The history of genocide is a journey into the darkness of what we humans are capable of, but it remains a lingering question what exactly constitutes a genocide. Is genocide a 20th Century construction, or is genocide part of humanity’s original sin? The exact delineation between genocide as a goal or simply a result of wars is debatable. There are also other determining factors such as relative balance of power, the span of time, and intentionality as well as accepted definitions of genocide. The term was originally coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1943 by combining the Greek root genos (family, tribe, race) and the Latin root -cide (massacre). In 1948, the United Nations agree that genocide is against international law and define the crimes as:
“…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.”
Article 2, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNPPCG). (Originally a person’s politics were included as a possible motivation for genocide, but the Soviets successfully blocked its inclusion.) My working definition: the systematic dehumanization and mass killing of a people because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or ideology.
Since Lemkin’s definition was coined in 1943, there has been some debate as to whether the term can be retroactively used to describe mass killings before 1943. For example, at the walls of Jericho, the Torah recalls the command: “But all the silver and gold and articles of bronze and iron are holy to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD. So the people shouted, and priests blew the trumpets; and when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted with a great shout and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight ahead, and they took the city. They utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword.…” (Joshua 6:19-21).
How about the destructions of the Etruscans, or Carthage, by Rome? Or the destruction of the Picts by the Scots? Clearly, genocide occurred before the term genocide was created by Lemkin; after all, gravity certainly existed well before any wayward apples may, or may not, have fallen on the head of Isaac Newton. However, not all mass killing, even systematic killing is necessarily genocide. What is the difference between the destruction of the Canaanites and modern uses of the term genocide? The relative power of balance is an important distinction: are the belligerents relatively equal, or is there a clear imbalance of power? Secondly, is there a realistic possibility that the aggressive group is equally vulnerable to potential aggression by the group under attack. To be blunter: is it an ‘us or them’ situation or wanton killing? It is reasonable to believe that, if the Israelites did not kill the Canaanite, then the Canaanites would have eliminated the Israelites. Similarly, Carthage was as much a threat to Rome as Rome was a threat to Carthage. In the case of the Etruscans and the Picts, sometimes the disappearance of a distinct people is a gradual process of assimilation and not necessarily the systematic dehumanization and destruction of a people because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or ideology. Intentionality may be as important as the results.
There have been six major, and generally acknowledged, genocides in human history: Armenia, Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Darfur. Of course, there are many other genocides that history has forgotten, failed to notice, or a cause of debate as to whether murderous events reach the standard of genocide. Some of these other genocides include, but are not limited to:
- Aborigine peoples of Australia (1778-1967/1992/1996)
- The Irish Diaspora and Genocide (1840)
- The Circassian Genocide (1864?-1867)
- The Greek Genocide (1913-1922)
- The Assyrian Genocide (1914-1920)
- The Ukrainian Holodomor (1932-1933)
- Sovietization of the Baltic States (1940-1941; 1944-1991)
- The Creation of India-Pakistan (1947)
- Apartheid (1948-1991)
- Palestine/West Bank/Gaza (1948-)
- Tibet (1950-) and the Hanification of Tibet
- Mayan Guatemalans (1960-1996, especially 1981-1983)
- The Gujarat Riots (2002)
- The Yazidis Genocide (2014)
- The Rohingya Genocide (2017)
The well-known adage goes something like this: “History is written by the victors.” Whether it was Winston Churchill, Walter Benjamin, or some other thinker who uttered this first, the sentiment remains true regardless. Another proverb, “To the victors go the spoils,” relates as well, because, after all, recorded history is one of the greatest gifts that victory has to offer. Similarly, victory and history offer another priceless gift, that of clemency. Winners are not victorious in a vacuum. The problem is that war crime adjudication is a product of policy, and not of justice. Victorious powers rarely hold their own actors accountable. For example, four of the six generally acknowledged genocides (Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, and fmr. Yugoslavia) are defeated powers. It is the international organizations or successor states that have recognized the atrocities and held perpetrators accountable. Conversely, it is not a coincidence that the other two genocides, Armenia and Darfur, are denied by the perpetrating nations-states whose governments are, essentially, still in power.
Again, genocides do not occur in a vacuum and recognition of genocide is a product of policy, and not of justice. Consider the role of the US government in the history of genocide. The United States was one of the victorious powers that held culpable Germans responsible at the Nuremberg Trials. Decades later, the American military operations in Indo-China greatly destabilized the region, creating a power vacuum that was filled by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. In fact, during the administration of US President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), not only was Pol Pot still in power in Cambodia, but the peak of the Mayan Genocide occurred just 842 miles away. If the United States is an original signatory to the UN Convention for the Punishment and Prevention of Genocide, why did the US government not stop the Cambodian Genocide, not insist that the genocidal leadership was held accountable, or prevent the Mayan Genocide occurring within the American sphere of influence? Because other factors, particularly the Cold War, was a higher priority in US foreign policy.
On April 24, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, US President Barak Obama once again broken his campaign promise and did not refer to the mass killings of Armenians as genocide. Obama is the third presidential candidate to campaign on the promise to recognize the Armenian Genocide, and then fail to live up to that promise once elected. Candidate Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barak Obama with limited foreign policy experience pandered and promised to say the word: genocide. Then, the complexity of the situation caused a policy reversal when the three candidates became presidents. Turkey is a strategic NATO ally and a partner in the war against ISIS. The White House also needs the positive public relations image that comes with having good relations with Turkey since it is (at least before Recep Erdoğan) a Muslim democracy. Ironically, US Presidents had no problem referring to the Armenian genocide when Turkey was a military dictatorship. The amnesia of the last three White House administrations is a new phenomenon because the recognition of genocide is a product of policy, and not of justice.
As mentioned, four of the six generally acknowledged genocides (Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia) are defeated powers and it was the international powers or successor states that have recognized the atrocities and held perpetrators accountable. Conversely, again, the perpetrating nations-states whose governments are, essentially, still in power deny other two genocides, Armenia and Darfur. It seems that recognition is a matter of policy, not justice. For example, four of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have denied responsibility for genocides. Whether it be British responsibility for the Irish or the Aborigine Genocide, Chinese genocide in Tibet, Russian culpability for the Circassian and Baltic Diasporas, or US policy toward Native Americans, the Great Powers seem to avoid accountability. Genocide should not be a term used as a Scarlet Letter only against losing belligerents. It is time to name the Unnamed Crime wherever it occurs or has occurred.