Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What is in the name?...

As April 24th, the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, is fast approaching, it is appropriate to ruminate on the origins of the word 'genocide.' The word 'genocide' did not exist until 1944. It was invented by a lawyer named Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled the Germans during World War II. Genos is the ancient Greek word for the 'tribe,' and -cide is a suffix that means killing. It was his term to describe the barbaric 'crime without a name.' His focus was on the idea that this 'crime' was the destruction of entire peoples, not just a number (even large) of human beings. When in 1921, Soghomon Tehlirian shot and killed Talaat Pasha, one of the masterminds of the Armenian genocide, in Berlin, Raphael Lemkin began his campaign to have genocide declared a crime. Allegedly Lemkin as a student asked his professor why Talaat Pasha had never been prosecuted. When he was told that there was no law that technically prohibited states from killing their own nationals, he was shocked, "It is a crime for Tehlirian to kill a man, but it is not a crime for his oppressor to kill more than a million men? That is most inconsistent."

It was Lemkin's efforts that made 'genocide' an international crime, codified first in Nuremberg indictments and later in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The definition of 'genocide' legally is very different from other crimes against humanity. 1) Genocide is a specific intent crime, unlike other crimes against humanity, which require only general intent. 2) Genocide requires an attack on specific protected groups-- racial, religious, national or ethnic. Crimes against humanity merely require an attack against civilian populations, even if these are not protected groups. 3) Genocide requires intent to destroy the protected group as 'such.' Lemkin's theory was that destruction of a group, such as a nation, is a profound loss to the humanity and thus, is a crime above all crimes.

"Nations are essential elements of the world community. The world represents only so much culture and intellectual vigor as are created by its component national groups. Essentially the idea of a nation signifies constructive cooperation and original contributions, based upon genuine traditions, genuine culture, and a well-developed national psychology. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contributions to the world." "Our whole heritage is a product of the contributions of all peoples. We can best understand this when we realize how impoverished our culture would be if the so-called inferior peoples doomed by Germany, such as the Jews, had not been permitted to create the Bible, or to give birth to an Einstein, a Spinoza; if the Poles had not had the opportunity to give to the world a Copernicus, a Chopin, a Curie; the Czechs, a Huss, a Dvorak; the Greeks, a Plato and a Socrates; the Russians, a Tolstoy and a Shostakovich." [Raphael Lemkin]
The distinctive characteristic of the 'genocide' from other international crimes is very important. It was the hatred of a specific group, 'Armenians', by Turks that fueled and drove the annihiliation of 1.5 million of Armenians. It was the targeting of a very specific group, 'Jews,' that resulted in the Jewish Holocaust. It was also the targeting of Tutsis by Hutus that was the force behind the Rwandan genocide. It is a very specific intent, to exterminate a very specific group of people. That factor elevates and distinguishes genocide from the rest. Why is it a 'crime' above all crimes? By its nature it sounds unbelievable. How can a group of people dare to even contemplate to exterminate another group of people! It assails the very essence of humanity... It is so antithetical to the moral 'code' upon which the humanity is established that one cannot comprehend it, nor tolerate it! Well, of course, killing of a single human being is by itself inhuman and beastly.  Wars are crimes by their very nature... In fact, under international law an armed conflict is acceptable only for self-defense! The philosophical distinction of the 'genocide' is in the idea that this crime is targeting a group of people for its destruction... The idea of wiping out an entire 'nation' is mentally and emotionally abhorring. That is the reason Lemkin was so driven to crown this crime with a special legal meaning. The goal was to make it an international crime-- its commision with severe legal consequences, i.e. prosecution by international tribunals. The magnitude of the act of extermination of a single group is such that indeed requires a special recognition in the eyes of the world community. It has received that special meaning and since 1945 the word 'genocide' has achieved a very special and elevated status in the hallways of international psyche... The crime itself preceded the legal term invented to describe it... Unfortunately, it took the world a Jewish Holocaust to coin and recognize the Armenian genocide... Alas, the awe that the very word instills in the minds of people, did not prevent occurrence of genocides afterwards...

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: 

Article I: The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.
Article II: ... genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
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.

The most forceful words to me, among others, are in Article I: 'prevent and punish'. That should be the goal!

For more read here.

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