Colonial Genocide Is a Composite Act: A Human Rights Analysis

By Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E.; Emeritus, Professor et al. | The Canadian Press, June 19, 2019 | Go to article overview

Colonial Genocide Is a Composite Act: A Human Rights Analysis


Howard-Hassmann, Rhoda E., Emeritus, Professor, Department of Political Science, University, Wilfrid Laurier, The Canadian Press


Colonial genocide is a composite act: A human rights analysis

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University

Canada is currently embroiled in a debate about whether the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls should have used the word "genocide" to describe our federal, provincial and municipal governments' past and current treatment of Indigenous peoples. Perhaps this word is too strong and inaccurate.

Many horrible events are not genocide. Warfare is not genocide. Apartheid in South Africa was not genocide. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was not genocide. Torture is not genocide.

In international law, genocide refers to "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." This is the definition in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

One crucial word in this definition is intent. Did or do Canadian authorities, in the past or the present, intend to destroy the "racial" or ethnic group of Indigenous Canadians, in whole or in part?

Canada knew it was vulnerable to charges of genocide

The central question the Inquiry asked was: if you consider all the policies of our governments regarding Indigenous peoples since the time of first European settlement, can you argue that Canada's treatment of Indigenous women and girls (and of Indigenous men and boys) is genocide?

The Supplementary Report, "A Legal Analysis of Genocide," explains the Inquiry's decision to describe Canada's treatment of its Indigenous peoples as genocide. It does not rely solely on the text of the 1948 Convention against Genocide. Instead it carefully reviews legal and social scientific analyses of genocide over the last three decades. It primarily refers to decisions by the international tribunals established by the United Nations to try individuals accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The Report explains that before the 1948 law was adopted, there was a discussion at the UN on whether to prohibit cultural genocide. Canada, along with other countries that had Indigenous populations, actively pushed not to define cultural genocide as a crime -- and it succeeded. So right from the start, 71 years ago, Canada knew it was vulnerable to charges of genocide. …

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