Understanding Genocide

There seems to be an interesting, if somewhat technical, discussion brewing over at the Graun’s ‘Comment is Free’ ont he subject of Darfur, Genocide and the legal obligations on the international community arising out of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which begins with this article by Brian Brivati and continues with this response from Conor Foley – in the comments of the latter article, Brian has promised a response, which I look forward to with some interest.

Conor’s article also provoked this response from A General Theory of Rubbish, describing Conor’s article as  ‘disgusting shit’, which provides a nice counterpoint to both this debate and the wider debate on the Euston Manifesto by exemplifying the problems which arise when one sets aside rational considerations in favour of amateur polemics and half-arsed emoting – a firly common problem amongst some Eustonauts it has to be said.

Will kicks off his response in what seems to be quite promising fashion:

Genocide evokes a human responsibility upon humanity as one, to act, while legally (as usual) the obligation is muddled through lawyerly crap.

All things being equal one would expect Will to continue his argument is a fairly straightforward and matter-of-fact fashion – sadly what follows dashes any such expectations:

Under The Genocide Convention Article 8 says "any contracting party may call upon competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide." Article 1 says that the contracting parties undertake to prevent and to punish genocide, but it leaves the undertaking inchoate, not legally specific enough to be binding. So far, no nation in the international community has "officially" acknowledged the truth – and the truth being composed of – the economic, political, societal, and historical fruitfulness of thought in practice. Without directional perspectives and individuals oriented towards high moral goals which derive their significance from meta-ethical frames of meaning, the political machine with its strategic rationality has become and maintains itself as a pointless, system-inherent and alienating reality.

You fucking what? If I can try and translate into English, I think what Will is trying to say here is:

1. The Genocide Convention creates a duty to act to prevent Genocide but doesn’t say precisely when that duty to act comes comes into force or what kind of action should be taken.

2. The question of what is, or isn’t, genocide is a moral one, not a legal one.

To some extent I can sympathise with Will’s point – once I’d worked out exactly what he was trying to say – however I do fundamentally disagree with him on when it comes to defining what is an isn’t genocide in purely moral terms and, in particular,  when he goes on to state that:

Genocide is not a disagreement between competing factions – it cannot be mediated away – it is one-sided mass murder. It’s time for us to stop saying "never again," and start saying, "not this time fuckers" and put it into practice.

The problem I have is that while genocide almost always entails mass-murder (and I’ll qualify the ‘almost always’ in a second) not all mass-murder is genocide and I believe that it would be wrong, for profound historical and philsophical reasons, to conflate the two issues.

The Genocide Convention actually defines genocide as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Point (e) is primarily where the ‘almost always’ on mass-murder comes in, as one can forcibly transfer children from one group to another without murdering anyone, as was the practice in Australia during the 1950s where children were shamefully removed from Aboriginal families and put into white-run orphanages in an attempt to eradicate Aboriginal culture. This same abhorrent practice was also used in parts of the US in relation to Native American families, which I mention here not simply to get a cheapshot at the US into this article but because many years ago, while travelling in the US, I spent some time on a Native American reservation and had the opportunity to speak first-hand to people who had been subjected to this practice, all of which makes this a little more personal for me than might otherwise be the case.

Anyway, getting back to the point after that brief digression, the defining characteristic of genocide, as opposed to simply mass-murder, lies in this qualifying statement:

committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part…

This is what raises genocide above mere considerations of mass murder by one, if not, several degrees of magnitude, genocide is predictated on a deliberate intent to eradicate a particular group, and intent that need not necessarily be present even in some of the most heinous cases of mass murder.

To explain precisely what I mean here, I think its worth constrasting the concept of genocide with its more recent ‘cousin’ – ethnic cleansing.

Since this latter term came to the fore, during the Balkan conflicts that arose out of the collapse of Yugoslavia, it seems to be pretty common practice to either conflate or confuse these two terms, which is perhaps understandable as ‘ethnic cleansing’ does sound for all the world like one of those appalling euphemisms that politicians, military leaders, and governmental press officers routinely trot out in an effort to obscure unpalatable truths, terms like ‘collateral damage – i.e. Oh fuck, we’ve just bombed a children’s hospital – and ‘friendly fire’ – I’ve never quite seen the fine distinction with this last one there being something fundamentally unfriendly about getting shot at regardless of who’s doing the shooting. However, there is an important different between ethnic cleansing and genocide in terms of the intent upon which each is predicated.

In ethnic cleansing, the basic intent is to remove a particular group/population from a particular territorial area. This may result in violence and even mass murder, but not always and not necessarily – in fact violence often only enters the picture where members of the group that are being ‘cleansed’ offer resistance to being moved on. In recent times, probably the most successful and least violent example of ethnic cleansing happened in 1972 when the then Uganda president, Idi Amin, summarily expelled a South Asian population of 50,000 from the country, many of whom came to the UK and now form the hub of many Britain’s own South Asian community.

I should say here that terms like ‘successful’ and ‘least violent’ are used in a relative sense, i.e by comparision to the militarily-forced ethnic cleansings of the Balkans.

The point I am making is that the fundamental basis of ethnic cleansing is the displacement of a population, not its wholesale eradication – indeed one could readily argue that NATO was in part and inadvertantly responsible for one of the largest acts of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the last 20 years or so, given that its intervention in Kosovo resulted in near 60% of the Kosovan Serb population fleeing the country, the majority of whom (estinated at around 100,000) have not returned, but while one can argue about the relative merits and rights and wrongs of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, few but the most blinkered commentators would accept or even consider that NATO were deliberately following a policy of ethnic cleansing when they intervened.

That ethnic cleansing is not genocide does not make it any less morally reprehensible but it does complicate matters when one comes to consider the circumstances in which a duty arises on the international community to intervene by means of miitary force – could one, for example, have justified mounting a military invasion of Uganda in 1972 to prevent the expulsion of its South Asian community, or would that instead be considered a disproportionate response to a situation in which the use of violence was relatively limited? The moral judgment to be made here is pretty clear and straightforward, but justifying a particular type of response a much less simple and clear-cut matter.

Even where ethnic cleansing is accompanied by acts of egregious violence and mass murder, the judgment as to what might constitute a legitimate and proportionate response – how many people need to die in order to justify and UN Peacekeeping mission as opposed to a full scale invasion and removal of a government? What happens when the violence crosses national borders and boundaries, when one is dealing with insurgencies, partilcularly those supported or condoned by a neighbouring government?

Back in the 1980’s would, for example, the Soviet Union have been justified in intervening militarily in Honduras in order to put down the Contra insurgency against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government that was democratically-elected in 1984, despite the best efforts of the US to manipulate and discredit the election process, which was otherwise certified as having been free and fair by international observers? Can one even judge such a situation on purely moral ground or does the answer one arives at depend primarily on your political views and whose side your on?

One of the debates that crops up as a matter of routine every year in the run to Holocaust Memorial Day is that of whether there should even be such an event or whether, in order to be inclusive of other communities, it should be either replaced or supplemented by a more generic public memorial to the victims of ‘genocide’.

While I have no difficulty with the idea of an annual memorial event/day for historical victims of mass murder within reason – one can take such things a bit too far and end up dealing with events that are now so historically remote than any and all apologies and commemorations become entirely meaningless exercises in unnecessary moral self-flagellation – I would not support the idea of replacing HMD with a generic event for two basic reasons.

The first is purely a matter of historical context – the Holocaust is a part of European history and has shaped, to varying degrees, the collective identity of the continent. On that basis I see no problem in a specific memorial dealing with the Holocaust as unique historical event any more than I would object to Americans holding events on the 4th of July or the French holding events on Bastille Day – its our history and should not be lost or subsumed into global events simply because some groups who, by and large, weren’t around at the time, feel that they have no part in it.

More important than that, on a moral and philosophicl level, I see the Holocaust as being, if not a unique event then at least one that as near unique as makes no difference. History is littered with the most horrific examples of ethnic cleansing and mass murder and yet, as I see it, the Holocaust stands apart from most, if not all, of these events precise due to the circumstance in which it took place and – crucially – the intent of its perpetrator. Nazi Germany did specifically set out to eradicate the Jewish, and other, populations of Europe. not displace them and move them out of their territory but actually excise everything from their culture to their very genetic characteristic from the human race – and for me that raises the Holocaust itself, and indeed the whole concept of genocide above other forms of mass murder.

Morally, ethically, philosophically and legally, I believe that genocide, as it it defined in the convention in terms of the clear intent of it perpetrators, must remain distinct from other forms of mass murder, otherwise the very concept of genocide will become so diffuse and devalued over time as to become largely meaningless – and if we do devalue genocide as a concept then, by extension, we devalue the Holocaust and everything the proceeds from it.

I’m not suggesting here that this invalidates Will’s point about the situation in Darfur – the question of whether that merits or requires military intervention is a separate one and not what I wanted to get into here – but unless it can be shown that the intent of the Janjaweed is specifically to eradicate those it has, and still is oppressing and murdering, then what’s happening in Darfur is NOT genocide and should not be called genocide – in which case Will would be better served by putting forward rational arguments which extend or clarify international duties in respect of mass murder and not seeking to redefine the concept of genocide in order to justify intervention.

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