC at the Hague says so?

[…]The Rwandan genocide is popularly characterised as one of the most shocking massacres of a century already stained by violent bloodshed. Much of its associated visceral horror comes from the situation of neighbours turning against each other. Not unlike its historical cousin of the Nazi Holocaust, it too was structured around several poles of binary opposition. Citizen and subject; native and settler. Hutu and Tutsi; Nazi and Jew. Both of these atrocities have seeped their way into the collective Western consciousness, and have come to function as embedded points of reference for future conflicts.

The “Presidential Blog” writes about the debate surrounding the Gaza war and its casualties:

I see how the name-calling and the evocations of other historical horrors take us all further away from understanding, further away from any hope of resolution on a human scale. Comparisons to “genocide” or “apartheid” simply raise the rhetorical stakes; they may help speakers or writers score points (in their own minds and the minds of the like-minded) but they do nothing to advance shared understanding.

On the contrary.

Mahmood Mamdani of “Pambazuka News” points to similarities between violence in Darfur and the war in Iraq, exploring how the conflicts are named differently:

The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?

Flickr user “Bullneck” posts an image of a protester with a sign declaring genocide, and argues that the word is misused:

Here’s an idea: Why don’t we all put the term ‘genocide’ (and ‘Holocaust,’ too) on a hiatus from placards and instead use words with more meaning, rationality, and thought? The only situation which calls for the use of such terms would be something akin to Rwanda in the ’90s. Everything else is self-righteous hyperbole which cheapens the word’s meaning.

Blogger “Stacey Perlman” argues that governments use alternate terms to avoid responsibilities:

The genocide in Darfur has gone on since 2003 and has not gained the attention it deserves. Other genocides include Rwanda in 1994 and the Cambodian Killing Fields in 1975. Not to mention the death of 11 million people, 6 million of them Jews, in the Holocaust during WWII.

Perhaps lesser known is the first genocide of the 20th century. No, it wasn’t the Jews in WWII, it was the Armenians in 1915 during WWI. It is estimated that one and a half million people died between 1915 and 1923. There is still controversy surrounding the mass murder of these people as the Turkish government has continually denied it ever happened.

In Kenya, the recent election controversy was the straw that broke the camel’s back after decades of tension from grudges over land. Using a term like “ethnic cleansing” is an easy way to avoid providing aid. […] Until the situation is deemed “genocide” no legal action needs to be taken, which is disturbing. Ethnic cleansing is not any less minor of a situation than a declared genocide and efforts should be made to combat it.

The “BlogCritics” blog writes that Western governments only deem mass killing genocidal when economic interests are involved:

After the horrors of World War II, the world said “never again” to horrific mass killings. But, due to the Cold War tensions, idealistic ideas such as this one were abandoned in favor of realist politics and fighting for self-interests. “Never again” does not mean “we will do everything to stop genocides from happening anywhere in the world.” The Western world in particular considers stopping genocides only in countries where they have economic or other interests.

That is why in 1994 the American government did not want to use the term “genocide” to describe the fastest genocide in recorded human history that took over 800,000 lives in Rwanda in only 100 days. […] Calling the mass slaughter “genocide” would obligate the US and other governments, signatories of the Resolution 260A(III), to intervene and stop it. But the US and other Western countries did nothing because they had no interests in the small, overpopulated, and poor African country. That a whole ethnic group was being exterminated in front of the whole world was not enough.

Blogger “Erica Thurman” argues that omitting gender from the definition of genocide allows violence against women:

Discourse of human security as it relates to women appears to avoid the “G” word—genocide. This is perhaps because the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (Convention) fails to identify systematic sexual based violence as an act of genocide. Various threats to human security are gender specific. Rape, forced impregnation, maternal mortality rates and sexual slavery are components of human insecurity which have to be viewed through a gendered lens to recognize “who is affected and how, and what specific forms of protection or assistance are needed by whom.” […]

A finding of systematic rape as genocide would serve two purposes. The first would allow the violence against African women to be classified as genocide, thereby compelling the international community to act to prevent future occurrences of this heinous crime. Secondly, the finding of rape as genocide would introduce the idea of sexually specific crimes in the discourse of genocide which could subsequently compel an amendment to the Convention establishing women as a protected class against genocide.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Rita Willaert under a Creative Commons license.

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