Thursday, May 24, 2007

Genocide or mass murder?

Genocide or mass murder?

the full version of the Guardian Comment is Free post on genocide and its abuses

A seminar recently discussed whether Serbia was guilty of 'genocide' - useful semantic debate or merely quest for an acceptable euphemism?
Ian Williams

May 23, 2007 5:00 PM

On Tuesday, there was a seminar in New York on the international court of justice verdict in the case that Bosnia brought against Serbia for genocide. The ICJ's longest ever case, this was the first time that the often-cited but never implemented 1948 genocide convention was brought against a state.

Participants tried to make sense of the verdict which, confusingly, found Serbia under Milosevic guilty of aiding and abetting an act of genocide, but not guilty of the act itself, even though the court found that the military and police of the Republika Srpska, the Serb entity that Dayton created in Bosnia, had indeed committed genocide.

"Genocide" is a big issue, perhaps too big. In Cambodia this week, survivors demonstrated at the killing fields to speed up the long delayed trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders. Darfur's attritional mass murder continues amid arguments about whether it qualifies as genocide. Supporters of Kosovan independence invoke alleged Serb genocide against Albanians to overrule Serbia's residual claims of sovereignty. Supporters of Israel call on Hitler's genocide as support for their claims to be a special case in international law.

Apart from the emotional significance of the concept, Bosnia had good technical reasons for using the genocide convention: it creates legal obligations on its signatories since it says that states have a duty to intervene and prevent it and gave Sarajevo a legal lever to take the case to the ICJ. It was to avoid those duties that the Clinton administration deliberately avoided using the G-word over Rwanda.

In the postwar period, the presence of the Soviet Union in the United Nations clearly inhibited any definition in the convention that would, for example, cover mass murder of Kulaks for political or social engineering purposes rather than ethnic reasons and the evil ingenuity of modern murderous politicians has outpaced the legal inventiveness of lawyers and diplomats. Death comes in 10,000 ways and the word "genocide" has become like "terrorism", a way to evade the awful reality of savagery, torture, murder and rape.

When the UN experts returned from Darfur and said that what was happening there was mass murder and crimes against humanity, but no genocide, across the US in particular it was treated as another excuse to bash the UN. The only consolation for the thousands of Arabic-speaking Muslim Africans being killed by Arabic-speaking Muslim Africans is that if their deaths were genocide it created legal responsibility on the rest of the world to do something about. Seeing how the global community acquitted itself in Rwanda and Bosnia, that is small consolation indeed.

Like squabbles over the definitions of terrorism or freedom fighter, arguments about what constitutes genocide increasingly obscure the real issue, which is murder. The peculiar forms of Balkan revisionism and argument over what is or isn't genocide obscure the reality of the victims who rotted in the festering mass graves that continue to be uncovered.

Since the UN general assembly in 2005 redefined the UN charter with the "Responsibility to Protect", there is less need or excuse for invoking the genocide convention. Crimes against humanity inside a state now constitute a threat to peace and security that the security council can act against.

One might argue that, as in US law, a crime motivated by racial hatred deserves extra punishment, but the problem in international law has not been the degree of punishment for crimes against humanity: it has been the absence of any reckoning whatsoever. Mass murder is wrong, and it is time to stop the semantic quibbles and put a brake on what Mary Robinson called the "Cycle of Impunity".

No comments: