Sixty years ago, on Jan. 12, 1951, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, took effect, its text for the first time defining the crime of genocide under international law, establishing punishments and the responsibility of signatory nations to act against it. The world has nonetheless witnessed several genocides since then.
The first genocide of the 20th century was the liquidation of approximately one and a half million Armenians in Turkey between 1915-17. But it was Adolf Hitler’s systematic annihilation of Jews (and Roma) during the Second World War that crystalized the issue for the world. The postwar Nuremberg trials of Nazi criminals took place prior to the adoption of the Genocide Convention by the UN General Assembly in December 1948.
The Convention, which entered into force in January 1951, became the first international document referring to the concept of genocide—first coined by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Rafael Lemkin during World War II. In the beginning the term existed only in the Polish language (ludobójstwo), but in 1944 Lemkin adapted it for use in the English language as “genocide,” from the Greek genos (race, nation) and the Latin cide (to kill).
The Convention establishes that genocide is a crime according to international law, whether committed during a time of war or peace. Actions intended to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of people are considered genocide. The aim of the Convention is to punish this crime, the prosecution of which may never be subject to a statute of limitations, and to deter potential perpetrators. The fact that some evident cases of genocide have been found not to fall under the Convention’s definition means the definition has never become a generally recognized measurement for distinguishing actual genocides from other, less serious cases of mass killing.
The first trial of a genocide began in the year 1993 with the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), based at The Hague. In June 2001, Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Yugoslavia and then Serbia, was sent to face trial there. He died during the proceedings in March 2006. Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was brought to trial there in October 2009. Ratko Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, is also wanted for genocide and war crimes, but remains at large.
The most famous case of genocide reviewed by the tribunal is evidently the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. In February 2007 the International Court of Justice handed down a judgment in 14 cases from the 1992-5 Bosnian war. The court found the murder of 8 000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica had been a genocide which Belgrade could have prevented, but ruled that Serbia did not bear direct responsibility for the killing.
Genocide charges have been brought by international courts against two other heads of state: former president of Liberia Charles Taylor, whose trial was resumed in 2008, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was sued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and genocide committed in the west Sudanese region of Darfur.
In 1999, a commission investigating the mass killings in Rwanda said the UN and its member states must “clearly apologize” to the Rwandan people for not preventing the genocide of roughly 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus there in 1994. The commission said the UN had failed by not demonstrating enough political will to end the killing. Belgium, France and the USA were also criticized.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has already sentenced many people for their crimes. In 2008, former colonel Theoneste Bagosora, the leader of the Hutu militia, was sentenced to life in prison for genocide; one year later, Tharcisso Renzaho, the former governor of Kigali, received the same punishment. Other war criminals have also been sentenced by various African and European courts.
The chemical weapon attack on the Kurdish population of the Iraqi city of Halabja in 1988, the “killing fields” of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s, and the use of the Chinese Army in Tibet during the 1950s have all been pointed to by legal scholars as showing signs of having been genocide. The international community did not effectively intervene in those cases. (Czech Press Agency, Jan. 12)
A total of 137 nations are now party to the Convention, but 50 nations—including Indonesia, Japan and Nigeria—are not. Bolivia became the newest party to the Convention in 2005 (and has charged former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada with the crime of genocide under its national law). (Prevent Genocide, June 14, 2005)
The long delay in United States ratification of the Convention stemmed in part from fears that US officials might come under “frivolous” accusations of genocide. Not until February 1986—nearly four decades after the convention was signed—did the US Senate vote 83 to 11 in favor of ratification, albeit with a list of “reservations” in the resolution of ratification. It took another two years before Congress passed legislation that actually implemented the convention, by making genocide a crime under US law. Even after the ratification was approved (with reservations), US officials and legislators continued to debate the scope of the convention and the means of enforcement. As demonstrated during the mass killings in Rwanda, US and other Western leaders have been reluctant to enforce the Convention. As a result, they have refrained from using the term “genocide” to describe even clear instances of systematic, ethnically targetted killing. (Science Encyclopedia)
Few commentaries on the Convention have noted cases in which the US not only failed to act to halt genocide, but directly backed regimes that were carrying it out—most notably Guatemala. The 1999 findings of the UN-backed Guatemala Historical Clarification Commission estimated 200,000 dead in the civil war that lasted from 1962 to 1996, squarely accusing the Guatemalan state of “genocide.” Guatemala was a major recipient of US aid nearly throughout this period. While President Jimmy Carter cut off military aid under his “human rights” policy, Ronald Reagan moved to have it restored, saying that the regime had received a “bum rap.” Romeo Lucas García, who had masterminded the worst of the genocide in the early ’80s, died a free man in 2006. His successor as military dictator, Efraín Rios Montt, who continued the genocidal campaign against the country’s indigenous Maya population, has never faced charges before any international body, and remains active in Guatemalan politics today.
In neighboring El Salvador, a UN-backed Commission on Truth in 1993 documented over 20,000 cases of killings, torture and kidnappings out of an estimated 50,000 killed—overwhelmingly by government forces—in the 1980s. In this decade, El Salvador was the top recipient of US aid in the Western Hemisphere, and its military was intimately directed by the Pentagon. The worst offendors in the Salvador killings are still protected by an amnesty law.
Another such example is provided by East Timor, which won independence from Indonesia in 2002 after years of bloody repression and atrocities. An independent report commissioned by the UN transitional administration in East Timor said that at least 100,000 Timorese died as a result of Indonesia’s 25-year occupation. (BBC Country Profile) The US provided military aid to Indonesia for much of this period. President Obama’s first Director of National Intelligence, former Pentagon Pacific Command chief Adm. Dennis C. Blair, is accused of having given Jakarta a “green light” for repression in East Timor when the killing was at its worst in 1999.