Society responds badly to genocide. We do not condone it, we do not tend to turn a blind eye, although we do tend to be limited in what we can do. But the international community has decreed the practice to be unacceptable and to against international law.
But the law surrounding genocide is complex and fraught with difficulty. The word was coined by Raphael Lemkin a Jewish-Polish lawyer who combined the Greek word genos with the suffix -cide to mean the death of. By 1951 his efforts led to the UN Convention on Genocide and at the same time, the convention created a definition.
Genocide is contrary to international law at any time, but the place where we see it most is in the context of war. We associate it with war-like acts of aggression, but as the Rohingya crisis shows ethnic cleansing – a close cousin – does not need a war to exist.
Genocide — a current definition
Genocide is specifically defined. Victims are victims because they belong to the targeted group not because of their own actions. The actions of the aggressor must have the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
There are obvious acts which constitute the crime; massacre stands out immediately. But there are also more subtle shades, such as imposing measures to prevent births into the ethnic group.
In its generality, the current law attempts to give a widespread protection to people who find themselves under attack. But it is in this very generalness that critics of genocide say the law does not go far enough.
The man who coined the word attempted to define it; he talked of assaults on political and social institutions and of the repression of language and national feelings. He was open to the possibility that there was a threat to the economic existence of a group which could be as pernicious as expulsion. It was only once he had covered all these possibilities he began to think in terms of personal security and liberty. He had concepts of health and dignity in his definition too.
The current definition would not encompass what we recognize as genocide
When we compare Lemkin’s thoughts with the law, we immediately see there is a gap between the ideal and legal. The current situation in Myanmar takes us to the heart of the problem.
In the first place, Myanmar is not involved in a civil war. But the suppression of the Rohingya is being perpetrated by the Myanmar military. The United Nations has reported rape, murder, torture and the burning of Rohingya villages and homes.
But can the international community press ahead with action and sanctions against a war crime when there is no war. This is more a legal sidestep, the concept being that it is a crime against humanity regardless of the declaration of a war. Since 2017 around 700,000 of a population of 1 million have become refugees. Lemkin had this covered in his vision.