Genocide Matters

Posted by Karen Murphy on April 21, 2016


It is impossible to imagine what Raphael Lemkin would be thinking and doing if he were alive today. He dedicated his life to stopping mass violence against people based on their identities and to holding those who were responsible accountable for their crimes. As a young man, he studied past slaughters, including pogroms against Jews, and he immersed himself in understanding the mass murder of the Armenians by the Turkish state, the failure to stop it, and to punish those who were responsible for it. In the midst of his efforts to draw attention to these issues, he lost 49 family members, including his parents, in the Holocaust. They died in the Warsaw ghetto, in concentration camps, and in the death marches.

Lemkin was responsible for coining the word genocide, which was used at the Nuremberg Trials. It became the basis of the newly established United Nations December 9, 1948, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. But in the wake of the Convention, genocide continues to happen – from Rwanda to Bosnia to Cambodia. In recent months, Syria and Iraq have been added to that list.

In October 2015, Genocide Watch wrote:

Members of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the world’s largest organization of experts in genocide, have called upon the U.S. Congress to declare that the crimes committed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Da’esh, constitute genocide in violation of the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Genocide is the intentional destruction, in whole or in part, of a national, ethical, racial or religious group, as such. ISIS is committing genocide against religious groups that do not conform to ISIS’s totalitarian definition of “true Islam.” ISIS mass murders of Chaldean, Assyrian, Melkite Greek, and Coptic Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims, Sunni Kurds and other religious groups meet even the strictest definition of genocide.

They have called on states to recognize this genocide and, among other things, to refer ISIS to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution.

On March 2nd, the European Parliament made a similar argument. It was the first time that they have made such a declaration.

Two weeks later, the U.S. Congress joined together in a House Resolution stating, “the atrocities perpetrated by ISIL against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria include war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.” The U.S. Secretary of State has joined this growing chorus, which includes UK parliamentary members and U.S. presidential candidates.

But, does it matter? Morally, legally, and politically, scholars, activists, international lawyers, and others say it does.

Labeling the mass violence committed by ISIL in Syria and Iraq as genocide can create political pressure that leads the UN Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court for investigation. It could also inspire the chief prosecutor to investigate the case.

The scholars of Genocide Watch argue that there is another reason: “Studies by genocide scholars have shown that calling genocide by its proper name, rather than using euphemisms like ‘ethnic cleansing’ or weaker terms like ‘crimes against humanity,’ increases the probability of forceful action to end the crimes by over four times.” They point to Kosovo as an example of states responding when genocide was invoked.

The Rwandan genocide began 22 years ago. With the help of human rights activist Alison Des Forges, Rwandan human rights defender Monique Mujawamariya escaped and traveled to the U.S., which had avoided using the word genocide to describe what was happening. Together they met with then President Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake. He told them that they had to make more noise – more interviews, editorials, and peaceful protests – to urge politicians into action.

We know noise is not enough. There are politics involved, and these political realities can inspire cynicism, which can stop the noise. Political will matters, but it is something that is created, not just there.

We know more about the signs of mass violence and genocide and about our failure to respond. Journalist Nicholas Kristof has written about this, citing Paul Slovic’s work on psychic numbing and genocide. “Our capacity to feel is limited,” Slovic argues. “We cannot depend on the innate morality even of good people.” He believes that “we need to develop legal or political mechanisms to force our hands to confront genocide.”

What does it take for us to be moved to action? Genocide never happens at a convenient time. The situations are always complex. There are consequences to action. There are also consequences to inaction. They have names and families. They are people.

April is Genocide Awareness and Prevention month and we know that educators worldwide will be discussing these issues with their students. As adults, let’s consider the fact that we do not want to send the message that it’s only the responsibility of adolescents to care about and address something that the adults around them seem to have grown cynical about or abandoned. We need to continue to educate ourselves about genocide and mass violence, including those places such as Kenya and Kosovo where it was prevented through the work of journalists, civil society, diplomacy, and military intervention. And educators? They play a fundamental role in prevention.

Do you want to deepen the conversation with your students about genocide? Explore these resources below to help you facilitate thoughtful, reflective, and effective conversations.

  • Video: The Psychology of Genocide  
  • Video: Watchers of the Sky explores former Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz’s dedication to preventing mass atrocities by stopping war. 
  • Additional Resources:
    • To continue to learn more about societies at risk of genocide and mass violence, explore the work of organizations such as Genocide Watch.
    • Currently, the Commission for International Justice and Accountability and the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) are collecting evidence in Syria for possible criminal prosecutions.
    • Rwanda’s neighbor Burundi is one country that is of deep concern. Learn more about it.

Topics: Genocide/Collective Violence, genocide

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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