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Defining Genocide

Kerstin Schweighöfer (dc)December 8, 2008

Sixty years ago, the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This week, historians, lawyers and politicians discussed the convention's future at a conference in The Hague.

A man in Nyamata, 18 miles south of Kigali looks at hundreds of skulls, Jan. 26, 2002, at a memorial for victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
The genocide in Rwanda set legal precedents with life sentences for many perpetratorsImage: AP

Why is it that a massacre, as horrific as it may be, is not considered genocide? At what point can we begin using the word genocide to describe the worst crime committed human beings can perpetrate on each other? These were the types of questions being posed at a conference in the Hague on Monday to mark 60 years since the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 260, better known as the convention on genocide.

Among the guest speakers was Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo. And it's no coincidence that the conference is being held in The Hague, which, due to its many international courts, has developed into the "legal capital of the world," former UN General Secretary, Boutros Gali, once said.

Among the program points was a discussion about the definition of genocide as it was laid down in the UN Convention on December 9, 1948. The most important criterion is the intention to completely obliterate an entire race. That's why genocide doesn't always involve massacres -- a single murder will do. Even if all the women of a certain population are to be made infertile, or all the children are to be kidnapped, it can still be genocide if the purpose is to wipe out that population. It's the most decisive criterion, and for the prosecutors, the hardest to prove.

The Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin -- a pioneer in the field of international justice -- coined the term genocide. He was responding to the mass murder of Armenians at the hands of the Turks in 1915 -- a massacre that even today, is not legally classified as genocide.

This also applies to the Holocaust. It was never explicitly defined as genocide before a court, and not a single defendant has ever been found guilty of genocide towards the Jews. The usual verdict was "crimes against humanity."

Rwanda, Yugoslavia set legal precedents

Only in the last 15 years have courts ever found defendants guilty of genocide, in two cases -- Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In the judges' opinions, the mass murder of the Tutsis and the murder of thousands of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica were clear cases of genocide. At the Rwanda tribunal, a large number of political leaders were given life sentences in prison.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic stands in the courtroom during his initial appearance at the U.N.'s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague
Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic faces charges of genocideImage: AP

Whether the same will happen at the Yugoslavia tribunal with war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic remains to be seen. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died in prison before he could be sentenced, and Karadzic's wartime military leader, Ratko Mladic, still remains at large. Then there's the new international criminal court, the ICC. Last summer, Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo indicted Sundanese President Omar el Bashir on charges of genocide in Darfur.

Because of the small number of convictions, recently, the voices of those who would loosen the criteria for genocide have been growing louder. It's a subject that was up for debate at the conference in The Hague, but for Dutch historian and director of the Amsterdam Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Wichert ten Have, it's out of the question.

"I don't think this is the right way to go," he said. "It was hard enough to get all the countries to accept the current definition 60 years ago. Just because jurisprudence has to be created and the world is waiting for verdicts is no reason to start revising this definition."

Not a word to be used lightly

Another topic for discussion at the conference was misuse of the word "genocide." The prominent indictments against Karadzic and El Bashir have had the effect of popularizing the term, to the extent that it's now even being used by animal activists describing the suffering of animals. Politicians also more frequently use the term in order to justify violence and military engagement.

"The bloody conflict between Russia and Georgia is a perfect example," said Ten Have. "Both sides deliberately spoke of genocide, even though in this case, it really wasn't applicable. We have to keep the term pure -- both legally and politically speaking. And we have to accept that it shouldn't be used lightly."