Unwrapping the “G” Word Controversy: Why Government Officials Fear the Label of Genocide
By: Emma Lane, Regional Manager for the Middle East
3/17/2016 Washington, D.C. – In 1948, Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in a book called “Nazi Rule in Occupied Germany.” World War II had just ended, and world leaders were desperate to ensure that violence intending to destroy entire people groups would never happen again, thus coining the phrase “never again.” That same year, the newly formed United Nations immediately passed an international convention that defined the crime of genocide with a fundamental principle that its criminalization is to prevent it rather than react to it. It was titled “The Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” and was the first major multilateral treaty to be ratified by the United Nations’ Member States. It was also designed to be a straightforward definition of criminal intent so that future world leaders could easily recognize genocidal ideology in order to prevent it.
The aspect of “prevention” of genocide proved difficult in that leaders balanced the importance of state sovereignty against questions of “how many murders” equaled “genocide.” This confusion and unwillingness to label systematic violence as genocide culminated in one of the greatest failings of world leaders to date: Rwanda. In April 1994, the UN floor was overrun with resolutions regarding the cleansing of Tutsis in Rwanda. Although numerous resolutions passed that condemned the violence, world leaders all purposefully omitted the word “genocide,” because it would have legally obligated them to “prevent a total cleansing of a targeted population” under the 1948 Convention. World leaders had the power and means to stop the horror but remained purposely uninvolved as the death toll rose, with victims and human rights groups crying out to stop the unfolding tragedy.
In the end, without intervention from the world, over 800,000 human beings were hacked to death and all the world could do was react to the tragedy. The Rwandan genocide could have been prevented, but they feared the G-word label then, just as Secretary Kerry and the Obama Administration fear the label now.
Four Reasons Why Leaders Fear the “G” Word
I believe there are generally four main reasons why leaders don’t want to label systematic, targeted and publicized cleansing campaigns as genocide, even though they have the legal justification and evidence to do so.
(1) It creates an international legal “duty to protect” the targeted people groups and “prevent” genocidal campaigns from exploding beyond control or belief.
(2) Traditionally, the crime of genocide could only be carried out by “state” actors (think Hitler’s Germany in World War 2), and Jihadists, such as ISIS, are not “state” actors; therefore, some do not think we should give them that justification.
(3) Many think that “genocide” labels can only attach when millions of people have already been murdered.
(4) The genocide label, in a leader’s opinion, admits to the world that, under his watch, a group of people rose to power who possessed the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,” thus harming the legacy of the leader.
None of these arguments are valid as they relate to the situation of radical Islamic militants, such as ISIS, in regards to violence against Christians and minorities throughout the Middle East.
First, leaders might claim to fear that accusing an ISIS-linked group of “genocide” would give them legitimacy as a state government. However, this argument fails for many reasons, one of which is that current genocide laws have expanded the scope of “who can be guilty of genocide” to non-state groups (under the Geneva Convention Common Article 3) as well as to individuals who incite genocidal cleansing of particular groups (under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court).
Genocide is Not Determined by Numbers of Dead, but Rather by Specific Genocidal Intentions
There is no magic “death calculation number” that must be met to attach a genocide label to a religious or ethnic cleansing campaign, because the purpose of the Genocide Convention (and ensuing laws) was to prevent genocide, not react to it. Imagine a glorified accountant tallying up murdered bodies before determining that enough murders of a specific group have been carried out to warrant the label of genocide. This is not practical. The key factor in determining whether genocide is occurring is the group’s intent – in this case ISIS and its affiliates. This requires answering a few simple questions: “Have they taken systematic steps to cleanse a region of a particular religion or ethnicity?” Or, “Do they intend to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular people group based on . . . religion?”
For “genocide” legal purposes, “to destroy” may come in many forms. Forcible displacement of a people group, rape and sexual abuse, destruction of religious icons or texts, and mass executions of a religious group are among a few of the ways a religious group can be destroyed “in whole or in part.”
One example from the situation in Iraq includes the forced exodus of Christians from their country (with 2 million Christians before 2003 to less than 250,000 today) or their homes (think of the tens of thousands of internally displaced Christians living in tents throughout the Kurdistan region in Northern Iraq). Another is the displacement and destruction of Syrian Christians within the country, from 1.7 million in 2011 to approximately 200,000 Christians today, mostly living under ISIS rule or in hiding from Shia extremists, Al-Nusra Sunni extremists, and other similar jihadist groups that persecute Christians.
The words of isis declaring their desire to create a caliphate expelling all Christians, forcing conversions, murdering them for their faith, and charging them an exorbitant tax (jizya) until they can no longer afford it – which will then result in death – is the very definition of an intent to destroy a people group under the laws of “genocide” as the european parliament unanimously declared in february 2016.
The Responsibility to Protect
Once a “genocide” label has been attached to the perpetrators, a nation’s responsibility includes many steps that may be taken to prevent further murders and protect the targeted people group. These steps vary depending on the situation. While ground troops are one solution, there are several other solutions that world leaders may employ. These steps to “prevent and protect” resulted from the realization by world leaders that genocidal campaigns of the past would have been prevented if Hitler’s Mien Kampf or Hutu extremists’ radio broadcasts had been subject to “genocidal intent” labeling.
These numerous methods of “preventing and protecting” against a genocidal campaign culminated in the 2005 united nations world summit that sought to stop using genocidal labels in a reactionary manner so that a body count of 800,000 or 6 million would “never again” occur.
Labeling the Targeted Populations: X Marks the Persecuted
Adolf Hitler, the leader that sparked the global revolution to form the UN and criminalize and prevent future genocides, is recognized as possessing the prototypical genocidal intent. Under Hitler, Jews were labeled with a star to help the Nazi soldiers identify and streamline their persecution. People were targeted and murdered merely because of their “label,” their “mark.”
Today, in Iraq, ISIS marks doors of Christians with a symbol to streamline their persecution. In Mosul, the symbol of the Arabic letter “N” for “Nazarene” was used to identify Christian homes. The Christian homes so marked, today, stand empty. In fact, Mosul, a city that formerly had a population of over 75,000 Christians before ISIS took over, no longer has a single Christian living within in its borders.
Now, I can’t conclusively state which reason the Obama Administration has for refusing to attach the “genocide” label thus far. According to press secretary josh earnest, there are “legal guidelines” associated with that terminology. Once again, here are the legal guidelines: “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, or religious group.”
Today we declare, alongside the European Parliament, US House of Representatives, and hundreds of human rights groups across the world, that legal experts are not necessary to determine this justification, Mr. Earnest. On this day, March 17, Secretary Kerry and President Obama have a much simpler decision to make than they may argue according to the aforementioned “reasons.” They can refuse to adhere to a deadline, but they cannot deny the evidence, and they cannot deny their responsibility as government leaders. We call upon you to adhere to your international duty to prevent and protect the systematic genocide seen through the religious cleansing of Christians and minorities in Iraq, Syria, and throughout the Middle East. Although ISIS has gained the public attention of radical Islamic ideology, Christians have faced systematic and continuous cleansing for the past decade at the hands of genocidal jihadists. It is time the United States of America stands in the name of protection rather than behind the shield of “legal consultation” and reactionary rhetoric resulting from unwarranted fear.