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Grappling with the century's most heinous crimes

Genocide is a modern term for an old practice taken to new levels of

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1999


To Kosovar refugees, it doesn't much matter whether they have been "ethnically cleansed" or subject to "genocide." The result is the same - a human rights and humanitarian disaster by anybody's definition.

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But to policymakers worldwide, the distinctions are important. Under international law, the label of "genocide" requires specific responses - at least for 129 countries that signed the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. (Switzerland will be the 130th.)

The convention came in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust that cost an estimated 6 million lives. The question today is: To what extent has the agreement prevented genocide - or allowed it to continue?

The record of the 20th century is not good: Armenians in Turkey; Jews, Gypsies, and others in Nazi Germany; opponents of the Stalin regime; Kurds in Iraq. Other places have become synonymous with widespread killing, terror, and dislocation: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, East Timor, and now Kosovo. Millions of people have suffered for their race, religion, ethnic origin, nationality, or simply because they might have questioned the politics or economic philosophy of those in power.

Even though such events have occurred at least as far back as Attila the Hun and Ghengis Khan, it seems to have been more prevalent this century. Human population has grown greatly and is packed into closer quarters in some parts of the world, raising the potential for national, religious, and ethnic conflict.

The means of gathering victims and killing them have become more "efficient." Perhaps, too, the world simply is able to know more about it because of mass media, especially television and the Internet.

Manufactured hatred

Still, experts ponder the causes. "I don't think we have complete answers yet as to why this happens," says Naomi Roht-Arriaza, who teaches international human rights law at the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

"These are not generally questions of ancient ethnic hatreds. They're generally questions of manipulation by specific people for specific political purposes," she says. "What you get is a situation where a specific subset of the population is deemed to be responsible, and has to be wiped out in order to preserve your own family, livelihood, and life."

Referring to dictatorial regimes led by an Adolf Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic, Professor Roht-Arriaza adds, "What we've learned over the last couple of hundred years about how this is done is that it's not spontaneous, it's not simply a question of tension among groups. It has to be manufactured."

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish legal scholar, coined the term "genocide" in 1944 to describe the Nazi annihilation of the Jews during World War II. The Genocide Convention, which took effect in 1951, defines the crime as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group."

Political controversy and legal questions about genocide (and therefore about when and how to respond under the convention) center on several things, including determining "intent." During the UN debate on genocide, which began in 1948, some members wanted to include such acts committed against political or economic opponents, but that was defeated. Hence, the widespread killing in Cambodia - horrific as it was - did not fall under the international definition of genocide.

US hesitancy

Why are the United States and its NATO allies responding with force in Kosovo when they did not in other cases of widespread killing or terror that forced large numbers of people to flee? (More than 621,000 people have fled Kosovo since internal unrest started there a year ago, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In all, about half of Kosovo's 1.8 million ethnic Albanians are estimated to have been forced from their homes.)

There are two principal reasons for early hesitancy and the decision - so far anyway - to limit NATO's actions to air attacks: aversion to casualties, especially those that come in a ground war, and policy decisions based on what is perceived as national security or economic interests.