GENOCIDE is the most notorious crime against humanity recognized by international law. It is deliberate murder born of a myth - the myth that some other ethnic group, or race, or creed, is the cause of one's problems, and that to eliminate that other is to gain power and proper revenge.
The word itself is a modern invention. It combines a Greek root genos meaning ``race'' or ``tribe'' with cide, Latin for ``killing.'' It entered wide usage in the wake of World War II, after Hitler's death camps shocked the world into drawing up a legal framework nations could use to deal with such evil.
The United Nations-approved Genocide Convention came into effect in 1951 (the United States didn't come around to signing it until 1989). Since the victors of World War II held the Nuremburg trials, acts of genocide have continued, from Cambodia to Bosnia. No one has been held to international account.
Now Rwanda's new rebel-led government says it will turn over the ringleaders of Rwandan massacres to a UN tribunal for trial under international genocide strictures. ``If in fact the UN tribunal were to be established it would be an important precedent,'' says Thomas Buergenthal, a George Washington University professor of international law.
Under existing conventions, genocide is held to be an international crime whether it occurs during peace or war - something that sets it apart in seriousness from other UN-listed offenses against humanity. The Genocide Convention defines it as a deliberate attempt to bring harm to a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. One of the convention's main effects thus far, say lawyers, is to establish the norm that genocide, even if carried out by a government on its own territory, is not a purely internal matter. It is rather something rising to the level of world concern.
But despite a number of examples, the UN hasn't rushed to put world leaders in the dock. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge murdered nearly 1 million in Cambodia; Saddam Hussein carried out a systematic persecution of the Kurds; Bosnian Serbs forced Muslims from their land at gunpoint; numerous less-publicized cases in Latin America meet genocide criteria. Yet for various political reasons no genocide trials have ever taken place.
Inability to actually lay hands on perpetrators is only part of the problem. Political will has also been lacking, argue international legal experts. The US and the world continued to deal with Pol Pot, off and on, seeing him as a necessary part of any Cambodian political solution. Peace negotiations in Bosnia have superseded a nascent war-crimes tribunal, while producing no peace. US diplomats have pushed ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to come out in favor of leniency for arguably genocidal actions taken by the Haitian military junta.
``Unless you're held accountable at some point, there is certainly no threat of deterrence,'' says Robert Goldman, an international law professor at American University in Washington.
``Amnesty becomes a license to repeat these crimes.''
The tragedy of Rwanda presents a clearer issue. With the perpetrators no longer in charge of the country and their captors willing to cooperate with a UN panel, the world may see the first multinational war tribunal since Nuremberg.