Following WWII, the world was gripped by an event that, as Winston Churchill articulated in a 1941 speech, was, “a crime without a name.” One man who listened to this speech was Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin who coined the term ‘genocide’ to describe the intent or destruction of a large group of people belonging to a certain racial or ethnic group. While the words “never again” were and still are uttered in remembrance of the Holocaust, history seems to have another plan in mind.
Even though the numbers are disputed, some experts agree that there have been more or less 40 instances of genocide since the Holocaust. By examining problems with our current method of genocide identification, examining successful examples of prevented genocides where the warning signs were heeded, and continuing education on genocide, it is evident that this crime can be prevented.
Genocide’s Vague Definition
Firstly, by addressing the vague nature of our current definition of genocide, we can move closer to preventing it altogether. The definition of genocide that was adopted by the UN in 1948 is,
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.
The word “intent” exposes one of the reasons why there is so much hesitancy to take action earlier in cases of suspected genocide. It is vague, and perpetrators of genocide often downplay their true intentions by using terms that mask their motives. For example, during the Anfal campaigns of 1988, did conspirators simply want to kill the Kurds, or did they want to destroy the Kurdish political issue? When Serbs set out to eliminate Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, did they simply want to eliminate them, or did they want unified control over a certain area? The ambiguity of the term “intent” has the influence to make the slaughter of innocent minorities appear to be merely a way forward for strategic plans.
Additionally, propaganda can make the public lose sight of the human qualities that unite those targeted and the general public. For instance, when interviewed in 1974, Franz Stangl, a commandant of two concentration camps, outlined this lack of empathy for those who were being slaughtered. When asked if he ever thought of how his parents would feel if he were in a similar situation, he responded with, “No…I can’t say I ever thought this way…You see…I rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass.”
A phenomenon called the bystander effect is also a byproduct of the unclear definition. The bystander effect occurs when an individual is less likely to offer assistance when there are other people present. An example of this occurred in 1994 when the Hutu government of Rwanda managed to successfully exterminate 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority and non-extremist Hutus. A couple of years later, American journalist Philip Gourevitch published an article highlighting the world’s nonchalance to the Rwandan genocide. President Bill Clinton read the article, expressed outrage and shock, and reassured the public that “I want to get to the bottom of this.” This seeming ignorance of the Rwandan genocide was odd, considering that the American government had distanced themselves while the death toll rose. In fact, the United States actively worked to remove UN peacekeepers from Rwanda and prevent others from going there. It was clear that the deaths were perceived as casualties of war instead of atrocities against innocent people as a result of genocide.
This situation was echoed by Gen. Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian senator whose cautions of impending violence in Rwanda fell on deaf ears. He spoke about government bystanders and stated that, “They [Hutu government and extremists] were slaughtering tens and thousands of Rwandans, but the international community could not accept [Peacekeepers being slaughtered].” As such, it was the global community’s hesitance to act that resulted in the gross loss of life. By expanding on and elucidating the terms in the official definition, we can help to separate motive from intent and get one step closer to preventing genocide.
Understanding the Warning Signs of Genocide
Secondly, there have been successful examples in the past where the warning signs for genocide were heeded and mass murder was averted. Before looking at these examples, it is important to understand that genocide does not occur in a vacuum and most certainly not overnight. By examining various genocides, Dr. Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, developed 10 steps for identifying a genocide.
The steps are as follows: classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination, and denial. At each stage there is the possibility of prevention. For example, early on, prevention is possible if we protest pejorative terms for minorities and later on, if we vigorously protest genocidal groups and fight for their members to be arrested. And indeed, there have also been examples where a possible genocide was identified early enough and action was taken to prevent it.
In 1998, the NATO alliance entered Kosovo to stop the ethnic cleansing and massacres that were occurring in Serbia at the time. Another example was ethnic violence after a controversial election in Kenya in 2007 where diplomatic intervention prompted the disputing parties to talk it out. Alongside this, efforts by the Holocaust Memorial Society and Australia University work to pinpoint states that are threatened with the possibility of genocide in the hopes of defusing hostilities before terror is unleashed. By studying the various steps of genocide and following the examples where they were used effectively, we can start to understand how it can be prevented.
Education Will Save Us
Thirdly, if genocide prevention is to be desired in the near future, it is pertinent that the focus is put on strong education systems and programs teaching students the importance of speaking out. While many are taught about the Holocaust in schools, it is more recent occurrences such as Rwanda and Cambodia that are absent from curricula.
Alongside that, it is vital that a range of genocides are discussed such as those that are ongoing in Myanmar, and those that are hushed up as with the Chinese Uyghur people. In addition, knowledge of atrocities committed locally such as with the Indigenous Canadian population are just as essential. An understanding of these modern genocides as well as the bystander effect phenomenon gives students the power to steer clear of oppressive views and behaviour.
One organization that is helping to impart this education is the Foundation for Genocide Education, founded by Heidi Berger in Montreal, Canada. Their mission is to make sure that genocide education reaches “every high school in North America.” This sort of mandatory knowledge at a younger age will ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides exist in all minds, not only in those of survivors. Moreover, it will help foster critical thinkers who recognize the value of universal human respect and the shunning of all forms of prejudice.
So, Who Has the Authority?
At the end of the day, it is easy to look at the countless examples of modern genocide and scorn any possibility of prevention. However, even though this prevention seems to be an insurmountable goal, it is not impossible.
One of the biggest challenges is that many countries have refused to call out genocide because of reluctance to intervene. This begs the question: who has the moral authority to intervene when such acts are committed? Bodies such as the UN and the African Union do exist and are supposed to be responsible for upholding international law but even then, there is a lack of clarity which needs to be addressed.
An article by Björn Schiffbauer outlines the minimum requirement approach outlined by the UNCG in 1948, which emphasizes the need to call out genocide as soon as it happens and shame inaction as a means of preventing future acts. By setting up guidelines such as these and making international law clearer, we have a better chance of intervention.
Ultimately, the prevention of genocide needs to become a primary focus of our efforts and by standing aside, we are simply playing the game that genocide conspirators want us to play. By voting out politicians who are unsuccessful in preventing genocide, we can demonstrate that we too have the power to change the minds and attitudes of others and make them aware of the deep-seated unrest in other countries that could boil over. Ignoring genocide in the hopes it will boast convenience is not the answer, for if someone else’s efforts had the power to save your life, would you say, ‘no’?
Zlata Filipovic, an Anne Frank contemporary and diarist who was engulfed by the Bosnian war expressed some choicest remarks in an entry from November 19th, 1992: “War has crossed out the day and replaced it with horror, and now horrors are unfolding instead of days. It looks to me as though these politics mean Serbs, Croats and Muslims. But they are all people… They all have arms, legs and heads, they walk and talk, but now there’s something that wants to make them different.” It reminds us that at the end of the day, we must not let racial, religious, and ethnic differences divide us. We must constantly use the lessons of the Holocaust and other racial killings to teach the youth of the future — a future when genocide itself is exterminated.
Safaa Ali is a high school student from Toronto, Canada. Her work has won the Kids Write 4 Kids Creative Challenge, was recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and is forthcoming in the School Lunch feature of Lunch Ticket. She spends her time reading biographies, salivating over book covers, and crocheting whatever she can think up.