Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

What Is Genocide? the Armenian Case

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

What Is Genocide? the Armenian Case

Article excerpt

Turkey, Past and Future

Shortly after the World War II, genocide was legally defined by the U.N. Genocide Convention as "any... acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such."1 The keyword from the perspective of this article is "intent." For while nobody can deny the disaster wrought on the Armenians by the 1915 deportations and massacres, the question is whether or not it can be defined as genocide - arguably the most heinous crime imaginable.

THE AMBIGUITY OF GENOCIDE

The strict international law definition of genocide has not prevented its application to virtually every conflict involving a large number of civilian deaths from the Athenian massacre of the inhabitants of Milos in 416 B.C.E., to the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258, to the fate of the native North American Indians, to Stalin's induced famine in the Ukraine in the early 1 930 s, to the recent conflicts in Bosnia, Burundi, Chechnya, Colombia, Guatemala, Iraq, Sudan, and Rwanda, which is not to deny that some of these cases do indeed qualify as genocide.

The liberal use of the term has naturally stirred numerous controversies and debates. Israel Charny offers little help by arguing that any massacre constitutes genocide, even the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.2 At the other end of the spectrum, Stephen Katz views the Holocaust as the only true genocide in history.3 In between these two polar definitions, Ton Zwaan has attempted to distinguish between "total" and "complete" genocide and "partial" genocides.4

Even the U.N. definition suffers from some ambiguities owing to being a compromise among all signatories. Thus, the convention legally protects only "national, racial, ethnic, and religious groups," not those defined politically, economically, or culturally, giving rise to varying interpretations of its intentions. For example, while the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia convicted seven Bosnian Serbs of genocide for their role in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims,5 the International Court of Justice, in its judgment in Bosnia vs. Serbia, focused on Serbia's "intent" rather than "outcome" regarding the murder of Bosnian Muslims, absolving it of the charge of genocide.6 Clearly, these contradictory decisions have added to the confusion of what genocide legally constitutes.

Likewise, the debate whether the Darfur events constituted genocide continues apace. U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell characterized Darfur as a case of genocide based on a U.S. government-funded study, which had surveyed 1,136 Darfur refugees in neighboring Chad.7 By contrast, a study commissioned by U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan concluded that while the Darfur events should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity, they did not amount to genocide.8 Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also declined to characterize the violence in Darfur as genocide while the Arab League and the African Union took a similar position, emphasizing instead the civil war aspect of the conflict. For their part EU, British, Canadian, and Chinese officials, among others, have shied away from calling it genocide. Samantha Power, the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning study on genocide, favored the term ethnic cleansing to describe what was occurring.9

When in July 2008, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo accused Sudanese president Omar Bashir of genocide and asked the court to issue an arrest warrant, many in the Arab League and the African Union criticized the genocide charge as biased against their region. 10 It remains to be seen how wise the ICC has been in bringing genocide charges in this case. Clearly, there was a lack of agreement on what did or did not constitute genocide in Darfur. Such a situation illustrates the ambiguity surrounding the concept of genocide.

In an attempt to alleviate these problems, scholars have offered such additional detailed concepts as "politicide" to refer to mass murders of a political nature, "democide" to describe government-perpetrated mass murders of at least one million people, ethnocide, Judeocide, ecocide, feminicide, libricide (for the destruction of libraries), urbicide, elitocide, linguicide, and culturicide, among others. …

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