The law against genocide actually abets it.
Perhaps never in the history of good intentions has such a lofty idea met such an ugly fate. We refer to the invention of the word “genocide” by Raphael Lemkin and to his campaigning for the adoption in 1948 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which Lemkin helped draft. Coming in the wake of the Holocaust, the definition and acknowledgement of genocide seemed like an utterly necessary and beneficial move.
It has not worked out that way, to put it mildly. Cambodia, 1970s. Rwanda, 1994. Bosnia, 1992-1995. Sudan, 2004. Yazidis, 2014. Myanmar, right now. To name a few. But the problem is not just the evil in human nature. The problem is not just hate. The problem is not just the various perversities that humanity can pursue, such as racism, tribalism and religious hatred. The problem is the law of genocide itself.
First of all, for human-caused, massive brutality to earn the designation “genocide” and for the military and legal consequences to follow, the brutality must be deemed intentional. That may sound obvious, but in fact it undermines the entire purpose of the UN law, since it takes a very long time to prove intent. The genocide designation, instead of triggering action against it, triggers an interminable investigatory, research-based, paper-pile up, interview-laden process. By the time the investigation is completed and genocide is proven, the masses are already dead. The killing may even have stopped.
Second of all, and related to the first sterility in the law, is the fight put up by the practitioners of genocide, precisely because of its legal consequences. They wage battle to avoid the designation and this extends its application, by which time, again, the perpetrators have carried out their evil designs. It is heartbreaking. Consider:
Right now in Myanmar, babies are being tossed into fires and people are shot at random in great numbers in a genocide of Rohinga Muslims. The more obvious the genocide, the longer it takes to get it acknowledged as such. Call it the unintended consequence of the law of intentionality. Simply put, genocide as a word may be an updated, accurate, helpful description of the worst of human reality, but as a law it is an abject failure.
The irony is infinitely painful. Raphael Lemkin was a Polish Jew. He witnessed the Holocaust. He was haunted by the Armenian genocide, committed by the Ottoman Turks in 1915. Somehow, Lemkin managed to escape the Holocaust for America in 1941. A lawyer, he wrote: “My worries about the murder of the [Armenian] innocent became more meaningful to me. I didn’t know all the answers but I felt that a law against this type of racial or religious murder must be adopted by the world.”
The illusion that a law would make a difference continued last month as if in a mirrorlike human vivisection. Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, named a street for Lemkin. The deputy mayor of Yerevan, Sergey Harutunyan, said during the ceremony last month that Lemkin’s legacy had a “serious impact” on world history, the Armenrpess agency reported from the December. 11, 2018, ceremony.
On people of conscience, Lemkin surely had a serious impact. On the wicked history of the 20th century, Lemkin surely shone a penetrating light. On the myth that one person cannot influence a major bureaucracy, Lemkin’s successful work at the UN in 1948 surely proved otherwise. But that Lemkin made an impact, let alone a serious one, on world history, is belied by the fatal flaws in the genocide convention, which, yes, has punished a handful of perpetrators, but not prevented the slaughter of millions. For that, it is not a law that is needed. It is political will:
The political will to intervene right now on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The political will to intervene in Syria in March, 2011, when a brutal dictator could have been taken down with relative ease. The political will that President Nixon did not have in Cambodia and that President Clinton did not have in Rwanda, though later Clinton blessedly intervened in Bosnia —but not because of a law. Only because of political pressure. Even Raphael Lemkin’s best efforts could not guarantee that.
Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News