The Genocide Convention May Hinder Rather Than Help Victims

Each year we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, an anniversary that has increasingly become a rallying point against genocide in the abstract as well as in the specific. This year, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and a number of other faith and interfaith organisations used the occasion to decry China’s ongoing genocide against the Uighur minority, who have been confined in their millions in re-education-cum-work camps, forcibly sterilised, and impressed into a system of slave labour for which we have increasingly incontrovertible evidence.

Late last year, in a piece commemorating the anniversaries of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, the chief rabbi wrote that, having reflected on the history of genocide against Jews, he felt impelled to condemn China’s contemporary genocide with special urgency.

The chief rabbi’s invocation of the Genocide Convention is pertinent. Given the scaffold of international treaties prohibiting and mandating action against it, there is reason to wonder why genocide is quite so common.

China is attempting to ‘Sinosise’ its non-Han population with ruthless determination. Only a few years ago, the Islamic State attempted to wipe a small esoteric religious minority, the Yezidis, from the face of the earth – first by driving them from their ancestral lands and sieging those it expelled on Mount Sinjar; and second by attempting to destroy Yezidi demographics through sexual slavery and mass rape. In Burma, the Rohingya have been expelled in their millions from their homes in Rakhine state by the military, with many Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh; and those left behind have been placed either in concentration camps or in villages patrolled by soldiers.

ISIS’ genocide has been largely constrained by military defeat. But the other two are ongoing, and the Genocide Convention has hardly prevented the perpetrators from continuing their vicious work. I spoke to Ronan Lee, the author of Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide, an upcoming book on the genocide in Burma. He told me, and writes in the book, that the convention’s formalism and precision of definition is not an unmixed blessing.

That the actions of the Burmese military approach the definition of genocide is largely uncontroversial – ditto what China does to its minorities. But legalism prevails. So does the myth that for the Genocide Convention to apply, a court must make a determination, formally, that genocide is being committed. This is a falsehood – and an unhelpful one.

Legalism does funny things to sovereign states. It means that instead of taking these crimes on their own terms, those minded to consider the convention feel they must also prove that Burma and China undertook these actions with the intentto destroy a cultural, racial or religious group. In the weeds of this process lies many an ‘excuse for inaction’, Lee writes.

The genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda are livid red in living memory. The nature of each was known by those in a position to stop the killings at the times they occurred. But in each case, especially in that of Rwanda, the United States did everything it could not only to deny those mass killings the name of ‘genocide’, but to avoid all the moral responsibility the term contained.

These kinds of derailments are largely semantic discussions, designed, as often as not, to avoid doing anything to avert tragedies in progress. Much of the debate in Britain about what, precisely, we might call Chinese policies regarding Uighur demographics – even the most condemnatory – performs the same function, intended or not.

As unhappy as this situation is, Lee does suggest a tactic for prevention that may still be possible. In no small part because the Genocide Convention so effectively defined genocide as a concept, the crime of race-murder does have international legal weight. At the end of 2019, The Gambia began legal proceedings against Burma at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Its case claims that Burma’s military has committed mass murder and rape against the Rohingya. Because this is a case involving alleged genocide, The Gambia has legal standing sufficient to bring the action.

Lee believes that this case has positive effects – but not only because it is likely that Burma will be deemed guilty of the commission of a genocide. Instead, good may be done because, while the case proceeds, the ICJ has not only placed Burma ‘on notice’ and its military under observation; it has also instituted provisional measures designed to halt any actions which might constitute genocide in the interim.

A new book, When We Dead Awaken by James Robins, approaches the same subject from a historical perspective. It chronicles a particular aspect of the Armenian genocide whose horrors spawned much of the legal and political contentions which now exert such influence over discussion of the actions of Burma and China.

Robins notes the perversity of the Anzac countries’ unwillingness to reference genocide in Armenia, even though some of their forces witnessed these events, in favour of smoothing diplomatic relations with Turkey – in favour of commemorating Gallipoli, among other things.

Robins makes an effective case that the genocide is elided among the Anzac nations for reasons of contemporary politics. He writes that not only did Australian and New Zealand newspapers report on the genocide as it occurred, and small towns and villages held charitable collections for Armenia, and across the empire speeches from the House of Lords, like those of Viscount Bryce, on the subject of genocide were reported; so too some Anzac soldiers like Captain Robert Nicol, who were in the area on another operation, fought and died to protect a fleeing Armenian column which was subsequently overtaken by Ottoman forces.

They who saw these things knew of them and did what they could to halt their horrors. The purposeful forgetting and withholding of recognition are entirely of our own time.

Lee proposes a solution which is reasonable and fair; it involves largely setting aside the mechanisms of recognising and punishing genocide as a crime beyond others. It could take in the episodes of brutality which are defined, as the war in Syria is, as ‘extermination’ rather than genocide.

Robins told me that in Armenia after the First World War, much of the effort at relief came from non-state sources. ‘After the Armenian Genocide, support and aid and sympathy poured in from across the globe – major mobilisations by people who weren’t themselves affected and who in fact represented the only support for an afflicted people. Their governments either had no interest in protecting victims, or were imposing a political settlement (the Treaty of Sevres) that would have made things much worse.

‘Aid and solidarity’ of this kind ‘won’t stop a genocide, but it does make it slightly less futile. Today, these mass mobilisations on behalf of a target population are still possible. It’s just a matter of will and moral fibre. It’s also a way to intervene in a genocidal situation if state and legal actors are doing nothing’, Robins said.

Amid the desolation of Syria, NGOs and individual campaigns have largely filled the gaps left by nations. The states have washed their hands.

Lee suggests that international bodies and other states ought to see mass-killing, of any kind, or the constructing and filling of concentration camps, and act to stop each in turn. No need to wait for a designation of genocide which will never arrive, nor for a torturous legal process to be initiated and concluded. Instead those who can see must say what is in evidence, and must act to do what they can. No matter their formal position on the technicalities of an admired convention.

This piece was originally published in The Critic.

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