Rohingya conflict: What constitutes genocide? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 13.01.2017
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Rohingya conflict: What constitutes genocide?

The Malaysian government and activists accuse Myanmar of committing genocide against Rohingya Muslims. Myanmar, of course, rejects these claims. In a DW interview, historian Boris Barth explains this often misused term.

DW: How would you explain the term "genocide"?

Boris Barth: The term "genocide" was first coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, in 1944. He was of the opinion that the term "atrocity" was inadequate to describe what happened in Auschwitz. The Holocaust was something entirely new. Obviously, there was a strong need to come up with a new term to describe this new crime. In 1948, the term "genocide" entered the United Nation Convention.

To make sense of the confusion around this term, one must examine its development in different languages. In Germany, and in international law also, the term "genocide" is restricted to the intention of killing or massacring a group of people. This is different in the United States, for example, where the term is used more broadly. There, it is even applied to events where no-one is killed.

Let us discuss the term as it is used in international law. What criteria must be met before one can speak of a genocide?

When a large number of people are murdered for racial, ethnic or religious reasons. As a rule, the perpetrator is state, which has the declared intention to annihilate certain ethnic or religious groups. This is also defined in the UN Convention. The Convention excludes political groups, which, in my opinion, is a loophole. This has to do with the fact that when the UN Convention was adopted, it needed to be approved by the states involved in the process. Political groups were excluded from the genocide definition to accomodate the former Soviet Union.

To determine whether genocide has occurred or not is difficult because we have to be clear about the intention. To know whether a state has actually committed genocide, one needs some internal knowledge. But obviously, a state will never announce its intention to commit genocide.

Is it equally difficult to define the term "ethnic cleansing"?

Ethnic cleansing does not need to be violent. It means that a group of people is no longer tolerated in a country because of its ethnicity. This can lead to a relatively peaceful resettlement of this group, but it can also be extremely brutal, bordering genocide. Thus, a clear demarcation is not possible. However, history tells us that ethnic cleansing very often precedes genocide.

There are indications that violence along ethnic lines spikes in the process of state-building and democratization. Why is it so?

Myanmar Regierung weist Genozid-Vorwürfe an Rohingya zurück (picture alliance/dpa/Nyein Chan Naing)

Several thousand Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh or been internally displaced since Myanmar's army cracked down on the group in early October

It does not always have to be ethnic violence. The government-administered processes in the 19th and 20th centuries were very often accompanied by violence, civil wars and also ethnic violence. There are many different reasons for this, but with regard to the issue of the formation of a nation, as is the case in Myanmar, the emerging state must define who belongs to the state and who does not. In countries that are ethnically or linguistically homogeneous, this is not a problem, and the question does not arise at all. In multi-ethnic societies, where different languages are spoken, the issue of belonging leads to tensions, to violent conflicts and genocide.

So the term is also used as a political concept for "struggle"?

Yes, this is unfortunately the case. For example, there was a great debate in Australia when Aboriginal children were taken away from their mothers. No one was killed. This was undoubtedly a racist crime, and in Australian English, genocide. From a German perspective, this is a problematic use of the term "genocide" due to the fact that if every atrocity is deemed genocide, how would we demarcate the crimes?

So how would we conclude the debate on the term "genocide"?

We should be cautious while using it. I would only use it if it is clear that the government intends to eliminate a group of people, or a section of it. Moreover, I would like to emphasize that a stricter interpretation of the concept of genocide, as provided for by international law, is not a trivialization of the crimes that are not dubbed genocide.

Boris Barth is an historian who published a book on the history of genocide in 2006.

The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.