Sunday, July 4, 2010

Genocide Theory

Revolutionary White Girl recently posted a blog concerning a trip she made to a genocide memorial in Rwanda, a trip which made her rethink the concept of genocide, as her blog did for me. It's time to break out of the domestic bliss I've been living in for the past week and start focusing on my great academic love again: genocide theory.

Like RWG, I have struggled with the concept of the term "genocide", to the point that is became the underlying theme of my Master's thesis. However, I haven't thought of it much since turning in said thesis, so I figure it's time to revisit that struggle. Over the coming weeks (yes, weeks, because I know myself) genocide theory will be my main theme, as I detail my problems with the concept and its applicability to modern events. Some of my ideas are fairly lucid while others are demonstrative of my inability to adequately verbalize my thoughts. I appreciate - and desire - any and all feedback.

One of the main ideas behind the creation of the word "genocide" (as defined by Raphael Lemkin in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe) was that genocide was a crime out of place Western Enlightenment principles, therefore out of place in "civilized" nations. Not an unacceptable crime as such, but unacceptable within Western, first-world ideals. It was not accidental that the perspectives and peoples of the South were completely disregarded - Lemkin himself attributed the fate of the Hereros and Congolese (for example) to their own "barbaric" natures.* It stands, then, that the "crime without a name" was a crime of barbarity - a crime of the Other.

Furthermore, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which provides the legal definition, is overly dependent on the specific crimes of the Holocaust, resulting in the constant search for similarities between modern instances of mass violence and the crimes of the Nazi regime. Considering that more scholarship is available on the Holocaust (including all the history that word entails) than all other genocides combined, the search for connections is understandable, but mistaken. If the Holocaust is just one example of genocide among many, than the UN Convention should not include specific details pertinent only to Holocaust history ("forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" is an explicit reference to Nazi policy) but rather should be rewritten to broadly encompass all possibilities. On the other hand, if the Holocaust is "uniquely unique", as some Holocaust scholars claim, than it should in no way be the basis for international law. It is beyond comparison and any attempts otherwise will ultimately prove futile.

If a law is intimately rooted in the crimes of the mid-twentieth century than it will not be able to evolve along with modern methods of war and concepts of human rights - and an evolving law is desperately needed. Despite the existence of the UN Convention, there is no consensus on what genocide actually is: is it a crime specifically of "intended extermination; a descriptive term useful only in its ability to classify certain acts; a historical phenomenon?** In common usage, "genocide" applies to all three, but is that valid? Common usage (common knowledge) also equates genocide with "the simple desire to kill as many of one's enemy as possible,"*** but surely genocide is meant to be more than that? Otherwise, why differentiate between acts of war and acts of genocide - or should we?

* - Dominik Schaller, "Raphael Lemkin's View of European Colonial Rule in Africa: between Condemnation and Admiration," Journal of Genocide Research 2005. See also John Cooper, Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention.
** - Henry Huttenbach, "Gerlach Reconsidered: Search for Terminological Clarity," JoGR 2007.
*** - Anthony Pagden, "Genocide in the Age of the Nation-State II", JoGR 2007.

1 comment:

  1. It might help:

    Regards from Slovenia