Last month much of the international media became engaged in the question of how the world had handled in recent decades the most heinous crime against humanity: genocide. What sparked this sudden global discourse was the 100th anniversary of the mass slaughter of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire that occurred in 1915, which to this day the Turkish leadership refuses to call a genocide (last month was also 40th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide in Cambodia).
After the First World War, the Allied Powers wrote into the Treaty of Sèvres with the Ottoman Empire the idea of creating a tribunal to deal with the Armenian massacres, but the treaty did not come into effect and the tribunal was never formed. When thousands of Armenians were deported into the Syrian desert, there was no particular way to characterize the actions that had been done to them.
In 1941, while he was aware of the mass murders of the Nazis in the territories that had been occupied by the Germany Army, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called these killings “the crime without a name.” It took until 1944, when Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish professor of law, first used the term “genocide” in writing in a study of Nazi occupation policies that he prepared for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. When applied to the genocide of the Jewish people, Lemkin explained the term meant total destruction. Lemkin’s work brought about an important change in how international law viewed genocide.
Lemkin’s term was quickly adopted. It was a period of exceptional idealism in which international lawyers were determined to prevent the acts committed by the Nazis from ever occurring again. In 1945, German war criminals were indicted for the first time for the crime of genocide at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. In 1948 the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was reached and signed by most countries (today, 148 states are signatories to the Genocide Convention). A strong international consensus emerged, largely as a result of the Holocaust, against the perpetration of genocide in the future.
How has the international community done with the twin goals of the Genocide Convention: punishing genocide and preventing it from occurring? Lemkin’s term of genocide was based on a combination of the Greek word for race (genos) and the Latin word for killing (cidere). For years, the international community delayed any action on the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge) because it was argued that technically the mass killings of close to 2 million people were directed for the most part against people with a different political view from the Cambodian regime but not racial or ethnic minorities.
The Genocide Convention restricted itself to outlawing killings based on an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group….” It thus appeared that the Genocide Convention had a huge loophole.
In the 1990’s, the struggle against genocide suffered further setbacks. In 1987 and 1988, Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq launched chemical weapons attacks against its Kurdish minority. U.N. institutions were slow in responding to these crimes, partly because they were concerned that condemning Saddam Hussein would make it more difficult to reach a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War. The famous chemical weapons attack at Halabja occurred in March 1988; the U.N. only condemned Iraq for the use of chemical weapons in August, 1988, the same month that the cease-fire was reached.
It was in Rwanda, where the failure of the international community to effectively deal with genocide was most glaring. The Genocide Convention required all states “to prevent and punish genocide.” In January 1994, the Canadian commander of the U.N. forces in Rwanda, General Roméo Dallaire, was actually in a position to prevent genocide. He sent a classified cable to Kofi Annan, who are the time was the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations at the U.N., which contained information that the Hutu militia was training in Rwandan army camps for the “extermination” of the Tutsi tribe.
Dallaire had access to information about where the Hutu weapons caches were located and sought permission from Annan to take his Belgian peacekeepers and seize the weapons so he could thwart the extermination plan. The U.N. refused to give Dallaire permission, saying that such a military operation “goes beyond the mandate entrusted” to the U.N. peacekeepers. Failure to act against the Hutus set the stage the mass murder of 800,000 Tutsis in 1994. A year later in Bosnia, after U.N. forces failed to protect Bosnian Muslims, approximately 8,000 were killed at Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serbs. International tribunals were created by the U.N. to punish genocide in both conflicts, but international institutions have not succeeded in preventing genocide or deterring its perpetrators.
The failure of the West to halt acts of genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia for a time created a sense of guilt among diplomatic elites in the US and Europe. They became more active as a result in the acts of genocide in Darfur, Sudan, though they did not end all the killings. The intervention of NATO in Libya came about because diplomats became convinced that forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi were sweeping across northern Libya and the city of Benghazi was expected to become “another Srebrenica,” in which thousands of members of the Libyan opposition would be slaughtered.
Benghazi was saved by Western intervention, but the subsequent chaos that spread to the rest of Libya after the fall of Gadhafi, resulted in Western decision-makers becoming far more reluctant to intervene elsewhere again. Undoubtedly, as NATO observed the breakup of Libya, it became convinced that it should avert a similar military campaign in Syria, where the mass killings undertaken by the regime were incomparably greater than the civilian losses in Libya. Strategic failures in one conflict bred inaction in the next.
But there is a price that is paid by the international community in not halting genocide when it is already underway: the next mass murderer comes to believe that he can get away with such crimes. He is not deterred by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. In its April 18 edition, The Economist, the British weekly news magazine, concluded that the idealism that prompted interest in war crimes after World War II appeared to be ebbing. The West increasingly appears to be exhausted.
There are two issues today clouding the clear struggle against genocide that the world declared after World War II. The first, which was described above, is the refusal to acknowledge that a genocide is transpiring. But there is a second phenomenon of leaders who over-use the term genocide for political purposes.
Thus in late September 2014, Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO leader, accused Israel of waging genocide against the Palestinians in an address at the U.N. General Assembly. The cheapening of the term genocide in this way, which is exactly what Abbas did, makes it more difficult for the international community to take the charge of genocide seriously in the future when real cases of genocide occur. The delegitimization of Israel only delegitimizes the struggle against genocide.
There is a sentence attributed to the Nazi leadership prior to the Holocaust: Who, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians? The failure of the West to contend with massacres in places like Syria, unfortunately only prepares the groundwork for the next mass killings, and even acts of genocide, to come.