In an age dominated by brute force and overwhelming military power — in other words, any age at all — it is hard to remember that the simplest addition to our vocabulary can change the world. This was what Raphael Lemkin accomplished in 1944, when in a study on the Nazi occupation of Europe he coined the word “genocide.”
Just four years later, the concept entered international law in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948. That Convention gives the following definition:
[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], 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 (Article 2).
This makes “genocide” a peculiar type of crime. It is what lawyers call a mens rea offense, one which encompasses a wide range of conduct whenever it is done with a specific intention. Mass killing is what genocide calls to mind, of course, but the prohibited acts include mass maiming, reducing the living standards of people below the level needed to maintain the population, forced sterilization and probably forced contraception, and the mandatory surrender of parental rights.
Lawyers could go further. They know that “calculated” is a legal term of art which refers to an objective standard of conduct. An act is calculated to bring about a result if a reasonable person would know that the result was likely to follow. Throwing someone overboard in the middle of Lake Superior is calculated to kill the victim even if the person doing the throwing intends nothing more than a harmless prank.
Put this way, there are a great many countries which have committed genocide. Was apartheid not the imposition of serious mental harm on Black South Africans, even those who never got in trouble with the police or the army? Didn’t Canada take First Nations children from their parents well into the twentieth century? How about the 500,000 Iraqi children whose deaths due to sanctions was considered a price worth paying by that gentle liberal Madeleine Albright? And might not neoliberal “shock treatment” qualify under subhead (c), considering that living standards in the former Soviet Union were brought so low as a result that the population declined dramatically?
These are all highly debatable questions, of course, and I don’t plan to debate them. They’re offered only to show that the specific definition of genocide to which the world community adheres makes sense only within the context of its birth. Genocide, as a crime, is a generalized description of Nazi race policy. Each of the subheads was derived from a specific practice: (a) from the death camps, (b) slave labor, (c) confinement in ghettos, (d) the forced sterilization program, and (e) a little-known but real program to “rescue” Aryan children from less suitable parents.
That’s not all. Lemkin (or the UN) did more than allow the Nazis to define the physical acts constituting genocide. In a way which is proving far more troubling, they also let the Nazi paradigm define the other part of the offense, the intent or mental state required. The new crime was limited to acts intended to harm not specific, concrete human beings but “a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group, as such.” It is a crime which combines violence with categorization. Given the breadth of the definition, in fact, it is the categorization itself which stands at the heart of the offense.
Genocide is thus a crime of the imagination. It is harm with the belief that every individual act of violence is a step towards the elimination of a group. But this raises a question. Why does this intent convert murder into something worse than murder?
The question is most horrifyingly pressing in contemporary Africa. The victims in Darfur are described as Africans and the perpetrators as Arabs. Genetically these two “groups” are identical, and there are reasons to believe that the underlying conflict is one between farmers and pastoralists, but that is irrelevant; what counts is the construction of group identity which allows the killing and the burning of villages to be seen as the destruction of one group by another. It is a murderous and largely — though not entirely — one-sided struggle, and it has produced hundreds of thousands of victims. The heart-wrenching TV footage and the finger-pointing editorials may all be merited. Yet while the “genocide” label makes Darfur the object of humanitarian concern — or at least the simulacrum of concern, aid budgets still not being increased — the far vaster, longer, more horrendous slaughter in the Congo goes on with hardly a mention even on the inner pages of our newspapers of record. To what point is one classified as genocide and the other as a mere civil war? Is blood redder in Darfur?
Nor does the elimination of every sort of group fall within the definition of genocide. In 1965 and 1966, for example, hundreds of thousands — perhaps more than a million — people were murdered in Indonesia, mostly because of their real or rumored membership in the Communist Party. Entire villages were wiped out. It was a slaughter that in its scope, its low-tech brutality, and the resigned acquiescence of most of its victims seems an eerie presage of Rwanda. But it was not genocide, because political groups are not entitled to the protection of the convention. (Neither was Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks, because “social class” doesn’t make the list either.) To hack a Communist to pieces with a machete is only murder; to hack a Tutsi to death in the same way is something else
And the mens rea of genocide is also a delusion, a delusion which seems to have the power of contagion. Its almost inevitable failure is not due to the technical difficulty of killing large numbers of people. It is the group itself which slips away. Individuals may or may not escape; but the boundaries of the category are certain to blur. The problem with the concept of genocide is that, like the crime itself, it insists that things are otherwise.
Categories are always artificial, provisional, inaccurate, misleading. You can group people any way you wish, but nothing will assure you that every person so categorized will act the same as any other or that those uncategorized will not turn out to be fifth columnists. The unitary organism that the Nazis called “World Jewry” never existed. This was part of the insanity of the theory. It insisted that a merchant banker from Hamburg, a Talmudist from Vilna, and a dock worker from Salonika were identical for all important purposes. And it was part of the special horror of the Holocaust that everything about its victims but the bare datum of their Jewishness was obliterated before the actual living Jews, personal lives and family histories stripped away with their clothing, were obliterated themselves.
This is the other problem with the concept of genocide. The Nazi world view was fundamentally racist, and the essentialism built into that world view is impossible to remove from its afterlife in the newly-minted crime of genocide. It has merely been reversed. To the Nazis the SS were heroes and the Jews sub-human vermin. In today’s discourse the killers are killers, which is usually fair enough; but the victims are granted a kind of plenary indulgence and appear to us as helpless innocents. One can kill in self-defense and wars are routinely fought between equally guilty parties. Only in situations of genocide are good and evil so clearly drawn.
That moral clarity — to use a Bushism that seems to have fallen from favor — is genocide’s public relations strength, but it is the concept’s undoing as a tool of analysis. The price for that clarity is the same obliteration of personal, family, and social history perpetrated by the Nazis. The victims have no identity but their group membership.
For example, suggest some human sympathy towards a Serb household in Kosovo, and you’re treated as if you were Slobodan Milosevic himself. It is all but impossible to discuss the possibility that the 1994 plane crash which killed the then-president of Rwanda and served as the excuse for the slaughter there was the work of Paul Kagame’s Tutsi rebels — though some students of the events believe that this was the case. It is just as difficult to point to the Rwandan army’s later incursions into the Congo and its hold on some of the area’s mines. Having been victims of genocide, the sins of Kosovars and Tutsis both past and present are washed as white as snow. The same is true of rebels in Darfur after the savage repression licensed by the Sudanese government; only now, and only in a few places, does one hear that not all of the atrocities were the work of the Janjaweed.
We do not need a concept that simplifies political struggles beyond recognition or gives preferential attention to those calamities where leaders of one side happen to claim that their enemy is a specific ethnic, racial or religious group. Lemkin and the UN were not to blame; none of this was likely to have been foreseen in 1948. The notion of genocide emerged from an understandable sense that Nazi crimes were somehow unlike the crimes of the past and must never be repeated. But it remains too closely tied to those crimes, and to a particular explanation of them, to be of any use in today’s world. There is no such thing as genocide. There are cruelty, oppression, murder, and torture. Those are real, and they need to be stopped. Genocide is imaginary. It is time we did away with it.
Michael Steinberg is the author of The Fiction of a Thinkable World: Body, Meaning, and the Culture of Capitalism published this year by Monthly Review Press and essays in professional journals in history, music, and law. He is a member of the literature collective Cat’s out of the Bag. He and his wife Loret, a photographer and professor of documentary photography, live in Rochester, New York, under the supervision of two domestic medium-hair cats.