Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back to Basics: Defining Genocide

It's time I return to my genocide posts. I realize I have seriously dropped the ball on this series I started, but that's just me.
In my last post on the subject (four weeks ago!) I briefly raised issue with listing common factors of genocide, insisting that without critical analysis of such stages, such information should not be accepted as immutable fact. The same goes for the "12 Ways to Deny Genocide" because that list is vague enough to be renamed "12 Ways to Deny Anything". I have particular issues with each, but in the interest of brevity I will focus on one thing at time; today, it's "definitionalist" denial.

Precise interpretation of the definition of genocide is unavoidable, at least when one is prosecuting or defending the accused: if a person (or persons) is accused of committing genocide, and that person is brought to trial, it stands that there something in the legal definition that matches the supposed crime. My problem is Gregory Stanton's claim that it is only people who haven't read the UN Convention who ever make a claim that a certain crime/situation doesn't fit the definition of genocide - and maybe he's right. But something Stanton is ignoring is that as genocide, both as a concept and and as a crime, increasingly permeates our everyday lives, in news, books, music, and movies, then a common understanding forms that may or may not strictly adhere to the letter of the law, and more often than not, "genocide" commonly means annihilation; complete destruction; lots and lots of death.  In other words, genocide means "killing", killing everyone. I know this is wrong; anyone who studies genocide or crimes against humanity or even international law should know this is wrong; but the popular (mis)conception holds that it is right.

Think I am too simplistic?  Genocide references are everywhere.  For the past two weeks my roommate has been playing the video games Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Just yesterday I overhead a character reference "genocide" - in context, stating that genocide against a certain alien race was unnecessary - at least three times, and in the course of the game references to genocide against alien races have surfaced regularly. 2009's Star Trek had Captain Pike label the destruction of the Vulcan planet, and almost all the Vulcan race, as genocide; and when Five Finger Death Punch sings "I'm a one-man walking genocide" I am pretty sure they mean "I am the human embodiment of complete and utter destruction", not "I physically and/or emotionally harm specific groups of people, in whole or in part." And because "I'm a one-man walking crime against humanity" just doesn't have the same umph.

Manipulating the definition of genocide also works in favor of those actively trying to end or "stop" genocide. There are many horrors of the Holocaust, but the one most cited is "six million killed"; there were also many horrors in Bosnia, but what receives the most attention is "7,000 slaughtered at Srebernica", not the thousands of women forcibly raped for months on end; public interest and outrage (in the US) over the situation in Darfur was sparked by the knowledge of hundreds of thousands killed and the complete destruction (there's that term again!) of villages.  On the other hand, the forced relocation of Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region receives far less attention because of its relative lack of violence and ambiguity: does "forced relocation" fit the definition of genocide?  Is it a form of cultural destruction?  Is this the intent of the Chinese authorities?  Is it within their rights of sovereignty?  Or are these questions too "definitionalist"?  Ensuring proper interpretation of the definition isn't necessarily to deny genocide, but to ensure that it is actually happening before the UN or NATO or another groups become embroiled in a situation they don't fully understand (Rwanda and Somalia instantly spring to mind) and possibly make a bad situation worse.


  1. explendit blog, congratulations
    regard from Reus Catalonia
    thank you

  2. So, in the Complete Idiot's Guide to Genocide (which I assume you are authoring at some point), what is the definition of genocide? Or did I miss that in an earlier post (and thus my need for an Idiot Guide)?

  3. Reus Catalonia - thank you!
    Roxy - Ahahaha, no, but I don't think I ever listed it: