special report

The Crime of Genocide
FromRWANDA AND GENOCIDE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Alain Destexhe with a foreword by William Shawcross. Reprinted with permission from New York University Press and Pluto Press/UK Alain Destexhe is the former Secretary General of Doctors Without Borders. Copyright 1995. All rights reserved.


Genocide is distinguishable from all other crimes by the motivation behind it. Towards the end of the Second World War, when the full horror of the extermination and concentration camps became public knowledge, Winston Churchill stated that the world was being brought face to face with 'a crime that has no name.' History was of little use in finding a recognised word to fit the nature of the crime that Nazi Germany, a modern, industrialised state, had engaged in. There simply were no precedents in regard to either the nature or the degree of the crime. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-born adviser to the United Staes War Ministry, saw that the world was being confronted with a totally unprecedented phenomena and that 'new conceptions require new terminology.' In his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944, he coined the word 'genocide', constructed, in contradiction to the accepted rules of etymology, from the Greek 'genos' (race or tribe) and the Latin suffix 'cide' (to kill). According to Lemkin, genocide signifies 'the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group' and implies the existence of a coordinated plan, aimed at total extermination, to be put into effect against individuals chosen as victims purely, simply and exclusively because they are members of the target group.

Criminal Intention

According to Raphael Lemkin, the expression 'mass murder' that was being used at the time to describe what had happened was an inadequate description of the totally new phenomenon witnessed in Nazi-occupied territories. It was inadequate because it failed to account for the motive for the crime, which arose solely from 'racial, national or religious' considerations and had nothing to do with the conduct of the war. War crimes had been defined for the first time in 1907 in The Hague Convention, but the crime of genocide required a separate definition as this was 'not only a crime against the rules of war, but a crime against humanity itself' affecting not just the individual or nation in question, but humanity as a whole. Raphael Lemkin was the first person to put forward the theory that genocide is not a war crime and that the immorality of a crime such as genocide should not be confused with the amorality of war.

The definition of what constitutes a crime against humanity was established at the Nuremberg Trials. However, despite the significance of this, the jurists at Nuremberg had invented nothing new. They were simply advancing Montesquieu's ideas on international law, which he described as 'universal civil law, in the sense that all peoples are citizens of the universe.' Killing someone simply because he or she exists is a crime against humanity; it is a crime against the very essence of what it is to be human. This is not an elimination of individuals because they are political adversaries, or because they hold to what are regarded as false beliefs or dangerous theories, but a crime directed against the person as a person, against the very humanity of the individual victim. Thus it cannot be categorised as a war crime. As Alain Finkielkraut, the French philosopher, has pointed out, it is quite a different thing to be regarded as an enemy than as a particular species of vermin to be systematically wiped out.

Genocide is a crime on a different scale to all other crimes against humanity and implies an intention to completely exterminate the chosen group. Genocide is therefore both the gravest and the greatest of the crimes against humanity:

In the same way as in a case of homicide the natural right of the individual to exist is implied, so in the case of genocide as a crime, the principle that any national, racial or religious group has a natural right to exist is clearly evident. Attempts to eliminate such groups violate this right to exist and to develop within the international community.

A genocide is a conspiracy aimed at the total destruction of a group and thus requires a concerted plan of action. The instigators and initiators of a genocide are cool-minded theorists first and barbarians only second. The specificity of genocide does not arise from the extent of the killings, nor their savagery or resulting infamy, but solely from the intention: the destruction of a group.

Lemkin's efforts and his single-minded perseverance brought about the Convention for the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which was voted into existence by the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) in 1948. After stating in Article 1 that genocide is a crime under international law, the Convention laid down the following definition:

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.*

This definition, although lessening the uniqueness of Lemkin's concepts to some extent, is nonetheless of remarkable significance. Some UN member states wanted to go further to include the notion of cultural or economic genocide, others would have added political motivations. The French representative remarked at the time, 'even if crimes of genocide were committed for racial or religious reasons in the past, it is clear that the motivation for such crimes in future will be mainly political. Ironically, and probably not without ulterior motives, the Soviet delegate gave the real reason for the exclusion of politically-defined groups arguing that their inclusion would be contrary to the 'scientific' definition of genocide and would reduce the effectiveness of the Convention if it could then be applied to any political crime whatsoever.

The final definition as it stands today is based on four constituent factors:

- a criminal act...

- with the intention of destroying...

- an ethnic, national or religious group...

- targeted as such.

If it was the reality of the Genocide that led to the establishment of the concept of genocide, in most people's minds there was an almost automatic connection between the two.

Consequently the word 'genocide' has often been used when making comparisons with later massacres throughout the world in order to attract attention by evoking images of the concentration camps and their victims. The Second World War and the genocide became absolute references in the political context. As Alain Finkielkraut puts it, 'Satan became incarnate in the person of Hitler who represented nothing less than an allegory for the devil.' Facism became the supreme enemy and all political adversaries were indiscriminately accused of supporting it. But it was genocide that became the ultimate verbal stigma, a term used both to describe any thoroughly horrendous, thoroughly fascist act perpetrated by an enemy and as a rallying call for minority groups looking to assert their identity and legitimise their existence. Thus the word genocide fell victim to a sort of verbal inflation, in much the same as happened with the word fascist. It has been applied freely and indiscriminately to groups as diverse as the blacks of South Africa, palestinians and women, as well as in reference to animals, abortion, famines and widespread malnutrition, and to many other situations.

The term genocide has progressively lost its initial meaning and is becoming dangerously commonplace. In order to shock people and gain their attention to contemporary situations of violence or injustice by making comparisons with murder on the greatest scale known in this centyr, 'genocide' has been used as synonymous with massacre, oppression and repression, overlooking that what lies behind the image it evokes is the attempted annihilation of the entire Jewish race. Further trivialization has resulted from the over-use of the term 'Holocaust,' first popularised on a wide scale in the 1970s by the American television series with that title. The original context is of course religious and means, literally, 'a ritual sacrifice wholly consumed by fire.' The use of this term has a twofold effect, both mystifying and spectacular, which distorts and denies reality.

The inevitable consequences of such misuse of language are a loss of meaning and a distortion of values. For example, there is a great danger in the way the media applied the term 'Holocaust' to the devastation wrought by the cholera epidemic in Goma, which has the largest concentration of Rwandan refugees in Zaire. This puts the medical disaster that resulted from the massive influx of refugees as a consequence of the genocide on the same level as the genocide itself, a premeditated mass-crime, systematically planned and executed. This has resulted in a double error with the exaggerated emphasis focused on the cholera victims-catastrophe though that was-distracting attention from the real crime already committed. The fact that cholera does not handpick its victims according to their ethnic origin was completely overlooked. (Even the controversial carpet-bombings that took place over Germany and Vietnam claimed their victims in a totally haphazard manner.) Intrinsic meaning is lost when a word is used so loosely to describe any human disaster with a large number of victims, regardless of the cause. As a further consequence, we arrive at a situation where no individuals are to be singled out as guilty or responsible because blame is laid at the door of historical fate and 'unfortunate circumstances', 'the climate of the time' and sheer bad luck. It would be hard to deny that some form of evil has always existed in the world. But if such evil is seen in general, impersonal terms such as barbarism, 'man's inhumanity to man,' chance circumstance or plain hatred, then there are no individual culprits at who, an accusing finger can be pointed. On the other hand, if everyone is considered to be somehow involved and therefore somehow responsible, then the picture becomes hazy and guilt and innocence are somehow confused. This so-called collective blame is just another way of denying the facts.

....Thus, using the definitions of both Lemkin and the Convention, and placing them within the context of the larger category of crime against humanity in general, there have really only been three genuine examples of genocide during the course of the twentieth century: that of the Armenians by the Young Turks in 1915, that of the Jews and Gypsies by the Nazis and, in 1994, that of the Tutsis by the Hutu racists.

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