Dancing With the Word “Genocide”

A flower arrangement outside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali, Rwanda.

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, and despite so many pledges from states, multilateral institutions, and nongovernmental organizations, there is no real sign the world would step in quicker and more determined if genocide were to happen today. To be clear on this, there has not—fortunately—been another genocide since Rwanda, if genocide is understood as targeting an identifiable group with the aim of destroying it, as defined by the international convention. There have been numerous conflicts, wars, and other instances of organized and/or political violence, and many of them have certainly been comparatively cruel, devastating, and deadly for victims, survivors, refugees, and even bystanders to some extent. But the Darfurs, Colombias, Congos, Sri Lankas, Yugoslavias, Afghanistans, and others have not had the very same surgical precision that genocide had in Rwanda. The last time genocide, as so defined, happened before that was most certainly the Holocaust. So, what are the implications?

First of all, it does not mean that these acts are less cruel if we do not label them “genocide.” Terminology helps us to develop an understanding of conflicts and their respective specificities, and this is particularly true in the case of Rwanda, where Hutu extremists killed at least 800,000 people in 100 days.

Second, there have been numerous incidents that seemed very similar to genocide in the past two decades—Srebrenica, Makobola, Bouaké, Bojaya, just to name a few. Darfur has been called genocide by activists for over ten years. Eastern Congo has been termed a counter-genocide by many. It is beyond debating that these horrific episodes of violence must have been as cruel and deadly for the human beings involved as the genocide in Rwanda. The same holds true for the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic. But genocide is not a term that describes how the people exposed to such measures feel. It is a technical-judicial-political term that explains how action needs to be shaped in order to be classified as such within a framework of various legal definitions for circumstances of organized violence.

Third, there is no need to use the word genocide in inflationary ways. Modern penal jurisdiction has developed a set of definitions for circumstances that entail massive and/or targeted violence. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court includes genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Chapter VII of the UN Charter is even broader in scope, talking about threats to peace. The international community—whether states, multilateral, or nongovernmental actors—has enough legal underpinning to get active in cases like Darfur or Syria. Or eastern Congo. Or the Central African Republic. To put it bluntly, no one needs the genocide label to do more in order to stop murder in places like Bor, Aleppo, or Masisi. The use of genocide, or more precisely the diplomatic-rhetoric dance around the term, did not help a swift intervention in 1994, nor does it help Central Africans, Sudanese, or Malians today.

To put it the simplest possible way: It is about “must,” “can,” and “want.” These three modal verbs aptly reflect the policy options: If genocide happens, the international community must intervene; therefore, it sometimes avoids using the word. However, the world can always intervene if the UN charter is violated or jeopardized, or the Rome Statute applies. It just does not do so most of the time. The reality often shows a picture where the international community only intervenes if it really wants to.

Certainly, whether mass violence represents genocide or not, the word cannot be an excuse for inaction. If the world shall be one of neoliberal interventionists, as many western power brokers want it to be, then the latter should make sure to intervene everywhere, whenever, and save everyone. At the other extreme, we could let each society deal with its own problems and hold our judgment. Either way, we should revisit our epistemologies. Genocide concerns politics and populaces. Violence concerns politics and individuals. Genocide entails organized (and in Hannah Arendt’s terms, “banalized”) violence that is used against populaces and thus impacts individuals. There does not always need to be a distinction, but often times, there is.

In Rwanda, from April to June 1994, the violence fulfilled all the qualities needed to call it genocide, and therefore we do so, and have an occasion to reflect on that in the coming days and weeks. In other cases, things are similar but not the same. Eastern Congo has suffered from organized violence since the early 1990s (some of which has been attributed to post-genocide Rwanda), but it has never shown all the qualities necessary to classify as a genocide. While many more have died in war and due to war-related dynamics and humanitarian consequences there as nowhere else in the past 20 years, there has not been one single identifiable group as there was in Rwanda. And this is one of the many reasons to commemorate these days. While doing so, we should concentrate on what “commemorate” means—it is neither about lowering nor heightening the events in Rwanda as compared to any other violence that is commemorable; it is simply about commemoration, or kwibuka.

This piece is adapted from a post first published on the author’s blog. 

Christoph Vogel is a PhD candidate at University of Zurich working on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He writes at www.christophvogel.net and tweets at www.twitter.com/ethuin.