DEFUSE THE LEXICON OF SLAUGHTER
By DAVID SCHEFFER
New York Times
Feb 23 2012
Legislators play a dangerous game using the word "genocide." In
trying to appease millions of victims, they needlessly pit nations
against one another. They should leave it to others to sift through
the evidence and determine what killings occurred when and which
ones amount to what crimes. Political judgments distort the search
for truth and for justice.
Millions of people live with the memories that their ancestors were
slaughtered out of prejudice. They demand that the story of their
people's past be confirmed for posterity and that the perpetrators be
condemned. But judging such facts, especially many years, perhaps even
centuries, after they occurred, requires the discipline of historians
and, if surviving suspects can be prosecuted, of jurists.
Some nations have outlawed Holocaust denial to avoid stoking the
violence bred by anti-Semitism. Such intentions may be sound, but too
often the results are problematic. Legislators and governments have
variously decreed or denied that given mass atrocities were genocides
in order to satisfy certain interest groups or national agendas.
France and Turkey are now at loggerheads, for example, over how to
characterize the deaths of some 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians nearly
a century ago and whether to criminalize any refusal to call those
atrocities a genocide. The French Parliament says "genocide" and wants
to criminalize its denial; Turkey rejects the term and prosecutes
those who use it. The Turkish prime minister has threatened sanctions
against France and countered that France committed a genocide of its
own in Algeria between 1830 and 1962.
Mass atrocities were indeed committed against the Armenians, but
deciding to call them a "genocide" - or refusing to - is a dangerously
divisive political game. It heightens tensions between countries and
sows confusion about what really happened.
Politicians should use the term "genocide" only when historians
and jurists have determined, based on evidence and analysis, that a
genocide - a specific crime defined according to narrow factual and
legal criteria - has indeed occurred. It is the responsibility of
historians to establish the facts of distant events and of jurists
to determine whether these were a genocide, crimes against humanity,
war crimes, human rights abuses, political repression or other crimes
against civil or political rights.
Using the word "genocide" loosely can be tragically ineffective or
self-defeating. It can intimidate powerful nations from reacting
quickly enough to prevent further atrocities.
The United Nations and key Western governments failed to act in
Rwanda and the Balkans in the early 1990s partly because their policy
makers were searching for terminological certainty about the nature
of the killings. The false notion arose that invoking "genocide"
would require immediate military intervention. (The 1948 Genocide
Convention does not demand this; the requirement that parties to the
treaty "prevent" genocide can take military, political, diplomatic
or economic forms.) And while the politicians pondered, thousands of
civilians continued to die.
When in 2004 Secretary of State Colin Powell declared the killings
in Darfur a genocide, he wasn't committing to United States to send
the 82nd Airborne into western Sudan. He was simply trying to prod
the U.S. government to take some action, ideally with others, to stop
the atrocities. But others in Washington and several Western capitals
froze at the use of the g-word.
Politicians would be better off using the phrase "atrocity crimes" - a
term with no pre-existing connotations or legal criteria - to describe
any combination of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes,
leaving it to historians and jurists to determine, free of political
influence, which atrocity crimes belong to which category. In the face
of ongoing mass killings, this would allow policy makers to concentrate
on what needs to be done to end a slaughter rather than debate how to
define it. The Obama administration is rightly creating the Atrocities
Prevention Board to free up decision-making from any confining lexicon.
France, as well as the United States and Israel - both of which are
considering similar genocide legislation - could call what occurred
to the Armenian people a century ago atrocity crimes. (Turkey might
even tolerate that.) And Turkey could condemn what the Algerians
suffered at the hands of the French as atrocity crimes.
If the United States, the European Union and the Arab League declared
that the Syrian government was currently committing atrocity crimes
against its own people, they would have an easier time getting the
U.N. Security Council to refer Syria's leaders to the International
Criminal Court for investigation, leaving it to the prosecutor to
determine what crimes to list in an indictment. Rather than veto
such a move, Russia and China might abstain from voting on it and
give justice a chance.
By forgoing "genocide," politicians would no doubt disappoint interest
groups determined to use the label to describe the suffering inflicted
on their ancestors. The Armenians, in particular, would find this
compromise hard to accept. But their strongest case rests with the
historians and the jurists now - not with the politicians whose loose
indictments trigger the very tensions that can ignite prejudice among
peoples and nations. Shifting to "atrocity crimes" in government
speech, meanwhile, would focus the efforts of officials on getting
more unified international responses to ongoing massacres.
David Scheffer, the U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues
from 1997 to 2001, is a law professor at Northwestern University. His
new book is "All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War
DEFUSE THE LEXICON OF SLAUGHTER
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Posted 24 February 2012 - 09:31 AM
Mr. David Scheffer, forgets to mention conveniently that over 150 historians already declared it as Genocide! Moron!
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