Legislators play a dangerous game using the word “genocide.” In trying to appease millions of victims, they needlessly pit nations against one another. They should leave it to others to sift through the evidence and determine what killings occurred when and which ones amount to what crimes. Political judgments distort the search for truth and for justice.
Millions of people live with the memories that their ancestors were slaughtered out of prejudice. They demand that the story of their people’s past be confirmed for posterity and that the perpetrators be condemned. But judging such facts, especially many years, perhaps even centuries, after they occurred, requires the discipline of historians and, if surviving suspects can be prosecuted, of jurists.
Some nations have outlawed Holocaust denial to avoid stoking the violence bred by anti-Semitism. Such intentions may be sound, but too often the results are problematic. Legislators and governments have variously decreed or denied that given mass atrocities were genocides in order to satisfy certain interest groups or national agendas.
France and Turkey are now at loggerheads, for example, over how to characterize the deaths of some 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians nearly a century ago and whether to criminalize any refusal to call those atrocities a genocide. The French Parliament says “genocide” and wants to criminalize its denial; Turkey rejects the term and prosecutes those who use it. The Turkish prime minister has threatened sanctions against France and countered that France committed a genocide of its own in Algeria between 1830 and 1962.
Mass atrocities were indeed committed against the Armenians, but deciding to call them a “genocide” — or refusing to — is a dangerously divisive political game. It heightens tensions between countries and sows confusion about what really happened.
Politicians should use the term “genocide” only when historians and jurists have determined, based on evidence and analysis, that a genocide — a specific crime defined according to narrow factual and legal criteria — has indeed occurred. It is the responsibility of historians to establish the facts of distant events and of jurists to determine whether these were a genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, human rights abuses, political repression or other crimes against civil or political rights.
Using the word “genocide” loosely can be tragically ineffective or self-defeating. It can intimidate powerful nations from reacting quickly enough to prevent further atrocities.
The United Nations and key Western governments failed to act in Rwanda and the Balkans in the early 1990s partly because their policy makers were searching for terminological certainty about the nature of the killings. The false notion arose that invoking “genocide” would require immediate military intervention. (The 1948 Genocide Convention does not demand this; the requirement that parties to the treaty “prevent” genocide can take military, political, diplomatic or economic forms.) And while the politicians pondered, thousands of civilians continued to die.
When in 2004 Secretary of State Colin Powell declared the killings in Darfur a genocide, he wasn’t committing to United States to send the 82nd Airborne into western Sudan. He was simply trying to prod the U.S. government to take some action, ideally with others, to stop the atrocities. But others in Washington and several Western capitals froze at the use of the g-word.
Politicians would be better off using the phrase “atrocity crimes” — a term with no pre-existing connotations or legal criteria — to describe any combination of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, leaving it to historians and jurists to determine, free of political influence, which atrocity crimes belong to which category. In the face of ongoing mass killings, this would allow policy makers to concentrate on what needs to be done to end a slaughter rather than debate how to define it. The Obama administration is rightly creating the Atrocities Prevention Board to free up decision-making from any confining lexicon.
France, as well as the United States and Israel — both of which are considering similar genocide legislation — could call what occurred to the Armenian people a century ago atrocity crimes. (Turkey might even tolerate that.) And Turkey could condemn what the Algerians suffered at the hands of the French as atrocity crimes.
If the United States, the European Union and the Arab League declared that the Syrian government was currently committing atrocity crimes against its own people, they would have an easier time getting the U.N. Security Council to refer Syria’s leaders to the International Criminal Court for investigation, leaving it to the prosecutor to determine what crimes to list in an indictment. Rather than veto such a move, Russia and China might abstain from voting on it and give justice a chance.
By forgoing “genocide,” politicians would no doubt disappoint interest groups determined to use the label to describe the suffering inflicted on their ancestors. The Armenians, in particular, would find this compromise hard to accept. But their strongest case rests with the historians and the jurists now — not with the politicians whose loose indictments trigger the very tensions that can ignite prejudice among peoples and nations. Shifting to “atrocity crimes” in government speech, meanwhile, would focus the efforts of officials on getting more unified international responses to ongoing massacres.
David Scheffer, the U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues from 1997 to 2001, is a law professor at Northwestern University. His new book is “All the Missing Souls: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals.”