Defining genocide

From my Armenian ancestors to the Uighurs in modern China, how do you categorise horror so that the world responds?

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Like all Armenian children, I grew up learning the definition of genocide. We learned other things too, of course, like how to choose a tasty watermelon (slap it and listen) and the exact location where Noah’s Ark landed (Mount Ararat, since you ask), but we also became unusually clued up on international criminal law from a young age.

I have always been able to list the countries that recognise the Armenian genocide. I am trained to spot the crafty euphemisms deployed by equivocating politicians (“great catastrophe”, “ethnic cleansing”, “casualties of war”, “deaths on both sides”). And I know all about the death marches, mass graves, and why six nameless branches of my family tree simply dangle the phrase “lost without a trace”.

At Armenian school, we would sometimes have speakers who taught us about similar crimes: the cruelties of other empires, the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Cambodia... An unfortunate club to be part of, but that there were other members at all was instructive.

If genocide is left unspoken or unpunished – we were taught with aptly grim repetition – it happens again. As any Armenian can quote to you, and as I have written in the pages of the New Statesman before, Adolf Hitler’s speech to his generals before Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 instructed: “Kill without mercy men, women and children… Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

The work of the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin has been familiar to me ever since I was old enough to understand that the annual 24 April Armenian genocide recognition march was more than just a circuitous route to a central London McDonald’s.

In fact, I recently found an old leaflet from one of these demonstrations years ago tucked into my bookcase, which mentions this unlikely scholarly icon of my childhood:

“On 11 December 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 96(1) on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Convention condemns any deliberate act of destruction of ethnic, religious or cultural groups.

“This was the first resolution on genocide, proposed by Raphael Lemkin, who coined in 1944 the term ‘genocide’. He also described the crime of genocide as being ‘the systematic destruction of whole national, racial or religious groups. The sort of thing Hitler did to the Jews and the Turks did to the Armenians.’”

Not particularly catchy for a protest leaflet, granted, but it lays out a truth ignored by deniers: the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians during the First World War was used to formulate the UN’s very definition of genocide – and yet it is still denied as such by Turkey and some other countries around the world.

What constitutes genocide has been a prevalent question of late. The disgraced historian David Starkey’s comments about the transatlantic slave trade (which he argued could not be classed as genocide “otherwise there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks” – a phrase for which he later apologised) were both racially and logically offensive.

They came during a reckoning with how Britain publicly relates to its colonial past. The mass deaths, enforced resettlement and dehumanisation of slavery, unchallenged by statues of men who pioneered it, have led to comparisons with the very different way Germany memorialises its Nazi history.

Summaries of Lemkin’s definition of genocide have proliferated, particularly in the context of the Chinese government’s persecution of the Uighur Muslims. For three years, there have been reports from China of Uighur and other Turkic Muslim minorities being rounded up and imprisoned in camps for “re-education”. Last year, a map of 500 suspected camps in Xinjiang, western China, was released by activists, and an official from the US defence department estimated that as many as three million people might have been imprisoned.

See also: Anoosh Chakelian reflects on the afterlife of the Armenian genocide

Yet only recently has the world appeared to have woken up to this. Recent drone footage is thought to show Uighurs blindfolded, shaven and kneeling, being led on to trains in Xinjiang; a June report revealed systematic sterilisation, forced abortions and mandatory contraception of Uighur women; and in early July, US Customs intercepted 12 tonnes of hair weaves and other accessories thought to be made out of human hair from a Chinese internment camp.

As new horrors emerge, lawyers and academics have been discussing whether they meet the UN definition of genocide – a convention signed up to by China:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its

physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren tweeted on 10 July that “China’s suppression of Muslims now meets the UN definition of genocide”, and the last Hong Kong governor and Conservative peer Chris Patten said on 29 June that China’s treatment of the Uighurs “comes within the terms of the UN views on sorts of genocide”.

The very definition of genocide in the UN convention is a broad and watered-down version of Lemkin’s original conception.

“Lemkin was disappointed with the convention,” says Penny Green, the founder and director of the International State Crime Initiative and a professor of law and globalisation at Queen Mary University of London.

“He actually developed his concept of genocide based on colonial genocides including those of the Native Americans, Tasmanian Aboriginals and indigenous groups in the Belgian Congo… That’s where he started his thinking about the annihilation of groups.” 

As my colleague Ido Vock writes, the US and UK feared at the time that a definition of such scope could be applied to their policies of segregation and empire.

Whether the definition is too flawed, narrow or broad, the “genocide” label nevertheless should compel states to act.

“The convention imposes obligations,” says Green. “If states recognise a genocide, or the United Nations recognises something as a genocide, then there is an obligation on the state to intervene to prevent and then to punish.” 

However, states do not enter the “prevent” stage, she laments. “That never happens. I’m very cynical about the international mechanisms of justice, because they respond so slowly. We might get one or two prosecutions 30 years down the line.” 

Having studied the persecution of the Rohingyas in Myanmar since 2012 and warned of an unfolding genocide in 2015, Green knows only too well the frustrations of trying to bring about action. 

“It’s very easy to say ‘we’ll wait for an international court of law to decide’, because states understand that any legal decision will be years away, and, as such, it takes away any kind of responsibility to act on the part of governments. So they ignored our warnings.” 

Genocides are political, and so require political solutions rather than allowing suffering to continue amid legal wrangling. In an attempt to speed up recognition, Green and her team follow the genocide scholar Daniel Feierstein’s “stages” of genocide, viewing it as a process rather than a single event:

Stigmatisation (and dehumanisation)

Harassment, violence and terror

Isolation and segregation

Systematic weakening

Mass annihilation

Symbolic enactment (removal of the victim group from the collective history)

These sound familiar to me, having tracked the experience of Armenians living under Ottoman rule back to pogroms in the late 19th century.

“People expect some spectacular act of mass violence, but mass killing is not intrinsic to genocide… It’s actually the attritional violence, dehumanisation and the erosion of rights that takes place over many years, very often, which is much more telling,” says Green. “That’s certainly what has happened to the Uighur, and it absolutely happened to the Rohingya.”

Even persecutions that meet these criteria rarely receive more than verbal condemnation.

“International law has no clout, there are no enforcement mechanisms, and history shows that there is virtually no political will when it comes to genocide prevention,” says Green, who envisions solutions through civil society and more localised activist and advocacy groups. 

“Because of the way capitalism works, certain human populations are utterly dispensable in the face of global markets, geopolitical interests and ideological imperatives. The international community, as we see time and again, prioritises economic, political and security needs over fundamental human rights.”

This is why the UK (aside from the devolved legislatures and Derby City Council) does not recognise the Armenian genocide, for example. A 1999 private Foreign Office memo released under a Freedom of Information request noted the “ethical” shortcomings of the British government’s position, but argued: “given the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey… the current line is the only feasible option”.

In a recent interview with the New Statesman, the genocide scholar Philippe Sands (who supports Lemkin’s original conception of “cultural genocide” – enveloping the destruction of books, monuments and lifestyles – which was watered down for the UN version) outlines “inherent difficulties with the concept of genocide”.

Of China, he argues “what’s happening is terrible, period, and it is not less terrible if it is not genocide”, asking: “Why does it matter if we call it a genocide, and is it less bad if it’s just a crime against humanity?”

Global reticence to intervene doesn’t seem to be affected by such labels. History has shown a genocide can be ignored as easily as a crime against humanity. The human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, author of An Inconvenient Genocide (2014), points out:

“Genocide denialists never admit that if the Armenians are not victims of genocide (which they deny on faux-legal grounds) they are certainly victims of the crime of persecution, and of other crimes against humanity.”

Nevertheless, recognition of genocide is vital symbolically. It undermines the rhetoric and actions of the aggressor state that denies its crimes. It gives survivors a name for what they have endured.

“Genocide, because it is the worst crime against humanity, calls for special study of its causes and for special precautions against its recurrence,” writes Robertson.

“Genocide scholarship serves a valuable purpose of identifying patterns that recur in the build-up to behaviour in which formerly happy neighbours can be incited to hack each other to death and to renounce the very notion of ‘neighbourhood’ as a living space which human beings of different creeds or colours can amicably occupy.”

Unlike my ancestors, whose anguish had no name at the time, the Uighurs are suffering in a world where international criminal law does exist. Let us hope the world opts for a different ending this time.

See also: Ido Vock interviews the human rights lawyer Philippe Sands

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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