The past century has been coined by scholars as “the century of genocide.” An estimated 50–60 million people have been killed in conflicts that can be classified as genocides. Many have observed that the development of the nation-state and the industrialization of killing has led to increased violence. However, few have examined the violent roots and effects of the processes that claim to prevent domination and promote peace. The United Nations, neglecting to address and act to resolve its own place in modern, rationalized violence, demonstrates its ignorance of power relations through the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.1 By authoritatively defining and ranking violence, the UN Convention, itself a product of 20th century bureaucratization, perpetuates and permits violence and reinforces the state-sovereignty that frequently effectuates crimes of genocide.
The term ‘genocide’ was first coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1943 in reference to the Holocaust. Likewise, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was largely a reaction to crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany. The Third Reich’s offenses, such as the use of gas chambers in/and concentration camps, seemed the epitome of mass, industrialized violence. This type of brutality which sought efficiency and primarily identified its victims in ethnic terms was the standard example of genocide which the UN strove to oppose. When the Convention was written in 1948, World War II and the Holocaust were positioned in the forefront of the consciousness of world leaders, and the effects of this travesty still linger in the description and definition of genocide as proposed by the Convention.
However, the UN failed to acknowledge and address its own position historically and structurally within power relations in the context of modernization, bureaucracy, and the rationalized national and economic systems in which it exists. Both literally and implicitly, the Convention defines the irrational (violence) in rational terms in order to rank and analyze brutality. This appraisal of violence into predetermined, unchanging terms creates an inadvertent hierarchy of offenses, with genocide as the most heinous. Such ‘top-down’ authority of classification inevitably leads to the acceptance of seemingly lesser crimes. When combined with unabashed support of state sovereignty, this manner of rationalizing violence allows those in power to manipulate perceptions of domination in their favor.
Articles 6 and 7 of the Convention reveal the manner in which punishment of genocide is left to the wills of individual countries. According to these statements, it is the state’s responsibility to try the perpetrators of genocide and to extradite those in question “according to their [the contracting states’] laws” (Article 7).1 Using this logic, the state, often the culprit or sponsor of violent crimes, becomes both judge and suspect. For example, the Guatemalan government, while committing crimes of genocide against its Mayan citizens, presented its military brutality in terms of Cold War politics in order to craft a dominant narrative that excluded genocide as a motive for wide-spread violent action. Despite this staging of motives in international public opinion, internal Guatemalan documents revealed an attitude that specifically targeted Mayan communities and estimates of those killed show an overwhelming percentage were of Mayan descent.2 Though in 1999 the UN eventually declared that the crimes in Guatemala were, in fact, crimes of genocide, this was nearly two decades after the violence had begun. Clearly, the power given to nation-states in determining fault in even the most apparent cases of genocide as defined by the UN only postpones resolution and acknowledgement of brutality.
The explicit contents of the Convention demonstrate hierarchy of classification of violence by excluding most forms, specifying that only domination targeted toward “a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” be categorized as genocide (Article II).1 Ranking types of violence by calling out genocide above the other forms legitimates ‘lesser’ offenses. For example, that the violence in Guatemala was dismissed initially as another facet of the Cold War and therefore in some way a more acceptable form of subjective violence is obscene if one is truly seeking to eradicate human rights violations and advocate peace. How is ‘war’ less offensive than ‘war crimes’? Or ‘war crimes’ any more acceptable than ‘crimes against humanity’? Why do all pale in comparison to the violence of genocide? While definitions of violence may be useful for studying and analyzing types of force, they are utterly inadequate for judging crimes. Law itself is a product of the state; The state is a symbol and vessel of legitimated power and authority; Power and authority, the parents of domination and oppression.
Without acknowledging these power relations, definitions of violence utilized in law, including the UN Convention, permit certain types of violence, as long as the rhetoric matches more prevalent, legitimate forms. Conflict in Iraq, usually perpetrated and promoted by the US, is labelled ‘war,’ and it’s non-military actors called ‘contractors.’ Conversely, violence in Darfur is decried by critics as ‘genocide,’ and by the UN as ‘crimes against humanity’ or ‘war crimes.’ Instead of using ‘contractors,’ those independent criminals are dubbed ‘mercenaries.’ 3 The UN Convention has set a standard by which violence can be excused or opposed as relevant to the rhetoric power elites use to manipulate public opinion.
The example of Iraq and Darfur illustrates the detrimental effects of the simplification of conflict as shown through the Convention. Here, Iraq is largely tolerated or unaddressed by the American public due to the acknowledgement of complexity both historically, politically, and culturally. Darfur, however, is reduced to a static, purely ethnic conflict, with little consideration given to the sociocultural or political context in which it is situated. In this narrow understanding, all ‘Arabs’ are criminal and all ‘Africans’ are victims.3 This reduction of complexity has lead to less visible forms of violence, moving from the subjective to the objective. In the simplification of perpetrators in Darfur, the obvious consequence is racism against people of Arabic decent, a sacrifice made to legitimize intervention and supposed punishment for the charge of genocide, which is seen as a significantly greater evil.
Similarly, this shift from subjective to less visible violence can be seen in the example of the Rwandan genocide. Though research has revealed that the lines between victim and victor were not so clearly divided by ethnic determinations, the simplification of the conflict to meet the definition of genocide has led to continued less apparent forms of violence. In Rwanda, a narrow acknowledgement of who is classified as ‘survivor’ has lead to systemic violence in the form of denial of economic aid to those who do not meet this classification.4
Caught in a web of modern, bureaucratized, rational power relations, the UN Convention perpetuates subjective violence by legitimating and excusing offenses that do not fit the predetermined classification of genocide and creates new, less visible forms of domination, both objective and systemic. Thus, revision of the wording of the Convention alone will not prove useful. Rather, an honest evaluation of the UN’s position within power structures is essential to any lasting, useful assistance to those facing all kinds of violence, including, though not limited to, crimes of genocide.
- United Nations
- Sanford, Victoria
2003 Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. Palgrave MacMillion. [↩]
- Mamdani, Mahmood
- Burnet, Jennie
2009 “Whose Genocide? Whose Truth? Representations of Victim and Perpetrator in Rwanda.” Genocide: Truth, Memory, and Representation. ed. Hinton, Alexander and Kevin L. O’Neill. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press: 80-110. [↩]