Why genocide is so hard for the world to define
Legal definitions of the term fuel disagreement over how many genocides have happened in the 20th century.(AFP/File)
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Between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Hitler blunder and the Yazidis’ case at the International Criminal Court last week, we’ve heard a lot about genocide lately. But as it turns out, it’s a term that’s pretty difficult for people to agree on.
International law defines it as any violence “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
A tangle of legal definitions fuels years-long disagreements over how many genocides have actually happened in the 20th century, and the road to designation is wrought with challenges.
Violence against political and social groups and the destruction of essential landscape only count as war crimes, for instance, while proving intention beyond reasonable doubt is difficult without a system to clarify vagueries. Even the number of deaths that constitute genocide is not clear cut.
We’re seeing the effects of the muddled process play out today. Here are three current examples:
1. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir evaded persecution by violating orders to remain grounded this June when he went to an African Union summit. He has yet be pulled into the ICC, claiming that it is biased against Africa. His case calls into question ICC treatment of BRIC countries, too.
2. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has yet to face persecution because permanent council members Russia and China are among the group to screen referrals to the ICC.
3. Even Daesh poses a challenge because of its rare, non-state actor status and because most of the group’s crimes could be persecuted through various countries’ domestic legal systems. Plus, the first step is to capture the leaders—after a year of US airstrikes, that hasn’t seemed to work out so well.
By Elizabeth Tarbell
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