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A Genocide by Any Other Name is Still a Genocide

As our new year’s resolutions fade into the distance, and worldwide self-introspection turns into claims that we have changed, we should continue to look critically not only at our own vices, but also those of global civil society. Horrific crimes against humanity are still being carried out on a daily basis, often times by people’s own governments.

Genocide, the term Raphael Lemkin coined after WWII to describe the deeds committed by Hitler and the Nazis recently gained its own United Nations day of remembranceThe International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. To be held every December 9 from now on, the day is more than a mouthful; it is a clear effort made by those with influence in the international forum to attempt to change the world for the better. Recognition plays a huge role in conflict transformation efforts post-genocide, as there is frequently denial on one or both sides on the actuality of events as they happened. However, it is essential that the global civil community not conflate this well-intentioned of the United Nations with real progress toward preventing and halting genocide.

Indeed, nearly 70 years on from the creation of the much acclaimed UN Genocide Convention, 2015 saw much of the same that initially warranted the creation of such a convention back in 1948; plus ça change évidement. The almost five-year-long Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions more, and spawned a refugee crisis unlike anything seen since WWII. The conflict, which began with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s armed violence against his own people during the Arab Spring, is increasingly turning Syria into a failed state. Even more worrisome, ethnic and sectarian conflict drives the war and is part of a larger effort by Da’esh (also known as the Islamic State, or ISIS) and the regime creating situations of genocidal totalitarianism and politicide.

In Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia, the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority population is treated as if its people were vermin and faces wide-scale ethnically motivated violence. Many have been forced to flee and seek refuge in Australia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, often making the journey in boats so perilous that experienced seamen would find them difficult to maneuver. And there were many other ethnically charged incidents in 2015, some allegedly already reaching the scope of genocide, such as in Kenya’s Northern Rift region between the Pokot and Turkana tribes; in the Central African Republic between the Anti-Balaka Christian militias and the Muslim Seleka rebels; in China’s Western Xinjiang Province against the native Muslim Uighur population; in Syria and Iraq by Da’esh against the people over whom the organization exercises its control; and in Burundi’s ongoing political and ethnic tensions

In Burundi, political violence stemming from incumbent two-term president Pierre Nkurunziza’s change of the constitution to run for a third term is reviving old ethnic tensions in a country that has already seen the horrors of genocide and has created friction between Burundi and the African Union (AU), which will only further complicate matters both domestically and regionally.  Precedents are important in international law, and the outcome of this spat could set the precedent of inter-African interventionism in the years to come as it regards genocidal circumstances. This is because, under the Burundian constitution, foreign troops can intervene only if all the warring factions agree to the intervention, or if there is no legitimate state government in place to provide security. As the Burundian government did not explicitly request the AU’s peacekeeping intervention mission, President Nkurunziza’s administration alleges that there are no grounds for legitimate and legal intervention. However, there is reason to believe that if violence flares up again, the AU—facing Western pressure to intervene—would feel compelled to begin peacekeeping efforts, even against the regime’s wishes. The case of Berundi illustrates the significant cognitive differences between people’s understanding of violence, as the African Union (AU) and Western countries struggle to determine whether the conflict is severe enough to merit intervention.

Moreover, the term ‘genocide’ should not be limited to only cases of physical annihilation. Lemkin initially thought of genocide as occurring in three key ways: physical, biological, and cultural, and ‘cultural genocide’ can be just as harming as physical genocide to a people. Case in point may be made by looking at how the destruction of the ancient world heritage site Timbuktu by Malian Islamist rebels prompted the International Criminal Court (ICC) this year to take up a prosecution of one of the rebels who had committed the acts. That the ICC recognizes the importance of cultural heritage protection is an indicator that the world is moving away from the one-track mindset of what the term ‘genocide’ has usually entailed in the global community. This shift is important for a number of reasons. Not the least of which being that there is still disagreement among the world’s governments as to what actually constitutes a genocide in the first place. Indeed, Turkey to this day refuses to acknowledge its complicity in the massacre of over two million ethnic Armenians in what is widely held by the rest of the international community to be the first genocide of the twentieth century.

Opening the doors with respect to what is or is not considered ‘genocide’ will, in theory, allow for more fluid debate on methods of peacebuilding, conflict resolution and subsequent transformation in places where atrocities have occurred. In Canada, which has long championed human rights and advanced international legal paradigm, the term ‘cultural genocide’ has come into common use in the domestic legal system. Adopted by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission last June, it was meant to describe an assimilationist policy forced upon the nation’s indigenous peoples aimed at extinguishing their  “legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial” identities. Labeling genocide in this way can have a significant effect on transformation and preventative efforts in the future. As Payam Akhavan, a former prosecutor of the United Nations at The Hague, has said, whether cultural genocide is the proper legal label or not is less important to the international community than its reality as a mourning metaphor.

Expanding genocide to include areas such as cultural cleansing, such as is the case being taken up by the ICC and in Canada, is a good first step to preventing crimes against humanities, and one Lemkin would have found to be long overdue. Yet, more can be done and must be done to stop situations like Burundi, Myanmar, Kenya and elsewhere from spiraling out of control. Particularly by those individuals, organizations, and institutions which hold the most power in deciding the fates of those afflicted by genocide and/or crimes against humanity.

Arguably, a critical change that could prevent these situations from occurring is limiting the use of the UNSC right to veto in situations where mass atrocities have occurred or have the potential to occur. With respect to the Syrian civil war that has elicited great responses from humanitarian civil rights groups and activists, the use of the veto in rejecting UNSC resolutions that would have prosecuted the Assad regime for crimes against his own people has not gone unnoticed by the world. The French have for some time been lobbying for this change with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The United Kingdom and the United States are open to the idea, but Russia and China remain vehemently opposed. Both states are some of the biggest supporters of states with records of war crimes or humanitarian atrocity, and both states have used the veto in recent years to restrict the international community’s legal right to intervene and/or investigate potential war crimes.

But Russia and China are not alone in their fault: the United States, United Kingdom, and France have also used the veto when it suits their interests. There is progress in preventing genocidal situations on a number of levels, but that we should need a day of commemoration of genocide victims is a sad indication of how far we have yet to go. Efforts to remember past victims of genocide, will be for naught if genocide is allowed to continue because of negligence and ‘special interests’ of states. The responsibility to protect must itself be ensured by the responsibility not to veto. To be sure, this is a necessary step forward but not a sufficient one in the fight to prevent genocide. Nation states with power to intervene must do so judiciously, both legally and ethically. In recent years, the use of the UNSC veto to prevent international investigation and intervention in situations where potential crimes against humanity have taken place has seen privileged and powerful states ignore their moral obligations to their fellow human beings in favor of politicking. Remember the victims, but we must ourselves also recognize that to remember and do nothing for current and future victims, is just as despicable as committing the acts themselves.


Jarrett Bunnin is an avid foreign affairs junkie who currently spends his time researching national and international security issues as an intern for the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis. He has previously worked for The AEGIS Trust, a genocide prevention NGO based in London, and holds a Masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image: “Enough” (credit: Genocide Intervention/Flickr).


Jarrett Bunnin

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