There Is No International Consensus To Define ‘Genocide’

“Death is the universal salt of states; / Blood is the base of all things—law and war.” —Philip James Bailey, Festus

In A Nutshell

“Genocide” is one of the most emotive words ever coined. It conjures images of bodies burning in the ovens of Auschwitz, of corpses littering the streets of Rwanda and of skulls piled high in the killing fields of Cambodia. The UN has issued treaties on it, and the ICC has convicted more than 30 people of it. Yet there remains no internationally agreed definition, with estimates between the number of “true” genocides in the 20th century ranging from one, to three, to dozens.

The Whole Bushel

In 1948, the UN adopted the world’s first treaty on genocide. Drafted in response to the horrors of Auschwitz, it sought to define the ultimate crime against humanity: the attempted extermination of an entire people. Although the document ran for some pages, it can be summed up as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Sounds simple, right? Not exactly. Fast-forward 66 years and people are still arguing over what “genocide” really means.

The trouble is that the UN definition is fairly narrow. By its own standards, only three genocides can claim to have been committed in the whole of the 20th century: the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and Rwanda. But this doesn’t match up with legal reality. In 2007, the International Criminal Court ruled that the Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia constituted genocide. As you may have noticed, Bosnia doesn’t feature on our list above. Yet at least two people have now been convicted.

There are other complications, too. For instance, the UN definition refers explicitly to extermination, prevention of procreation, or the slaughter/removal of children as preconditions of genocide. However, the first human being in history to be convicted of the crime—Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu—was convicted of ordering mass rapes rather than slaughters. It also states that intention must be proved, yet a large number of academics have argued that the slave trade constitutes genocide, although the intention of the slavers was “to exploit, rather than to exterminate,” their victims.

As a final wrench in the works, different countries also interpret genocide law differently. When Adolf Eichmann was convicted in Israel, it was under a law very similar to the UN’s genocide one, but exclusive to the Jewish people. In Bolivia, former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada is wanted on genocide charges for the massacre of 64 protesters. Bolivian law including massacres in its definition of genocide. In the US, people like Noam Chomsky have even argued the Reagan administration could be indicted for genocide thanks to its war in Nicaragua.

In short, no one really knows what genocide is. For academics and reporters, it’s a hugely thorny issue that needs untangling. For international law makers, it’s an issue with the ability to affect untold millions of lives.

Show Me The Proof

BBC News: Defining genocide
NY Times: When Rape Becomes Genocide
U.S. Shelters Bolivia Ex-President From Genocide Charges As Evo Morales Offers Snowden Asylum
Noam Chomsky: Ronald Reagan’s Secret, Genocidal Wars