Genocide: A Case for Dropping Labels and Valuing Action

The recent move by the UN to call human rights violations in Myanmar genocide may promote awareness amongst the international community, but it’s not what we call it that should matter. The important thing is how the international community responds.

On Monday, August 27 the UN Human Rights Council issued a report on the killing of Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State by Myanmar officials. Amongst other things the report called on a “competent court” to “determine their liability for genocide in relation to the situation in Rakhine State.” On the other hand, the U.S.’ trepidation about using the label “genocide” remains intact. This is not the first time the U.S. has been hesitant to call the situation in Myanmar genocide. In 2012 Samantha Powers, while serving as the U.S. permanent resident to the UN, cited “violence against the Rohingya and other Muslims” — as well as the need to give “citizenship and full rights to the Rohingya.” Six years on the Rohingya still don’t have citizenship and the US still isn’t using the word genocide. While Powers is clearly well-versed in studying genocide and capable of labeling something genocide, the decision not the use it in this situation is undoubtedly strategic and political.

The greater issue here though is not what the U.S., the international community, or even what the UN calls it. David Palumbo-Liu points out that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls the situation in Myanmar ethnic cleansing, which Palumbo-Liu says “evades the much more serious charge of genocide.” This has become a global phenomenon, we’re scared to use and employ the “genocide” label. It’s the atom bomb of linguistics, global superpowers and governing bodies keep it in their back pocket so they can use it as a threat, but don’t utilize it, lest it be used against them. This isn’t what Rapheal Lemkin had in mind when he coined the term. Nor is it why the ICC included genocide in its purview. When the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was ratified, the intent was to create a way to hold people accountable, to protect cultures, not to codify a term that would never be used.

 It’s important to clarify that the crime of genocide necessitates two things – mens rea and actus rea – that is intent and action. In order to “meet the burden” both elements have to be present. That is to say if someone randomly killed 10,000 people who happened to be from the same “group” – which is defined as “national, ethnical, racial or religious group” in the Genocide Convention – it would not be genocide. While a terrible crime, there must be proven intent that there was a goal to eradicate “in whole or in part” people belonging to a certain group. Note that of the “groups” codified, political groups are not one of them. Genocide is easy to see or “target” so to speak because of the nature of group association, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that if something doesn’t meet the burden of being labelled genocide that governments shouldn’t get involved. There is no numerical count that has to be met for something to meet the legal definition of genocide. Hypothetically, someone could kill 5 people of a small group and be guilty of genocide. Should the person who killed 5 people be more harshly punished than the person who killed 10,000 without genocidal intent?

In the specific case of the Rohingya, the UN reported “torture, rape, enforced disappearance, imprisonment, and sexual slavery” were all being carried out by military officials. All of these could be part of a genocidal scheme, but each one in and of itself is also a crime that could be prosecuted under a different name. Since the courts in Myanmar will do little to help the plight of the Rohingya currently, it may be up to individual countries to allow individuals to bring cases against officials. Most Rohingya refugees are in Bangladesh where courts could react more favorably, such as U.S. courts have done utilizing the Alien Tort Statute. The issue at hand is not whether we call genocide the “crime of crimes” the issue is with the ineffectiveness of the international community, of sanctions and UN reports that operate in fear and hesitancy over expediency. Whatever we call the death of the Rohingya – genocide, homicide, ethnic cleansing or any number of things – it shouldn’t happen.

What does matter is the response by the international community. Instead of calling on a court to assess if genocide has happened – prosecute, punish, and hand down sentences for charges that cannot be questioned in their validity. It would be more expedient to hold the military accountable for crimes against humanity, which rape and other crimes outlined in the report would certainly fall under, and have officials extradited for these crimes. It would save time to not have to prove genocidal intent. It’s not that acknowledging genocide is not important – it is – but, in the meantime, more lives could be protected by handing down “lesser” charges.

Perhaps the U.S. should do more than just place sanctions on a few groups. Perhaps there should be an intervention as we saw with Libya. Intervening sooner rather later can help prevent further loss of life. The negative outcome of waiting too long to intervene was seen in the Rwandan genocide. Convincing individual superpowers that either aren’t invested or do too much trade with Myanmar may not be possible – so perhaps the UN (which carries its own difficulties because of the nature of the P5) or an independent body should organize a tribunal to put official out of action for “lesser” crimes referred to earlier. Because in the process of spending time to investigate others crimes or debate a label, more people will die or continue to have their rights stripped. Expediency should be argued over accuracy in cases where establishing accuracy will lead to death for any number of people.

The key part now will come in convincing members of the international community to focus on crimes outside of the genocide label. While it’s not necessary to advocate for a violent intervention, we have already seen that Myanmar is not going to be forthcoming with the ICC, so perhaps it is best for independent countries and allies to take matters into their own hands in the face of such gross violations. Over 400 years ago Shakespeare wrote “a rose by any other name” – and we would be remiss to forget this lesson now.

Rhoo Fraee — not the author’s real name for security reasons — got her master’s in human rights studies, with a focus on genocide and state sovereignty. She currently spends her days working on Wall Street.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.