50th Session Issues
Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing
Genocide: The deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.
Ethnic Cleansing: The elimination of an unwanted group from a society, as by genocide or forced migration.
Any discussion of genocide or ethnic cleansing would seem to be straightforward, both in the subject matter itself and in the myriad examples one could bring to mind. As these topics are studied in greater depth, however, the discussion invariably becomes far more complicated. Defined as "the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group," genocide tends to evoke thoughts of the Holocaust of World War Two--the most egregious and infamous example of the mass killing of people based on their ethnic or religious background. For many people, that is the full extent of what genocide means. Today, however, the word genocide draws upon an even more complex body of history and scholarship, focusing on the motivation of the perpetrators. By narrow definition, genocide can only occur when there is a deliberate attempt to completely destroy all members of a particular group. As such, there are few clearly identifiable examples of genocide.
The phrase "ethnic cleansing" may embody just the opposite. Ethnic cleansing has been defined as "the elimination of an unwanted group from society, as by genocide or forced migration." This definition is inherently broader than that of genocide alone, and thereby encompasses mass killings and forced removals in far greater number and scope. The U.S. State Department, in a recent report on Kosovo, concluded that ethnic cleansing "generally entails the systematic and forced removal of members of an ethnic group from their communities to change the ethnic composition of a region." The latter definition, while accurate for that particular situation, is seemingly too narrow to be a useful descriptor of a majority of situations which are encompassed in the broader definition. Ethnic cleansing, then, may involve death or displacement, or any combination thereof, where a population is identified for removal from an area.
By using the above definitions, most mass killings and forced relocations fit into one or both of the two discrete categories that are presented. Acts of genocide, as the more narrowly defined term, have been recognized by the United Nations nine times this century. These examples include the purge of Armenians by the Turks beginning in 1915, Jews killed in the Ukraine in the late 1910's as well as during the Nazi regime, Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970's, Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia early this decade, and the slaughter of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority in Rwanda in 1994. At least ten additional examples of ethnic cleansing were not recognized by the U.N., due to the criteria used to determine what qualifies as genocide. While genocide is globally recognized as a crime against humanity, ethnic cleansing is not. It is unlikely that such a broad and oft used term could garner the support to declare ethnic cleansing, as a whole, as a crime against humanity.
The United Nations was the forum in which genocide was declared to be a crime under international law--either in times of war or peace. The term had already been coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born advisor to the then U.S. War Ministry, in a book he published in 1944. Lemkin was the first to argue that genocide is not a war crime, but a crime against humanity-- something uniquely different from anything that had been seen before.
The formal definition came in the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Genocide is defined in the Convention as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, 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. In the years since the Convention came into force, reconsideration of its points have led to the addition of acts of genocide occurring prior to World War Two.
Both "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing"--as words and concepts--have drawn criticism. Some critics suggest that genocide is a word used too frequently and too loosely in our vernacular. Alain Destexhe, former Secretary General of MĒdecins Sans Frontiäres (Doctors Without Borders) at the time of the Rwandan conflict earlier this decade, argues that there are only three examples of genocide in the 20th century: Armenians killed by the Turks; extermination of Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals by during World War II; and slaughter of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority in Rwanda in 1994. Destexhe fears that the ubiquitous use of the word genocide to describe any massacre or repressive situation is causing "genocide" to lose its vital meaning as a crime above all others, distinguishable by the single-minded intent behind the barbaric actions. While Destexhe worries that the meaning of the word will be diluted, other critics hope that their revisionist history will be aided by the too common usage of genocide. Particularly for those who do not believe that the Holocaust occurred, the overuse of "genocide" bolsters their propaganda that the Nazi extermination camps and the "final solution" were not really such a uniquely horrible period in history.
"Ethnic cleansing" has also been used to describe a group of people of similar nationality, race, or religion who are experiencing any kind of action which they consider objectionable. Illegal Jewish settlers in the Palestinian controlled territory of Israel believe themselves to be victims of ethnic cleansing when their own government decides to evacuate them in the name of preserving peace. Some people feel they are forced from their home countries because of prejudices that make their lives difficult or intolerable, though they may not actually fear for their physical safety. These examples demonstrate the difficulty in relying on the phrase "ethnic cleansing" to be self-explanatory. The given definition of ethnic cleansing might encompass these situations, but at the same time, may also diminish the seriousness often entailed in the use of the phrase.
The phrase ethnic cleansing has been drawn into the discussion often this decade, as examples of mass killings of persons with a distinctive commonality have abounded. In the former Yugoslavia a variety of groups-- Bosnians, Serbs, Muslims, and Kosovars--have fallen victim to relatively, and perhaps specifically, organized campaigns of ethnic cleansing in this decade alone. More recently we have seen a wave of violence in East Timor, which may yet be described as ethnic cleansing when more complete information becomes available. Both historically and in the present day, there are countless examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing around the world. With no shortage of instances of death and destruction wrought upon those who suddenly find themselves of the wrong ethnicity, religion, nationality or political belief, the time appears ripe for a reconsideration of the instrument which was to have brought such cases to a halt more than a half century ago.
In December of 1998, Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Genocide Convention. He recalled that with the adoption of the Convention, nations had bound themselves legally to forestall those who would perpetrate such actions wherever they might occur. He also noted that shamefully little was done to arrest these actions in progress, and only in their aftermath was significant action taken. The Secretary-General himself was accused, in the as yet unresolved circumstances of the Great Lakes region, of allowing genocide to proceed unhindered inside Rwanda in the spring of 1994. Mr. Annan was the designated head of peacekeeping operations for the UN at that time, and was apparently warned that Hutus were massing arms that could only be used to slaughter others. Despite his privileged knowledge, Mr. Annan did not request additional troops for the existing peacekeeping mission, nor seek to have the existing mission mandate altered to allow for confiscation of said weapons. Having been in a position to halt the imminent slaughter of half a million civilians, Mr. Annan as a high ranking and appropriately placed member of the UN bureaucracy chose inaction. Additionally, some governments also refused to identify the situation for what it was--genocide in progress--in order to avoid their obligation to intervene under the Convention.
Rwanda is a more definitive example of genocide than most situations. While the lack of concerted international reaction there is inexplicable, it is certainly not the only example of turning a blind eye to the slaughter. Two million Cambodians were killed in the 1970's in what came to be considered genocide, albeit well after the fact. In very recent memory was the indiscriminate killing of Kurds in northern Iraq at the hands of Saddam Hussein. While not genocide by technical definition, this group was targeted because they threatened--more psychologically than physically or militarily--the totalitarian power and authority of Hussein. And there is no end in sight for this type of violence that is targeted against specific groups of people.
The General Assembly also reaffirmed the importance and necessity of the Genocide Convention in December of 1998, adopting resolution A/53/L.47, which expresses the concern of the body that many thousands of innocent human beings continue to be victims of genocide. Despite this action, and having a Convention which abhors these aforementioned circumstances, the parties to that instrument seem unwilling to abide by their word and fight against genocide. Some parties may fear the political ramifications of doing so, while others may be concerned about the specificity of the Convention's language in relation to the real world situations it is meant to contain. Cries of racism have even been heard from those who believe that decisions to intervene are based primarily on the skin color of those being massacred and those responsible for the massacre.
The reality is that despite the stated desire among parties to the Genocide Convention fifty years ago to ensure that genocide would never again occur, the will to achieve that most important goal has been severely lacking. The strongest efforts have been aimed at punishing those who are responsible for genocide, primarily through individual criminal tribunals organized for that specific purpose. Even these endeavors--in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia--have come about only in this decade. Those responsible for recognized acts of genocide over the last three decades have gone unpunished, despite demands from survivor and witnesses.
In recent years, such pressure has culminated in an extraordinary amount of effort to conclude the legal instrument, known as the Rome Statute, which may eventually lead to the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC would have jurisdiction over four classes of crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity. The definition of crimes against humanity included in the statute is broad enough to include some of the currently unprosecutable offenses now referred to as ethnic cleansing. Unlike the current ad hoc tribunals, which must be approved by the Security Council, there will be no veto power over the ICC. When 60 states have ratified the statute the court will come into operation. The lack of veto power will likely make the ICC a more effective international legal body than any previously conceived. Major nations have expressed reservations over the statute and may not be willing to ratify it.
The creation of the ICC seems a step forward in global efforts to halt the proliferation of mass killings and other egregious violence. This pattern has been recurring throughout this century, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, little serious effort has gone into abating these tragedies. Clearly, past attempts have not been successful, and the reasons behind that remain unclear. What must future efforts entail in order to successfully avoid this scourge? How many more people will have to die at the hands of their neighbors and countrymen before the human considerations outweigh the political ramifications? What will be required to finally end what should have been but a memory at the dawn of the 21st century?