When will one of humanity’s gravest crimes be confronted?

Fazal Masood Malik & Farhan Khokhar, Canada

Genocide is once again making headlines, becoming an all too familiar term in our daily lexicon. Herein lies the risk. Like many other once-shocking concepts – Terrorism, Mass shootings, etc. – the word “genocide” may become a common term, its gravity diminished by overuse and desensitisation. A poignant case in point is the deafening global silence surrounding the genocidal hunger unfolding in Sudan. (www.usatoday.com) This alarming trend underscores the urgent need to confront the horror of genocide head-on and muster the moral courage to prevent its recurrence.

Throughout human history, the destructive force of genocide has left a trail of unfathomable suffering, death and trauma in its wake. Genocide represents the very depths of human depravity – the deliberate and systematic destruction of ethnic, national, racial, or religious groups through acts like mass murder, inflicting catastrophic living conditions, preventing births, and forcibly transferring children.

Yet, for a crime of such immense barbarity, the term “genocide” is relatively new in human history. It was only coined in the 1940s by Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust – deriving the term from the Greek “genos” (race, tribe) and the Latin “cide” (killing). Lemkin sought to provide legal terminology to describe this atrocity. 

The Holocaust’s horrors, with over 6 million Jews systematically exterminated across German-occupied Europe, exposed the industrial-scale violence modern nation-states could perpetrate. It catalysed the United Nations to outlaw genocide in 1948 through its Genocide Convention formally. Under the convention, specific acts like killing members of a protected group, causing deadly living conditions, preventing births, and forcibly transferring children all potentially constitute genocide if carried out with “intent to destroy” that group.

Tragically, the Holocaust was neither the first nor last genocide to scar the 20th century’s human legacy. In a brutal foreshadowing just decades earlier, the Ottoman Empire had perpetrated genocide against its Armenian population from 1915 to 1923, massacring an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Armenians.

Then, in the 1970s, the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime killed approximately 1.7 million Cambodians perceived as threats to its communist revolution through executions, torture, starvation and forced labour. Despite the crimes’ horrors, the international community largely failed to intervene to stop the mass killings.

The same inaction marred the response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994. As the world watched on, Hutu extremists systematically massacred an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over the span of just 100 days in a frenzy of violence. (www.bbc.com) UN peacekeepers proved unable to halt the slaughter. Similarly, the ethnic cleansing and genocide during the Bosnian War is a blot on humanity. Genocidal killings in Srebrenica of Muslim men & boys occurred when UN troops abandoned them in 1995. (www.hrw.org)

In each case, deep-rooted ethnic, religious, and political tensions created conditions ripe for perpetrators to dehumanise and eliminate whole communities. These genocides demonstrated how quickly instability, scapegoating and authoritarian forces can descend into coordinated mass murder on a shocking scale.

Even today, the generational impacts reverberate across these societies. Allegations that atrocities have crossed the genocide threshold continue to surface in modern conflicts marked by sectarian, ethnic and religious fault lines.

Most recently and rather ironically, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Palestinian territories accused Israel of committing acts of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza during escalating hostilities in early 2024. The rapporteur cited the massive civilian death toll, widespread injuries, detentions, and decimation of infrastructure allegedly inflicted by Israeli forces as evidence of an intent to physically destroy Palestinians as a group. (news.un.org)

Israel fiercely rejected the accusation as divorced from reality, stating its military operations targeted Hamas militants, not civilians. The U.S. also stated it had no evidence of genocide by its ally. Nonetheless, the allegations underscore how, even in the 21st century, the spectre of genocide continues to loom over long-simmering sectarian and ethnic-based conflicts. (www.aljazeera.com)

At its core, genocide ultimately stems from a corrosive “us vs them” mentality that dehumanises whole groups and makes once unthinkable violence appear justifiable and necessary. To truly uphold the principle of “never again” requires addressing root causes like ethnic, sectarian, and political tensions through justice, human rights and reconciliation before they metastasise into existential violence against entire peoples.

It demands establishing rigorous accountability mechanisms and the global political will to credibly investigate and prosecute those who orchestrate and carry out genocide. It compels speaking hard truths even when politically inconvenient, upholding the human dignity of all groups rather than selectively protecting allies or averting eyes from atrocities.

In an effort to strengthen the genocide convention’s legal framework, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a new, clarified definition of the specific acts that constitute genocide. (www.un.org

However, as welcome as the ICJ’s judicial guidance may be, the fundamental challenge remains to enforce the genocide convention’s letter and spirit. Historically, garnering the political will, resources, and leadership to prevent or halt genocidal campaigns has proven extremely difficult.

This harsh reality was evident in the UN’s inability to intervene decisively during tragedies like Rwanda and the ongoing reluctance to investigate, let alone prosecute, those credibly accused of perpetrating genocide. National interests and geopolitical alliances frequently supersede humanitarian imperatives. 

The recent conduct of Israel in the Gaza offensive underscores these systemic accountability shortcomings. Despite the rapporteur’s findings, it remains unlikely that Israel will face any concrete consequences from the UN or its allies like the United States.

For the genocide convention to have true teeth, reforms are needed to empower stronger multinational preventative mechanisms and interventionist capabilities. Ultimately, while redefining and clarifying what constitutes genocide is important, the more vital imperative is to impartially judge these most heinous of crimes based solely on facts and human rights principles – and take concrete action to prevent their perpetration, regardless of the perpetrator.

The dark history of genocidal behaviour overshadows collective gains made by humanity. Confronting genocide’s horror requires society’s mustering of moral courage & true resolve for peace.

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