Today, 27 January, is the International Day in memory of the victims of the Holocaust: a day designated by the UN General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005. It’s important that we remember those who suffered, died and lost loved ones during the Holocaust. And it’s also important, that we remember the actions that have been taken by the international community to prevent and punish any future attempts at genocide.
This particular date was chosen as the day in 1945 when Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet troops. Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp under the Nazis, where at least 1.1 million prisoners died. Resolution 60/7 urges the remembrance of Holocaust victims along with the development of educational programmes about the Holocaust and genocide more generally. The purpose behind this is the belief that education and understanding will help to prevent future genocides.
As I write there are no genocides officially taking place. However, events in the Central African Republic (CAR) were described by John Ging, UN OCHA’s Director of Operations as having: “all the elements that we have seen elsewhere, in places like Rwanda and Bosnia (…). The elements are there, the seeds are there, for a genocide. There’s no question about that.”
And there are those who would describe the targeted killing seen in the current South Sudan conflict as acts of genocide. Journalists are reporting civil war, along sectarian and tribal lines. And many aid workers still there and human rights organisations are reporting numerous atrocities.
But what is the difference between atrocities, human rights abuses and genocide? Does genocide require large concentration camps like those witnessed during the Holocaust?
The United Nation’s General Assembly Resolution 260 ushered into being the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on 9 December 1948. But the Convention did not enter into force until 12 January 1951 after twenty members states ratified the convention and instituted it in their domestic law. The word genocide was first used by Rapheal Lemkin in 1944. Lemkin had searched for a unique word to describe the barbarity he had witnessed during the Holocaust: a word that described ‘a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves’. This was later more clearly defined in Article 2 of the Convention as ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group’.
The Genocide Convention introduced the idea that sovereignty included a sense of responsibility. This was a fundamental change to the ‘constitution’ of the international community: the new legal situation said that a state’s rights did not trump the rights of individuals. No longer were state authorities allowed to inflict human rights abuses against a group of citizens without expecting repercussions. As the opening paragraph to the Convention states: ‘Recognising that at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity, and Being convinced that, in order to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge, international co-operation is required’.
Article 1 of the Convention makes it clear that genocide ‘is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish’. Ratification of the convention took a while as some states were worried that either this could be used against their citizens, particularly members of the armed forces, or that it would bind them to act and interfere in foreign states.
To some the concept of genocide is very clear but there are always degrees of what something can mean in law, and often it isn’t until precedent is set that the precise meaning can be defined. Since the ratification of the Convention, only two episodes have been defined as genocide: Rwanda in 1994 and the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. There have been many accusations, but these are the only two that have been found to be the case in an international court.
But what about Darfur, Cambodia, the recent massacre in Rakhine State, the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka, East Timor, the DRC, the Guatemalen Civil War, the Bangledesh War of 1971, Burundi, Argentina’s disappeared . . . And before the Convention came into being, there was the massacre of the Kurds, Trujillo’s execution of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, the plight of the Armenians . . .
Returning to today, is the sectarian violence we are witnessing in CAR slipping in to genocide? Targeted killings of individuals due to their religious belief have been witnessed and filmed on several occasions. But the question remains whether these are opportunistic individuals or an organised mass. Even if the events in CAR could be described as acts of genocide, it would be difficult, at this stage in the conflict, to indict a particular individual or group of individuals for planning a genocide. Mob massacres have not yet been proven to constitute genocide. State sovereignty may no longer protect perpetrators of genocide, but there is little precedent for acts of genocide when the state is destroyed as in the case of CAR. Perhaps the main hindrance of the Genocide Convention, and international law more generally, is the difficulty of taking action when a state authority is not leading the acts .
For further reading on the topic, try:
- Hannah Ardent’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’
- ‘The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’
- Samantha Power’s ‘A Problem from Hell’
- Michael Walzer’s ‘Just and Unjust Wars’
- Mukesh Kapila’s ‘Against A Tide of Evil’