We are back again to the age old debate of language and the way it is used – this time however the consequences are much greater. Genocide, how do you define it? In a Slate News, Senator Obama’s comments are noted when referring to genocide. The article, titled “Getting comfy with genocide”, gets deep into the definition of genocide and the consequences of our current use of the term.
Lemkin’s definition, which was finally adopted in 1948 by the U.N. General Assembly, classified as genocide ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.’ It is a definition that has lasted nearly six decades, and it is important to remember that it refers not merely to war between nations or war within nations, however terrible. It is not about the death of soldiers in armed combat or in foreign or civil strife. It is about the mass murder of defenseless civilians—men, women, and children—because they belong to a certain kind of group. And it’s not just a matter of words. The United Nations convention on the prevention of genocide, signed by 138 nations, holds genocide to be a special category of crime that justifies “action appropriate for the prevention and suppression of genocide.” The convention does not exclude abrogation of the sovereignty of a nation engaged in genocide in order to effect a humanitarian military intervention. The problem is that while it’s going on, when it can still be stopped, it’s often not evident just how grave a crime is being committed or whether it will eventually result in genocide if it’s allowed to go unchecked. At what point, for instance, does “ethnic cleansing” become genocide? “Ethnic cleansing” can refer to the forced transfer of populations—bad enough—rather than the indiscriminate murder of them. “Ethnic cleansing,” that hideous euphemism, becomes genocide when it involves mass murder with the intent to exterminate. Genocide is about annihilation.
In the debate candidates were asked how they would handle the genocide in Darfur. Slate News says the real question should have been:
“What would you do if you saw another Rwanda developing? In other words, a genocide that has little to do with previous U.S. intervention and is not our fault in any direct way, but one we could prevent—at a cost: U.S. troops, U.S. lives. President Clinton has apologized for his failure to intervene in Rwanda. Do you agree that the United States should commit itself to preventing genocide anywhere it threatens to occur?”
We have come to talking about the genocide in Darfur in a ‘feel good’ way. We cover it in debates, make up solutions that are not so feasible, and attempt to show how much we care. Is it possible to get comfortable with genocide? I covered that idea that it is very difficult for our minds to fathom the extent of genocide and the amount of mass killing that it entails, but is this the reason that it is so easy for us to be comfortable? This could be part of the argument, but I think it may also lie in the political framing that the world loves to use.
At any rate, it is pointless to argue the fine points of language; the definition of genocide – and actual work to stop genocide. This can be done in the same ‘feel good’ manner, but it can also include actions that everyone can take at home. Currently, Michigan’s congress is working on bills of divestment from corporations that operate and support the government of Sudan. This would cut off a great deal of funding to the government of Sudan and hinder the country’s ability to further the killing of their own people. The bill has passed the Michigan House of Representatives and is not working to pass the Senate. This bill is expected to be much harder to pass in the Senate, so if you live in Michigan call your senator and ask them to support this bill. There are numerous advocacy groups around the world. Michigan State University’s campus has one such group associated with a national organization STAND: Students Taking Action Now Darfur. Check out what the MSU STAND: Spartans Taking Action Now Darfur chapter is doing and learn more about the genocide in Darfur. We can say “genocide is bad” as much as we want to, but it is still there looming, killing, waiting for us to completely forget – don’t allow yourself to forget.