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 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.

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.