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What is genocide?

Genocide Memorial in Yerevan
Genocide Memorial in Yerevan. Photo: flickr/azkid2lt

In 2007, a publication of the Ankara-based Institute for Armenian Research noted, with perceptible resignation, that recognition of the Armenian genocide had shifted from an Armenian national agenda to a mainstream view among scholars.

"In recent years, the most salient but maybe the least noticed fact with regard to the Armenian question is that the Armenian claims are accepted more extensively by part of the Western academic society … At the end of this process, which resembles a chain reaction, many more academics read these publications and use them in their studies."

This chain reaction was part of the emergence of genocide as a new field of study in Western academia. In 1980, the University of Montreal launched the first ever academic course on "the history and sociology of genocide". Following the publication of Leo Kuper's 1981 book Genocide Its Political Uses in the Twentieth Century, the field of genocide studies expanded rapidly. Genocide research institutes were created in the US and across Europe. In 1997, an International Association of Genocide Scholars was founded. In 1999, Israel Charny produced the first Encyclopaedia of Genocide, which included twenty pages on the Armenian genocide. Samantha Power's 2002 book A Problem from Hell, on America's failure to prevent genocides in the 20th century, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Until 1980, genocide research had focused mainly on the Holocaust. When the Armenian historian Vahakn Dadrian first wrote on the subject of "comparative genocide", he used the Holocaust as a yardstick. So too did his detractors. Turkish scholars rejected the genocide label by emphasising the difference between Hitler's policies and those of the Young Turk government. Their arguments centred on two propositions. First, unlike the Holocaust, it was impossible to establish the "intent to destroy" the Armenians on the part of the Ottoman authorities, given that important Armenian populations in parts of Turkey were untouched. US historian Guenther Lewy underlined in a recent book that:

"the large Armenian communities of Constantinople, Smyrna and Aleppo were spared deportation and … survived the war largely intact … These exemptions are analogous to Adolf Hitler failing to include the Jews of Berlin, Cologne and Munich in the Final Solution."

The second proposition is that, unlike the Jews of Nazi Germany, the Armenians had rebelled against the Ottoman authorities, and therefore could not be counted as "innocent victims". As Gunduz Aktan told the US Congress in 2000, "Killing, even of civilians, in a war waged for territory, is not genocide. The victims of genocide must be totally innocent." Given that the events of 1915 were not equivalent to the Holocaust, the argument went, they did not amount to genocide, and any use of the term was purely political.

What this argument overlooks, however, is that, in international usage, the term "genocide" has never been limited to "acts equivalent to the Holocaust". The starting point is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The Convention defines "genocide" as:

"any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, 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."

ICTY
ICTY in The Hague. Photo: Ruhr Universität Bochum

There is now a considerable body of court cases, official declarations and academic studies applying this definition to both historical and contemporary events around the world. In 2003, the Dutch expert Ton Zwaan was asked by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to summarise "the main general findings and insights developed in the field of 'genocide studies'." Zwaan argued that detailed studies of specific historical cases since the early 1980s had made clear that, while the Holocaust "was undoubtedly the most systematic attempt to realise a 'total' and 'complete' genocide ever", it should not obscure recognition of other, less 'total' forms of genocide.

"In fact, all genocides have been in a sense 'partial' genocides … There have indeed been quite important differences between the murder of the Jews, and the National-Socialist genocidal policies towards parts of the Polish and Russian populations under German occupation, but one may simultaneously acknowledge that in all three cases a genocidal policy was followed and a genocidal process took place."

The key phrase in the 1948 Convention is "in whole or in part". As the International Association of Genocide Scholars has pointed out, "Perpetrators need not intend to destroy the entire group. Destruction of only part of a group (such as its educated members, or members living in one region) is also genocide."

This has been applied in numerous findings by courts and commissions of enquiry. The Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission, looking into the atrocities of the 1970s and 80s against indigenous Mayans, concluded that "agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people." The government's decision to designate all Maya as supporters of communism and terrorism, the report noted, had led to "aggressive, racist and extremely cruel […] violations that resulted in the massive extermination of defenceless Mayan communities."

Similarly, the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in which Bosnian Serb forces killed some 8,000 Muslim men, was found to be genocide. In a 2004 judgment, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) concluded that "the aim of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups, and the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole." It continued:

"The massacred men amounted to about one fifth of the overall Srebrenica community. The Trial Chamber found that, given the patriarchal character of the Bosnian Muslim society in Srebrenica, the destruction of such a sizeable number of men would inevitably result in the physical disappearance of the Bosnian Muslim population at Srebrenica."

Scholars and courts have also clarified the meaning of "intent to destroy." The International Association of Genocide Scholars wrote:

"Intent can be proven directly from statements or orders. But more often, it must be inferred from a systematic pattern of coordinated acts … Whatever may be the motive for the crime (land expropriation, national security, territorial integrity, etc.), if the perpetrators commit acts intended to destroy a group, even part of a group, it is genocide."

Trail of Tears. Photo: Max D. Stanley
"Trail of Tears". Photo: Max D. Stanley

Forced relocation has been described as genocide in a number of instances, including the American Indians. Scholars tell the story of "genocidal death marches, most infamously the Trail of Tears of the Cherokee and Navajo nations, which killed between 20 and 40 percent of the targeted populations en route." Discussing the extermination of native Americans in Spanish America, Adam Jones notes that:

"When slaves are dying like flies before your eyes, after only a few months down the mines or on the plantations, and your response is not to alter conditions but to feed more human lives into the inferno, this is 'first-degree' genocide."

A history of conflict between the two groups in question, or indeed the existing of any causal relationship between an initial aggression and subsequent retribution, does not preclude a finding of genocide. When Hutu apologists claimed that the 1994 Rwandan genocide was a continuation of civil war, and a defensive act intended to pre-empt genocide at Tutsi hands (which Hutus had suffered in neighbouring Burundi in 1972), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda rejected the argument.

Through these interpretations, the number of episodes accepted internationally as genocide has steadily increased. Scholarly journals such as Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Journal of Genocide Research now feature articles and debates on genocide committed by the ancient Roman Republic against Carthage in 146 BC, on the fate of the Australian Aborigines in the early 20th century, on Russian atrocities against Muslims in the Northern Caucasus, and on genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor, Burundi, Guatemala, the Ukraine (under Stalin) and Bosnia. Growing international concern on the subject, particularly in the wake of the Srebrenica and Rwandan genocides, has been a significant influence on international policy. For example, it was a major factor in NATO's 1999 decision to engage militarily in Kosovo.

Genocide studies have therefore by no means "singled out the Turks", as some Turkish critics have suggested. On the contrary, research has made it clear that the 20th century probably the most violent in human history saw genocide take place in almost every corner of the world.

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