Genocide is the ultimate crime. All the more reason to use the word carefully.

No less than the act itself, “the politics of genocide can be heartbreaking.” That is what Sophal Ear, who fled Cambodia as a ten-year-old and now works as a politics professor in the United States, remembers feeling as a young man.

His father was among the 1.7m victims of mass killing by the Khmer Rouge; by pretending to be a Vietnamese citizen, his mother spirited him and four other children to freedom. Yet before last year, when four suspects were indicted for genocide, most murders by his homeland’s communist tyrants were not seen as genocidal in the legal sense, because killers and victims belonged to the same ethnic and religious group. Among the many crimes of Pol Pot’s regime, only the killings of minorities like ethnic Vietnamese, or Muslims, fall neatly into the category of genocide.

Many people, faced with any of the scenes created by systematic slaughter during the 20th century would simply say: “I may not be a lawyer, but I know genocide when I see it.” The reality of genocide may be easy to grasp at a gut level, yet its definition is complex. Prosecutors, judges, historians and politicians have made huge efforts in recent years to describe the boundaries of genocide: when mere mass murder stops and the ultimate human crime starts. Yet the term is far more than a tool of historical or moral analysis. Its use brings momentous political and legal consequences—and is therefore bound to be highly contested.

Such thinking pervaded bureaucratic debates in Washington, DC, in 1994 as news of massacres in Rwanda emerged. As Samantha Power, an author who works for President Barack Obama, has disclosed, a paper by a Pentagon official urged caution in using the G-word: “Be careful …Genocide finding could commit [the government] to actually do something.”

Plain facts, muddy language

Even when the facts are clear, the vocabulary may not be. The killing of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys near Srebrenica in Bosnia, in 1995, has been widely described as a genocidal act; that is why its alleged mastermind, the Bosnian-Serb general, Ratko Mladic, was extradited to The Hague this week. Yet even in the Bosnian context, the word genocide has been challenged; prominent figures, who do not doubt the vileness of the war, raise questions about the proper legal category.

They include William Schabas, a Canadian law professor who heads the International Association of Genocide Scholars. He has stirred a furore by arguing that since many authorities reject the use of “genocide” to describe the whole military campaign by the Bosnian Serbs (or those of other war parties), it may not make sense to single out one episode in the war as genocidal; either there was a general bid to exterminate or there was not. Read more…

As published in www.economist.com on June 2, 2011 (Print Edition).


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