Using the term genocide to describe a set of crimes potentially entails moral, political and legal consequences for States, with the ultimate fear of being dragged in a military ordeal. It is the cause of many heavily disputed matters and consequently there is a high threshold to occasion a genocide determination, euphemistically known as the G-word. When in 1994 the depth of massacres in Rwanda emerged ‘’U.S. officials were afraid that the use of the stinging term would cause demands for intervention that the administration did not intend to meet’’.
The Genocide Convention
Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnical, racial, religious or national group. As is well known, the word genocide was conceived by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer and the founding father of the ‘Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’. The Genocide Convention has set out to punish and prevent genocide and has become the nexus for the legal definition of genocide. The duty to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities lies first and foremost with the State, but the international community has a role that cannot be blocked by the invocation of sovereignty.
Application of the G-word in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Darfur
But does it really matter whether the word genocide is used to describe atrocities or are words like ethnic cleansing as effective when it comes to prevent or stop atrocities? To examine this question scholars undertook to track trends in the use of the terms 'ethnic cleansing' and 'genocide' between 1990-2005 in articles from news outlets, UN press releases, statements by human rights NGO’ s and international legal literature. This timespan included the genocides in
- Bosnia between 1990 - 1995 with 200 000 deaths
- Kosovo between 1998 - 1999 with 10 000-20 000 deaths
- Rwanda in 1994 with 800 000 deaths
- Darfur with more than 300 000 deaths
The authors find a differing practice when the term genocide is applied to a specific set of crimes. Avoidance of a genocide determination in Rwanda led to inaction that allowed the genocide of 800 000 people to occur over a period of only 3 months in 1994. In Bosnia 3 years elapsed and most of the 200 000 deaths occured when use of the term genocide greatly superceded that of ethnic cleansing until the use of force halted the genocide. Application of the term genocide in Kosovo occurred more rapidly and the use of force in Kosovo followed thereafter, with much lower death tolls as a consequence.
The atrocities in Darfur were designated as genocide by then-U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell in 2004 when he declared that "genocide has been committed in Darfur, and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility" but added ''no new action is dictated by this determination''. In other words, no use of force was undertaken despite a statement by the U.S. State Department. The prevention of the use of force in Sudan was ensured when the United Nations International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur concluded that the Government of Sudan had not pursued a policy of genocide because it lacked the intent to commit genocide.
The power of a genocide determination?
Two findings are essential in these four cases. The first being that there is no relationship in the number of deaths whether atrocities were being called genocide or another term, like ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity. And the second finding pertaining to these cases was that as long as another term was used the use of force would not be applied to stop the atrocities, with the exception of Darfur.
Concludingly one could say that the determination that a genocide is applicable to certain crimes entails a strong moral imperative to stop genocide and can galvanize the international community to undertake action.
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Power, S., "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, New York, NY, Perennial, 2003.
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