The UN’s failure to label atrocities ‘genocides’ is something we should all be talking about

In the years just after World War One, a young university student in what was then Lwow, Poland (Lviv/Ukraine) read about the deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, an atrocity which had cost up to one and a half million lives. In 1921, a number of alleged perpetrators of the crimes were released from Malta, where they had been held under British orders. Incredulous, the student sought the wisdom of a professor: how could it be that the killing of one person is investigated, prosecuted, punished; while the killing of a million is not? The professor’s answer reflected the view of the day – that what had happened was an internal affair of the Ottoman Empire, and nothing more. The student was not satisfied with this explanation. His name was Rafael Lemkin, born to a Jewish family in eastern Poland. He himself would narrowly escape the Nazis, reaching the United States in 1941, but several dozens of his relatives died in the Holocaust.

At the time, Winston Churchill spoke of a “crime without a name” in reference to the mass killings of Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Europe. Lemkin was determined to give it a name: genocide, from the Greek genos for ‘race’ or ‘tribe’ and the Latin cide, which means killing. It became his life’s work. After the war, he pushed the newly established United Nations to adopt a Convention defining and outlawing genocide, which it did on 9 December 1948. The Convention protected groups (ethnic, racial, national or religious) against crimes committed with the intent to destroy them ‘in whole or in part’, including killings, imposing unbearable living conditions on them or the forcible transfer of children from the group.

The crime now had a name, but that did not mean it was used frequently. Genocides have taken place since 1948, but often, world leaders have been reluctant to apply the term even when it clearly fit out of fear it would commit them to intervention. This continues to this day, it being arguable that events have occurred in the last year that can only be accurately described by this term and yet governments have refused to do so, similarly due to the fact that this would necessitate intervention.

This, at least, is the conclusion of a UN fact-finding mission into the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar last year. The Rohingya minority have been victims of discrimination for many years, for instance being denied citizenship in Myanmar. But when the country’s military entered Rakhine state, where many Rohingya live, last August in what was justified as a counter-terrorism offensive, an unprecedented orgy of violence ensued. Entire villages were burned to the ground. Sexual violence appeared to be systematic. The UN team estimates that at least 10,000 Rohingya were killed, while 700,000 fled into neighbouring Bangladesh, where most of them remain in difficult conditions. The evidence is there: the UN investigators have spoken to 875 survivors of the violence. Satellite imagery confirms the destruction of Rohingya settlements. The crimes committed by the army of Myanmar are well-documented despite a determined cover-up effort by the authorities, which recently expressed itself in the seven-year prison sentences for two Reuters journalists who had investigated a massacre of Rohingya.

This information has all been made available by the UN, and yet the world has not been spurred into action. Though the International Criminal Court (ICC) has taken an important first step in opening a preliminary inquiry into the events of last year, just month, the U.S. President’s national security adviser John Bolton (whose country never fully joined the ICC) threatened the court with sanctions if it dared to investigate the conduct of American soldiers in Afghanistan.

As a German, I’ve grown up with the dark spots of my country’s history. I was 13 when I first visited Auschwitz alongside a woman who had survived the death camp as a child. It is this experience that causes me to believe firmly and adamantly in our collective responsibility to prevent future atrocities. In Myanmar, it’s too late for that. But it’s not too late to bring the perpetrators to justice and to show others that there is no impunity for such crimes.


Image Credit: Michael Büker via Wikimedia Commons

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