In Depth

The definition of genocide

Turkey’s military operations against Kurdish positions in Syria has reopened debate about nature of ethnic cleansing

Governments and humanitarian groups are adding their voices to the growing criticism of Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish territory in Syria, amid questions over Ankara’s end goal.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says that the threat posed by the decades-long Kurdish insurgency within his country’s borders gives Ankara the “right to eliminate” the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK - a militant and political organisation that Turkey, the US and the EU has designated a terrorist group.

But not everyone is convinced by Turkey’s claim that the ongoing military operation is a counterterrorism measure, with some experts alleging that Ankara is attempting to wipe out all Kurds. As violence escalates in Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled autonomous region of northern Syria, Turkish-backed proxies have been accused of summarily executing civilians, raising the “spectre of ethnic bloodletting”, The Guardian reports.

Following the announcement this week that the Syrian army has been deployed to fight alongside Kurdish troops, Mazloum Kobani Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said: “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people, we will surely choose life for our people.”

However, commentators removed from the conflict have been hesitant to use the word “genocide” to describe the situation unfolding in Rojava.

Indeed, although the meaning of the term is clearly defined by the United Nations (UN), media, politicians and other officials often refuse to use it even in appropriate circumstances.

So why is it such a controversial description?

What is genocide?

The term genocide was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, says the UN website notes. The word consists of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing.

Genocide was codified in 1948, in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

According to US broadcaster PBS, the treaty outlines five acts that can constitute genocide if they are done “with the intent to destroy an ethnic, national, racial or religious group”.

These are killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births; and forcibly transferring children.

However, in order to qualify as genocide, the actions “must be done with intent to eliminate an entire group of people”. Without provable intent to do so, a group or individual may instead be charged with “crimes against humanity” or “ethnic cleansing”.

What is wrong with this definition?

According to the BBC, the UN treaty has “come under fire from different sides”, mostly by people “frustrated with the difficulty” of applying the term genocide to specific cases.

Among the main complaints are that the convention excludes targeted political and social - rather than purely ethnic - groups; is limited to direct acts against people; and omits acts against the environment that sustains the victims or their cultural distinctiveness.

However, the most troubling issue is that war crime tribunals have struggled to establish a legal standard for genocidal intent. “Few perpetrators, with the notable exception of the Nazi regime, have left explicit plans detailing their intentions to eradicate groups,” PBS notes.

Yet “genocide is distinguishable from all other crimes by the motivation behind it”, says Alain Destexhe, former secretary-general of Medecins Sans Frontieres, in his book Rwanda and Genocide in the 20th Century. 

The waters are further muddied by incorrect usage of the term, which has fallen victim to “a sort of verbal inflation, in much the same way as happened with the word fascist”, he adds. 

This warning is echoed by Michael Ignatieff, of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, who gives the example of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. He says that the trade is often called genocide, when in fact “it was a system to exploit, rather than to exterminate the living”.

Why are people hesitant to use the term?

Even in cases where there can be little dispute over the application of the term genocide, some people - particularly world leaders - are often highly reluctant to do so.

The most obvious example is the Armenian Genocide, the mass killing of as many as 1.8 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1920. Most historians, citing death marches and mass executions, believe this event to have been a clear-cut case of genocide.

However, History.com notes that the Turkish government has always denied that a genocide took place. “The Armenians were an enemy force, they argue, and their slaughter was a necessary war measure,” the site reports.

Nevertheless, a number of countries have labelled it a genocide, and denial of this classification is officially outlawed in Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, and Slovakia.

However, Turkey’s importance on the global stage - effectively acting as a bridge between Asia and Europe - has led many other countries to refuse this label for the Armenian massacres.

The US has been wrangling with this issue for decades. “Turkey is seen as a key Nato ally,” says Newsweek, which notes that the European nation was also an important ally against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and a crucial partner in the fight against the Islamic State in more recent years.

Prior to his election in 2008, Barack Obama said: “Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. As president, I will recognise the Armenian genocide.”

But once elected, Obama failed to officially do so, as has his successor.

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