27 Jan 2015

Genocide: a term we use too often or not enough

Young, old, school uniforms and zimmer frames – they came. Muslms in veils and hijabs. Christians too, people no doubt of no faith and of course Jews. Jews like Solly Irving who survived a number of Nazi forced-labour camps  like Buchenwald. Here today, he said, because it matters so much to tell young people about it.

“I live in Plymouth now and you know? I have spoken to over 25,000 school children there down the years. For 30 years I said nothing. But now, if these children meet someone who denies the Holocaust they can say, ‘No – Solly Irving came to see us. He stood before us. He told us’.”

Aptly enough school children were a major part of the audience today along with Solly, Prince Charles and the prime minister at Westminster’s Central Methodist Hall. Here David Cameron announced a £50m education programme for Holocaust education in the UK.


And not just the Final Solution. Today’s organisers, the  The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), emphasise that it is about recognising the series of genocides said to have happened since the Nazis.

Any use of the term is highly controversial but, by one legal definition, it includes Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, and they are remembered in today’s commemoration ceremony.

In 1946 the UN resolved that genocide be a crime under international law, its convention defining it as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group by:

a. Killing members of the group
b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

So why Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur? Or why not Armenia or the US or Australian ravages of their indigenous people? Or England and the Irish Famine? Indeed some would want Palestine cited after Israeli actions in Gaza – the definition is nothing if not controversial.

Well, the HMDT goes with international  criminal tribunal rulings since 1946, where suspects have been indicted for war crimes up to and including genocide.

Genocide cases are currently before the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia. Dozens of perpetrators have been found guilty of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

In 2004 the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre constituted genocide.

In 2010 Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was indicted with three counts of genocide by the International Criminal Court, for his role in ordering the genocide in Darfur.

The UK government recognises the term genocide as applicable to the Holocaust, the 1994 killings in Rwanda (as found by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) and the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, and is monitoring the outcome of the tribunals relating to Cambodia and Darfur.

But this is of course just one position. Notably absent is the widely cited Armenian genocide carried out by Turkey during and after world war one in which up to 1.5 million Armenians were systematically slaughtered. To this day, Turkey refuses even to recognise that it was genocide.

Equally to deny it is a criminal offence in at least three European countries – Switzerland, Slovenia and Greece. One example – one starting point for a much wider debate on whether genocide is an over-used term, or not nearly widely used enough.

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