Never Again?

By Landau, Ronnie | History Today, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Never Again?


Landau, Ronnie, History Today


6

* What on earth has happened to the much-trumpeted p1ans to bring war criminals in Bosnia to an early trial? Is there any evidence to suggest that such an announcement has been taken seriously by the protagonists? Has it made any difference to their conduct? Or indeed to that of other abusers of human rights elsewhere in the world?

That an international war crimes tribunal may be established to investigate and bring to justice those held responsible for 'war crimes' and 'crimes against humanity' in the former Yugoslavia was certainly a welcome announcement. It may even prove to have far-reaching implications for the future, especially the future safety of minority groups. But if it is to have the desired preventive and 'educational' effect, it would be as well to examine the mistakes of the past forty-five years: in particular, the consistent unwillingness and apparent inability of the member-states of the United Nations to intervene in the 'sovereign affairs' of one of their own number; and their consequent failure to invoke - even once - the United Nation's Genocide Convention of 1948.

The international community's attitude to genocide during the past half century is instructive and cautionary (even though it may yet be determined that what has happened in Bosnia falls somewhat short of full-blooded 'genocide'). Though the incidence of genocide or near-genocide has been a depressingly constant feature of recorded history, it was events in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1943 that prompted the international jurist, Raphael Lemkin, to invent the term 'genocide'; this was, of course, before anyone had a full appreciation of the enormity of what had occurred in the annihilation factories in Poland. Significantly, Lemkin was concerned not merely with punishing perpetrators of actual crimes against civilian populations but with anticipating and warding off potential atrocities, massacres and genocidal onslaughts.

The international community responded to Lemkin's suggestions in 1946 by suggesting an international legal framework. In its early infancy, the United Nations General Assembly appointed a committee to advise on how a Genocide Convention could best be formulated. The committee reported back with the following provisional definition of genocide: 'deliberate acts committed with the intent to destroy a national, racial, religious or political group on grounds of the national or racial origin, religious belief or political opinion of its members'. Although the final text of the Genocide Convention of 1948 made no reference to either economic or political groups, and also excluded 'minorities' from its express protection, it was nevertheless hailed as a genuine breakthrough in that from then on - or so it appeared - genocide or its intent was to be a punishable crime.

Under the terms of the UN Genocide Convention:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, 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.

According to the Convention, perpetrators were to be held accountable whether they were legitimate rulers, public officials, or private individuals. They were to be tried either by a competent tribunal of the state in which the acts were perpetrated, or by an international penal tribunal whose jurisdiction has been accepted by the members of the UN.

However, as if in anticipation of the later reluctance to apply its sanctions, the convention was weakened by a passage of time? …

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