Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of the Genocide Convention

Seventy years ago, the world came together and said some crimes against humanity were so heinous that they should never again be repeated. The world came together and wrote the Genocide Convention to prevent another Holocaust from occurring. On 9 December 1948, the Genocide Convention was adopted by the world. Yet, it has failed time and again leaving those who care to wonder whether “never again” really means never.

The Genocide Convention was based on the work of Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin was a lawyer of Jewish-Polish descent. He coined the word genocide which comes from the Greek word genos for “family, tribe, or race” and -cide from Latin for “killing.” Lemkin’s intention for the definition of genocide included political and cultural genocide. However, these concepts never made it into the official definition. Already, there was political maneuvering to prevent prosecution under the newly minted Genocide Convention. The Soviet Union refused to sign a version that included politicide because of their purges of political enemies in previous years. The United States balked at a version that included cultural genocide due to their treatment of indigenous peoples. In addition, genocide can take on forms other than killing according to the Genocide Convention. These include “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” and “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

Since the time of its signing, states have been using the intricacies of the definition to avoid responsibility either for their own actions, or for preventing a genocide from occurring. At the heart of the problem is the issue of intent. Countries can claim that there was no intention to destroy a people “in whole or in part” and therefore, no genocide is being committed. Often, euphemisms are used in an attempt to lessen the nature of the crime, such as “ethnic cleansing.” As a result, we have Rwanda and Bosnia to mention just a few of the genocides that have been completed while the world has argued whether genocide was truly occurring.

To date, only 149 states have ratified the Convention. This leaves 45 states that are members of the United Nations that have yet to sign. It is hard to imagine why such reluctance exists unless the remaining states are worried about prosecution for their own crimes. Notably, South Sudan has not ratified the Genocide Convention. Genocides continue to occur today as the international community stands by and debates. Victims of genocide don’t have time for the international community to come to a consensus. For example, the Rohingya are dying every day and the United Nations has agreed that “acts of genocide” are occurring. Yet the debate continues. This again seems to be maneuvering on the part of the international community to avoid their responsibilities under the Genocide Convention to punish and prevent the crime of genocide. Member states are concerned about breaching the sovereignty of another nation for fear that the same can be done the them.

Yet despite all its faults, the Genocide Convention remains a very important piece of international law. It is remarkable that so many nations could come together to agree on anything given the diversity of political systems and ideologies. This only underscores the importance of preventing genocide. Scholars have argued since its inception that the definition included in the Genocide Convention is inadequate. However, given the difficulty of having gotten nations to sign the Convention the first time, it seems highly unlikely that a second version of the Convention would be ratified by the international community.

This makes the work of the United Nations, governments, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations that much more important. Genocide follows a general pattern of development, and because of this, there are certain factors in common among genocides that can be used to predict when it is likely to occur. Organizations and scholars working on identifying such risk factors must be supported if we are to have any hope of preventing genocide in the future. The Center for Genocide Research and Education is working on identifying risk factors and creating models to help predict genocide. Please consider donating to our current fundraiser on our website. In addition, a renewed commitment is needed from the international community. Those member states that have not signed the Genocide Convention should do so immediately. Member states that have already signed the Genocide Convention should renew their commitment to prevent and punish genocide wherever it occurs. Only in this way can we make “never again” a reality.

About the author:

Christi Yoder is the Executive Director for the Center for Genocide Research and Education. Her research specializations include risk factors, sexual violence in genocide, and geographic information systems. She holds a M.A. in International Human Rights from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and is currently a Ph.D. student at Gratz College in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Why should you care? Your donation matters!

Why should we care about genocide here in the US? I’m often asked this question. Besides the obvious, that we should care about people being killed, there are a couple of reasons we should care at the local level.

One reason is that we are all part of the global community, for better or for worse. Like it or not, the success of our country depends upon the stability of the global community. When we allow genocide to happen, we endanger the global community, and ultimately perhaps even our own security.

Perhaps a more visceral reason that is easier to relate to has to do with Gregory Stanton’s ten stages of genocide. This includes putting people into “us” and “them” categories, discrimination against certain groups, and dehumanization of those groups. Dehumanization can be as simple as calling members of a group “vermin” or talking about “infestations.” Tutsi were called “cockroaches” by the Hutu for example. Here in the US, there are plenty of examples of terms such as these being used to refer to immigrants and religious minorities. Whatever your political leanings,  nobody deserves to be dehumanized.

Polarization is another feature of Stanton’s stages of genocide. There can be no doubt that the US is becoming increasingly polarized. This checks off five of the ten stages of genocide. Other scholars have looked at risk factors that are similar. James Waller, a Holocaust and genocide scholar has written that in the current climate in the US, the risk of genocide is elevated. That does not mean that it is guaranteed to happen, but it means that we need to be vigilant and take action to prevent a further slide down the road to genocide.

Prevention of genocide is complex, but it starts at the local level. Get to know people you might not otherwise talk to. It is much harder to demonize a group when you have a face, name, and a story to go with members of that group.

Why am I telling you this? Because the Center has an amazing opportunity to learn and to grow our network, but we can’t do it without your help. Binghamton University in New York is hosting the second annual genocide conference called Frontiers in Prevention II. Professionals from across the globe will be there to discuss how best to prevent genocide. Three of our staff are submitting proposals to present papers at the conference. This will give the prevention community a chance to get to know us and for us to get to know members of the prevention community. This can only make our work more effective in the long run. However, we need $3,000 for all of us to attend the conference. Your donation will pay for travel and conference expenses. Every little bit makes a difference. Even $10 can go a long way to helping. Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday and Facebook will match all donations. You can find our Facebook fundraiser here. If you prefer not to donate through Facebook, you can donate directly on our website’s donation page through Paypal.

80 Years Later: The Lesson of Kristallnacht

The night of November 9, 1938 was the beginning of the true violence in the Third Reich. Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, turned the corner in German antisemitism transitioning from virulent antisemitic rhetoric and policy to blatant, public violence. Over the course of the violence, the German people, not Nazi soldiers, targeted Jewish businesses, synagogues, schools, and homes. In the end, 267 synagogues were damaged or destroyed and thousands of Jewish businesses were looted, damaged, or completely destroyed. Worse than the property damage were the deaths of at least 91 Jews and the forced incarceration of 30,000 more.

So what pushed the German people over the edge into outright violence against their Jewish neighbors? By 1938, Nazi rule had normalized a particularly potent brand of antisemitism. Nazi policy and propaganda had already disenfranchised and ostracized German Jews. It scapegoated Jews for many of Germany’s economic issues and past military failures, particularly the loss of the Great War. The Third Reich filled a powder keg of hate and waited for the spark that could set it off.

That spark came when 17-year old Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew, shot and killed Ernst vom Rath, a German official. Grynszpan’s actions, spurred by the deportation of his family from Germany, was used to justify calls to action against the Jewish people. It justified any violence taken against German Jews while again scapegoating the Jewish people for the violence. It justified German authorities – firemen, police, and military – standing silently by while German citizens burned, looted, and murdered.

Kristallnacht was a Nazi machination at its core, but its violence was committed by the German people. The death and destruction wrought during the Night of Broken Glass did not require soldiers in the streets, late night police raids, or an organized military offensive. It required otherwise ordinary citizens believing in hate and embracing ideologies that vilified their neighbors. On November 9, 1938 the people of Germany turned fully against the Jewish people.

There is an important lesson we can learn looking back on Kristallnacht 80 years later. It is a lesson that can help prevent another Kristallnacht or new genocides today. It does not take a corrupted military, police force, or government to commit a genocide. It takes a populace that embraces the ideologies of those corrupt groups. It takes a population that sits silently by or even participates while other people’s lives are destroyed and ended. The greatest lesson we can take away from Kristallnacht is that there need not be another as long as we, as everyday people, recognize and stop hate in our communities and in our governments.

About the author:

Marcus Steiner is the Development Director for the Center for Genocide Research and Education. His research specializations include Comparative Genocide and Geographic Information Systems. He holds a Master of Arts in History with a Global focus from Arizona State University.

Why study genocide?

The question I am most often asked by people when they find out I have a nonprofit that works on genocide or that I am getting a PhD in Holocaust and Genocide Studies is “Why?” People have a very difficult time wrapping their head around why anybody would want to study genocide. But there are actually several very good reasons to do so and they affect the global community. Although one can certainly make the case that there is a moral reason to study genocide, there are practical reasons as well.

A glaring reason to study genocide is that it is sadly not a crime of the past. Modern genocide began in Southwest Africa and has continued through the Holocaust up until today. Recent genocides include the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Yazidi in Iraq. How many people are even aware that this is still happening? We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to those that still suffer from this most heinous of crimes.

That brings us to the other practical reason to study genocide. Only by studying genocide can we hope to prevent its occurrence in the future. By studying genocide, scholars can see factors that are common among genocides. These so-called risk factors are things that make genocide more likely to occur. If such factors can be identified, an early warning system can be developed.

Why is the development of an early warning system important? Such a system is important because it means that the international community could intervene before lives are lost with what are called upstream prevention measures. Early prevention is much less costly in terms of money and lives lost. Of course, political will is needed for early prevention to occur, but that is a separate post. Early prevention measures include things like publicly calling out the genocidaires, economic sanctions, and talks between conflicting parties.

There are some early warning systems out there already, but much improvement is still needed. According to a 2002 paper written by Barbara Harff, professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, most warning systems predict genocide too late in the process. Dr. Harff has played a key role in helping identify commonalities among genocides and developing an early warning system. Many of the current models give false positives. Although it may be better to be cautious when predicting genocide, we also can’t constantly raise false alarms lest we be accused of crying wolf. What is also needed for a good early warning system is a solid definition of genocide, something Marcus Steiner covered in a previous post.

Study of genocide is critical, not just so that we don’t forget what happened in the past. It certainly is not something that is for the faint of heart. I truly believe that those of us who study genocide feel called to do so in some way. We must also be able to not only recognize when genocide is occurring, but eventually be able to predict its occurrence. Only in this way can we hope to be rid of the scourge of evil that is genocide.

About the author:

Christi Yoder is the Executive Director for the Center for Genocide Research and Education. Her research specializations include risk factors, sexual violence in genocide, and geographic information systems. She holds a M.A. in International Human Rights from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and is currently a Ph.D. student at Gratz College in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

What is Genocide?

The most basic definition of the term “genocide” comes from the roots Raphael Lemkin used to create the word. The Greek word genos refers to a race or tribe of people while the Latin -cide means “to kill.” Just looking at the roots of Lemkin’s term, the simplest and most common definition of genocide comes forward: the killing of a group of people. It is easy to stop at this definition and many do simply because there is little time put into teaching the modern student just how intricate genocide is. Such intricacy is at the core of Genocide Studies, a field where genocide scholars strive to learn as much about the act as possible, often in order to prevent genocides from occurring.

So, if genocide is not simply the mass murder of a group of people, what is it? Under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide drafted in 1948, the crime of genocide was defined as:

“In the present Convention, 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 definition above from the United Nations is a good start. It shows that genocide goes far beyond simply killing a group of people off. It involves the mental and emotional torture mass atrocities can bring upon their victims. It acknowledges the role of reproduction in genocide as well as the forced assimilation of victim groups into perpetrator groups. Perhaps most importantly, it acknowledges that genocide is not just limited to targeting a race of people.

The discussion as to whether the definition put forth by the United Nations is sufficient is a lively one. The definition of genocide within the field of Genocide Studies is as varied as the scholars themselves. One common point of agreement, though, has been the need for a less specific definition. I can say with full confidence that I support that idea. While making sure to include more than a single type of group, the United Nations limits the scope of who can be a genocide victim by saying “national, ethnical, racial or religious group[s].” This precludes any group who falls outside of those confines including (but certainly not limited to) political groups and cultural groups. This is an important point to address since the wording of the UN Convention allows perpetrators to avoid the label of genocide and the international response it mandates. This was key when the Convention was drafted as the Soviet Union explicitly opposed the inclusion of pollical groups – it was and remains one of history’s most prolific perpetrators of politicide.

I do not take much issue with the acts outlined in the Convention as means of committing genocide, but like with the definition of groups, the acts outlined preclude anything outside of those actions in a “letter of the law” sense. One such example of a potential budding genocide is in the Xinjiang Province of the People’s Republic of China. In Xinjiang, many of the actions taken during the genocides of indigenous people around the world are occurring, most notably the forcible relocation of children into orphanages where the children are being indoctrinated into the Chinese culture instead of their native Uyghur culture. Similarly, adults from the Uyghur community are being incarcerated in alleged reeducation camps. While the act of indoctrinating children is mentioned explicitly in the UN Convention, that very same language precludes the indoctrination of adults. There is also no mention of forced assimilation – the forcible incorporation of a victim group into a perpetrator group – which is a common act in genocides from Armenia to indigenous genocides in the Americas and Australia.

That brings us to the overarching question here: What is genocide? Genocide is the destruction or attempted destruction of a group or groups targeted by a perpetrator group. The destruction can be physical or cultural and include any act intended to destroy in whole or in part the existence of the group.

About the author:

Marcus Steiner is the Development Director for the Center for Genocide Research and Education. His research specializations include Comparative Genocide and Geographic Information Systems. He holds a Master of Arts in History with a Global focus from Arizona State University.

Columbus or Indigenous Peoples Day?

Fall is an interesting time on campuses around the country. Freshmen are settling into their routines, sophomores are adjusting to the reality that they are no longer the new kids on campus, juniors are scrambling to ensure they are on track to graduation, and seniors are trying to come up with an answer to the question, “what am I going to do after graduation?”  As the leaves change color and midterms increase the anxiety level, it is also time to start to prepare for that day; the one comes every year, and the one that justifies calling in ill to avoid it- Columbus Day. Yes, it is still referred to as Columbus Day on some academic calendars even though the trend is to change the name to Indigenous Peoples Day. As with all Mondays, it does not rank high in days of the week but with the addition of the meaning attached to it a day in bed eating Oreos would be more meaningful.

Why all the gloom around a day that celebrates a man who would not ask for directions? Because it is a day that commemorates the exportation of genocide to the Western Hemisphere - a fact not on display in the parades, or school plays that occur around the country. The celebrations around the historical significance of Columbus’ voyage fail to acknowledge that he brought with him the Inquisition from Spain and unleashed it on the Indigenous populations of what is now known as the Bahamas and the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Dressing up in period costumes to sail in prop boats in an effort to find a water passage to India, only to ‘discover’ a ‘new world’ and claim it in the name of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella ignores the underlying perpetration of crimes against humanity for economic gain that took place. Instead of embracing a holistic understanding and portrayal of the events that unfolded with the first European footsteps in the Western Hemisphere the celebrations serve as a mechanism to deny the atrocities that took place clouding the accuracy of the historical record and the half-truths that make the Age of Discovery palatable to the young and old.

Students across the country will spend the early morning hours of Columbus Day posting signs, writing messages in chalk and preparing for a week of events meant to change the narrative and initiate a dialogue on the historical and contemporary status of Indigenous people. Born out of the response to celebrations of the quincentennial in 1992, cities and campuses around the country began to change the name of the day on their calendars to Indigenous Peoples Day and Week. The dedication of the day and week to acknowledging the Indigenous people who have called this hemisphere home since time immemorial provides for the reexamination of the context of what has been taught about Indigenous peoples and the Age of Discovery, and to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples are still here not relegated to yellowed pages of the historical record. Even in this approach the atrocities inflicted on Indigenous peoples as a result of Columbus’ voyage is often given minimal attention or is left to wanted posters calling for Columbus to be prosecuted for the crime of genocide.

What will be gained by talking about the Age of Discovery and Columbus in the context of genocide? For non-Indigenous peoples, it opens the door to a larger conversation about colonization its impacts on populations around the world and its present-day legacy in countries which are categorized as underdeveloped or developing and not part of the developed world. For Indigenous peoples, it provides an acknowledgment that atrocities were committed which are still felt by the descendants and communities that survived and it provides the opportunity to address the historical trauma that has been compounded by the actions of corporations and governments around the world by their failure to engage with and respect for Indigenous communities. Engaging in dialogues that critically analyze the mythical origins of the Western Hemisphere along with the ramifications of the events that supported the creation of the current geopolitical structure serves as a mechanism to gain understanding not only how present societal rifts emerged it also brings awareness to situations and events today that could take the same path. By talking about the historical impetus of genocide an opportunity for education and prevention of current and future genocies may emerge. Acknowledging and addressing historical culpability and trauma lays the foundations for discussions and collaborations rooted in a mutual understanding of the past to provide the trust that is needed to avert such atrocities from occurring again.

As the students across the country listen to lecturers on the significance of Columbus and the impacts of his voyage on Indigenous peoples, they are going to confront the disconnect between what they learned in elementary, middle school and high school with what they are learning in their institutions of higher education. Inevitably they will ask, why their teachers lied to them, when they may not have been lied to at all. They were taught what the teacher had been taught and ere comfortable with teaching, not what they did not know or chose to explore. Questioning the status quo of knowledge is an exercise that should be engaged in by every individual to help push the back the fog of popular history to unveil a more accurate and holistic understanding of the past. What better way to start the active interrogation of history than on a day that commemorates an event that changed the course of human history? Because no matter what the day is called, it is only another day. It is a day that intentional decisions can be made in how individuals, communities, and nations discuss their origin and how that impacted other people.


About the Author:

Kerri J. Malloy (Yurok/Karuk) is a Lecturer in the Department of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University where he teaches in the Law and Government pathway of the degree program. He received his Masters of Jurisprudence in Indian Law from The University of Tulsa College of Law. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Gratz College.

1st annual film festival!

I'm excited to announce the first annual film festival! The theme of the festival is Women's Resilience and Resistance During and After Genocide. Now I know that you might be thinking this will be a very depressing festival. But it isn't! The topic is a heavy one to be sure, but I had my husband watch the films with me. He didn't feel like any of them were too hard to watch and they were mostly uplifting. The point of these films is not to portray women as victims, but to show that even in the darkest of times, women can come together to survive and even resist evil.

I've set it up so that you can buy a ticket to one film or come for the whole day. Each ticket automatically comes with access to the speaker panel at the end of the day. So far I have a genocide professor, Arthur Gilbert, from Denver University and myself speaking. I am waiting to hear back on a couple other speakers. It should be a good panel, so come with lots of questions! We are going to try to have a raffle at the festival as well and there will be t-shirts to buy. The money from the festival goes to support the other educational programs and research the Center is involved in. Come spend the day with us!

The start of something new

It hardly seems possible, but here I am writing the first blog post of my new nonprofit. I didn't set out to start a nonprofit. Quite the opposite. I changed careers from wildlife research to humanitarian assistance. To do this, I went back to school and got a degree in human rights with a certificate in humanitarian assistance.

My goal was to work with refugees, but life had other plans for me. While looking for a job that would allow me to also be with my family, I embarked on a writing venture with my former genocide professor. The relationship blossomed and we have now presented papers at two international conferences.

Although my focus has been on the use of sexual violence during genocide, I am interested in all aspects. My interest eventually led to the creation of the Center for Genocide Research and Education. I don't know whether I can make this work, but I feel very strongly about educating the public about genocide and making sound decisions based on research. Only if we all work together can we stop the scourge of genocide and mass violence.