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Genocidal Loopholes


Genocide is one of the worst crimes against humanity and considered to be the “crime of crimes”. In the most general terms, genocide is an intentional act to destroy a people in whole or in part. There is a double element to genocide, the requirement of intent to commit the act and intent to destroy the group. Proving genocidal intent can be difficult thus making it even more difficult to prosecute. The general definition and the definition under the Genocide Convention are different and both can be misinterpreted. There is the also the issue of “in whole or in part”; sometimes people refrain from using the term genocide because they’re ignoring the “in part”. If it fits the broad definition, but not the legal definition under the Genocide Convention, does it make it less punishable of a crime? There is a genocidal loophole that warrants serious consideration and discussion as it eludes to crimes against humanity from being punished and perpetuating the cycle of crime.

If the intent of genocide cannot be proved, a person or people can still be guilty of crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing. Crimes against humanity are deliberate crimes committed as part of a large-scale attack against civilians, without targeting a specific group. Crimes of humanity include murder, torture, sexual violence, enslavement, persecution, enforced disappearance, etc. Ethnic cleansing is the mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in a society. Ethnic cleansing has yet to be recognized as an independent crime under international law, but the term has been applied to mass atrocities such as Bosnia or Rwanda as a way to avoid using the word genocide. Using the term genocide requires intervention under international law.

In 1994 Christine Shelley, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, refrained from using the term genocide to describe the violence in Rwanda. She said the United States needed more evidence to see if it met the United Nations definition. Around the same time Molly Williamson, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East/Africa, also avoided using the term genocide because it could commit the U.S. to doing something.

Over 20 years later in 2016 President Obama chose not to use the word genocide when referring to the situation in Myanmar. James Silk, a human rights professor at Yale University, said it was because doing so would trigger legal and moral obligations. Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it’s not likely the United States would refer to situation in Myanmar as genocide unless other experts or the UN says it first.

The avoidance of the term genocide shows the correlation between our words and our actions. It shows how much weight words hold because using the term genocide comes with the duty of taking action. Whether the violence in Rwanda, Myanmar, or any other place actually constitutes to the legal definition of genocide or if it fits the general definition, why are we waiting to see if the violence fits a definition first when it’s a clear case of a violation of human rights? How many more people are we going to let get killed and abused before we take action? The atrocities against a group of people, in whole or in part, should be enough for us to actually “do something”.

Genocide Convention Protection

After the Holocaust came to an end in 1945 many proclaimed the words, “never again”.

A few years later the UN Genocide Convention was established as a way to legally define genocide, prevent genocide from happening again, protect national, racial, ethnic and religious minorities, to punish those that commit acts of genocide, and to promote basic human rights. In 2008 the definition for genocide was expanded with Resolution 1820 stating “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.” As of today 149 nations have ratified the convention giving formal consent and making it officially valid. But majority of the nations have reservations, understandings, and declarations in regards to different articles of the convention, thus making it difficult to uphold international law. The United States itself reserves the right to decide whether, when, and how the Genocide Convention can be applied. Who is the Genocide Convention really protecting?

Since the Holocaust has ended, there have been numerous accounts of genocide all over the world. The words “never again” have been repeated over and over by the United Nations and various world leaders. How many more years are going to pass before we use the word genocide as boldly as we say, “never again”? People are literally dying in the name of genocide. There are several world leaders and groups within nations that are making efforts to combat genocide, but overall we’re protecting nations from having to intervene and take action instead of protecting basic human rights.

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