In recent months, words like genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes have been used extensively in the media. These are important legal terms, and they shouldn’t be used loosely. Using them as political weapons risks making them meaningless.
The word ‘genocide’ was coined in 1944 by Polish-Jewish law professor Raphael Lemkin after he studied the Armenian genocide and watched his family suffer under the Nazis. Lemkin, who had fled to the United States, combined the Greek word ‘genos,’ meaning people or tribe, with the Latin word ‘cide,’ meaning to kill.
After the war ended, Lemkin lobbied the newly-formed United Nations to pass the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. This not only defined what genocide is, it stipulated that the following acts shall be punishable:
- conspiracy to commit genocide;
- direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
- attempt to commit genocide;
- complicity in genocide.
Crimes against humanity is a more broadly-based term to refer to crimes committed by a state or actors of a state against civilians in times of peace or in times of war.
International humanitarian law stipulates what’s permitted and not permitted in warfare. It involves the rules of engagement for those in the military.
The period right after the Second World War was a golden age for human rights. After the Holocaust and the deaths of millions of innocents in the crossfire of war, humanity was finally ready to listen to people like Lemkin. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, was also adopted in 1948.
Unfortunately, this was only a very brief period in human history. With the advent of the Cold War, promoting human rights took a back seat to one’s political agenda. As Jane Springer states in her book Genocide, “The Universal Declaration and the Genocide Convention may as well have been ghost documents written in disappearing ink for all the protection they provided for the half century following the war.”
It’s astounding, for example, to compare the generous Western media coverage of the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s to the news blackout of the East Timor genocide at the same time.
Indonesia, which murdered people in East Timor, was an important Western ally whose weapons were supplied by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members.
As the Cold War ended, it became safe to talk about genocide and crimes against humanity without being called a traitor to one’s nation. As we grappled with the carnage in Rwanda in 1994, genocide studies became a legitimate social science and one was as free to discuss the alleged war crimes of George Bush as to discuss those of Josef Stalin.
As a result, we’ve become quite aware that neither the United States nor Russia has ratified the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), the legal body that upholds the genocide convention. Nor have they signed the 1997 landmines convention.
Marching toward a world without genocide by Gerry Chidiac
Studying genocide helps give a voice to the victims
The problem for those who still hold to the geopolitical Cold War map is that we can’t put the genie back into the bottle. In much of the world, it’s common knowledge that leaders in NATO countries are guilty of crimes against humanity, yet only Africans get tried and convicted in the ICC.
In addition, citizens in the global south recognize the impunity that permeates among representatives of powerful nations. Many are quite aware that no American has been held responsible for the 1991 bombing of an Iraqi bomb shelter that resulted in the deaths of 1,500 innocent civilians.
When United States President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of genocide in Ukraine, the words of Jesus of Nazareth come into clear focus: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye.”
Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust. For interview requests, click here.
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