by Marcello Flores D'Arcais. Historian, genocide expert. Lecturer in Contemporary and Comparative History at the University of Siena
Interview by Nadia Addezio and Michele Lipori. Confronti Editorial Staff
Some tragic anniversaries in human history occur in April: the Armenian genocide (April 24, 1915), the Cambodian genocide (April 17, 1975) and finally the Rwandan one (April 7, 1994). These episodes have in common the brutality with which they were committed, as well as the massive human cost. It is estimated, in fact, that between 1.5 and 3 million are the victims of the Cambodian genocide, about 1.5 million those of the Armenian genocide, and over a million deaths caused by the genocide in Rwanda.
These crimes bring to mind the “worst massacre in Europe since the end of the Second World War,” the Srebrenica genocide (July 11, 1995) in which over 8 thousand people were killed.
If the identification of the term “genocide” (which Churchill defined “the crime without a name”) comes from the observation of the dynamics of the crimes committed during the Second World War and the “justifications” that the executioners gave to the Shoah, still today it is not it is always easy to distinguish between “genocide” and other international crimes, which are no less relevant and condemnable. In fact, there are still many difficulties encountered in including in the case of “genocide” events that seem to be in all respects.
This is the case of the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, for which the Gambia has appealed to the International Court of Justice (2019) for violations of the Convention for the prevention and repression of the crime of genocide of ’48, requesting to indicate interim measures. But also the case of the Muslim minority of Uyghurs in North-West China subject to detention in re-education camps. A case that would fall within the case of “cultural genocide,” it is not recognized by the aforementioned Convention.
Finally, the war in Europe currently underway requires in-depth reflection on the dynamics of the war and on the identification of those crimes that cannot be considered mere “side effects.”
We talked about it with Marcello Flores D’Arcais, a historian among the greatest experts and scholars of genocides. He has published several books on the subject, such as The Armenian Genocide (2006), to date one of the most comprehensive studies on a genocide that still has political implications at the international level in its recognition, and The Genocide (2021), an analysis of what a genocide is, retracing events that have fiercely marked history and recognizing the complexity of understanding a crime as such.
When and in what context did the crime of genocide arise?
The theorization of the concept of genocide is due to a single jurist, Raphael Lemkin, who reports the term for the first time in his book Axis Rule in occupied Europe, published in 1944, while the Second World War was still in progress. The author’s aim was to collect legal material to document the Nazi occupation of Europe and to recount the crimes connected to it, especially regarding the Shoah, of which documents and testimonies began to emerge.
The term combined the Greek word ghènos (“lineage”) and the Latin suffix -cidere (from caedĕre, “to kill”) and was intended to describe an extermination carried out against a human group in particular, indicating a category specific to international law. This intuition was based on previous reflections that jurists had begun to elaborate around the thirties in the wake of the events of the First World War, even if at the time the term chosen for crimes of that type was “barbarism,” much more elusive. However, the Nuremberg Tribunal would not adopt the category “genocide” among the crimes to be attributed to the accused, even if it would emerge as a descriptive term on some occasions in the unfolding of the Trial. For the first real codification of the term, it was necessary to wait for the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, where, nevertheless, the definition was somewhat “reduced” compared to that conceived by Lemkin, as persecution would exclude political groups and “cultural genocide.” However, more attention has been given to this in recent years.
Speaking of the term “cultural genocide,” how should it be defined in order to implement it?
The idea is to extend the definition of genocide also to those cases in which an attempt is made to annihilate the identity of a human group, destroying its culture or preventing its spread, inhibiting the possibility of speaking one’s own language and through other coercive methods, even when they are not violently expressed in a strictly physical sense. Of course, this is a difficult process, because it is necessary to be very clear and by no means generic in the wording so that such crimes can be clearly identified and reported. There are already measures to denounce crimes against the destruction of the artistic and cultural heritage of places of worship, monuments and cemeteries which, however, do not yet fall into the category of “cultural genocide.”
In this sense, a step forward could be represented by the institution of the International Crimes Commission, appointed by the Minister of Justice Marta Cartabia – and chaired by Professors Francesco Palazzo and Fausto Pocar – which should allow Italy to specify its adhesion to the Court and to standards of international criminal law, in individual international crimes, and to give a certainly new, original vision, also of war crimes, against humanity and genocide.
Can you make a distinction between genocide and crime against humanity? What are the differences to identify?
The fundamental difference between genocide and other crimes is well-specified in the Convention. The most important element, but not always easily identifiable, is the clear intention to destroy a national, ethnic, religious group.
For example, it was not immediately easy to identify this element when the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda were established. The intention to destroy refers to human groups as such, so there are no “other” motivations: war, aggression, the desire to conquer a territory, and the consequent “need” for ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, something more is needed to determine the crime of genocide: hatred and the will to dehumanize which we have seen as the main elements of all those crimes that have been recognized by international courts as genocides in their own right.
Why are some crimes against entire populations (eg Armenians, Rohingya, Uighurs) struggling to be recognized as genocides?
In the case of the Armenians, the main difficulty is that the genocide took place before the adoption of the Convention, and therefore even before the invention of the term. But it is in fact a genocide recognized by the international community, with the exception of Turkey and Azerbaijan. As for the Rohingya, proceedings are currently underway against Myanmar’s leaders for various crimes, including that of genocide. Compared to the Uyghurs, from the news that we have received, I believe that what is happening falls within the genocidal logic, since—among other things—the use of a language is being prevented and assimilation with the Han ethnic group [the majority in China] is being forced. However, in this case a procedure is not yet underway, because the path is more delicate, as often happens when dealing with the world’s leading powers.
In this speech I would also like to underline the fact that—in “common sense” but also in the way the press and media talk about these issues—even if genocide is the most serious crime (due to its characteristic of “unmotivated hatred”), it does not mean that others (war crimes and crimes against humanity above all) are less serious. Precisely in this regard the jurist Antonio Cassese emphasized this, when he was the president of the UN International Commission of Inquiry into the crimes of the Darfur conflict, arguing that even if there was no genocide in the strict sense of the word (according to conclusions from the United Nations, unlike the United States government which instead used the term “genocide”), the international community had in any case the duty to intervene to avoid other, very serious, crimes.
So, in your opinion, is the term genocide used too casually?
Yes, it is used with ease, and I can also understand why: it is a strong term that has fortunately entered the collective awareness, so using it means highlighting the illegitimate, immoral and terrible nature of an extermination event. This also determines a flattening of the term, which thus ends up indicating crimes that are different from the point of view of international law, but which are perceived as if they were on the same level.
Why does the international community never intervene when a genocide is committed? It would always seem to act late.
Unfortunately, this is sometimes true. And it should be emphasized in this regard that the 1948 Convention puts prevention before punishment, so the intent was precisely the need to prevent genocide. Unfortunately we have already seen how this did not happen on two occasions in the mid-1990s: in the former Yugoslavia, where even before the Srebrenica Massacre [July 6-25, 1995] the special ad hoc tribunal was already in operation, established in 1993. But in that case we know that somehow the responsibility rested with the UN troops also because they had received orders that prevented them from moving as they could and should.
Even more serious is what happened in Rwanda, where the commander of the UN troops present there, the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, asked—by fax—for a greater number of soldiers (5,000) in order to stop a genocide that he understood was about to trigger. On that occasion there was a shameful ballet of distinction which led with considerable difficulty to define what was happening in Rwanda as “genocide“. You didn’t want to use that term because you didn’t have to intervene in that way. We know well that the United States did not want to intervene because it was still burned by what had happened in the so-called Battle of Mogadishu, in which 19 marines died at the hands of Somali forces. So in Rwanda there was a virtually live genocide, with countries—such as France—continuing to supply weapons to the genocidal government. So, unfortunately, not only sometimes you are not able to intervene, but you do not want to do it.
In the case of Myanmar, the Rohingya genocide is linked to the outbreak of a civil war, a consequent repression and the rebellion of a part of the population against this repression. These are the cases in which it is difficult to intervene because—at least at the beginning—ch crimes can still be considered as “internal affairs” of a single country (as also in the case of Uyghurs in China), unless the Council UN security authorities do not decide otherwise. The problem is that the work of the Security Council is often bound by the right of veto, which in the past has greatly limited the possibilities for intervention to prevent genocide.
How were the acts of violence against a group or a whole population treated before the birth of the crime of genocide?
The problem is that it was a subject that could not be dealt with in any way. In this regard, the testimony of Raphael Lemkin at the time he was a law student at the University of Kiev is interesting. Lemkin recalls when Talaat Pasha—one of the three members of the “Triumvirate” that led the Ottoman Empire between 1913 and the end of the First World War, and one of the main architects of the Armenian genocide—in 1921 was killed in Berlin at the hands of Soghomon Tehlirian, a young Armenian. The latter was immediately stopped and tried. The interesting thing is the outcome of the trial, which closed just a week later: Soghomon Tehlirian’s defense attorney was very good at supporting his client, stating that the gesture was caused by a sudden anger that he had felt in finding himself in front of—almost “by chance”—the instigator of the extermination of his own family.
Well, the memory of Lemkin as a student recalls this event and the related question posed to his professor, was namely whether—regardless of Tehlirian’s action—Talat Pasha could have been put on trial for his crimes. The response received from Lemkin was negative, precisely because at the time there was no legislative category that allowed it: Talat Pasha, in fact, had not killed anyone “with his own hands” and therefore could not be accused of “murder.”
In the thirties there was a reflection that led to an extension of crimes against international law which contemplated the categories of “terrorism” and “barbarism” which, however, were still vague. As we have seen, it was only after the Second World War that the categories of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” were defined, which represented a great leap forward for international law and a fundamental tool for the International Criminal Court.
Ph. The Armenian Genocide memorial complex is Armenia’s official memorial dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, built in 1967 on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan © Amir Kh via Unsplash
Let’s talk about the Cambodian genocide. Why is it not well known?
The Cambodian genocide had enormous difficulties in being dealt with from a legal point of view, so much so that the Special Court of Cambodia—which is a particular court because it is mixed, that is made up of both Cambodian and judges of other nationalities—was established, but only in 2006, decades after the genocide took place. One of the consequences of this delay is that most of the perpetrators had already died when the court was established, or died while the trial was in progress. Khieu Samphan himself, head of state from 1976 to 1979 and president of the Khmer Rouge since 1985, at the age of 90, is awaiting the outcome of the appeal of the life sentence imposed on him in 2018 for genocide.
Why did it come so late? First of all, because during the Cold War there was a formidable contest between the various superpowers for Cambodia. We recall that the genocide began in 1975, as soon as the Khmer Rouge took power, and ended in 1979 with the arrival of Vietnamese troops who supported the Cambodians who fled or rebelled in some way against the Khmer Rouge and thus decreed their fall. Precisely at that moment there was an opposition between the great powers: the Soviet Union supported Vietnam and the victims of the Cambodian genocide, while China and the United States are in agreement in minimizing what had happened in opposition to the USSR. This attitude resulted in Cambodian governments in exile (including the Khmer Rouge) retaining their seat in the United Nations until 1993, even though they had not been in government since 1979.
We also remember how Noam Chomsky—one of the most important American intellectuals in the “critical” area—argued for years that no genocide had taken place in Cambodia, retracting this belief only years later.
The recognition of the genocide was a long and difficult process, both because in the governments after 1979 there were people who had been part of the Khmer Rouge (and therefore had no interest in setting up a tribunal and dealing with what had happened), and because great part of public opinion was not inclined to rethink that tragic past, even if the first attempts to reconstruct the memory of the genocide were already in the 1990s (with Tuol Sleng prison becoming a museum of genocide).
Only starting from the ‘10s of this century was it possible to initiate the proceedings against the perpetrators of the genocide, when Cambodian society had already elaborated what had happened, and also the coexistence between ex-victims and ex-torturers and subsequent generations to whom he had experienced the genocide directly.
Going back to the present day: is what is happening in Ukraine a genocide?
One of the two justifications (in addition to “denazifying” Ukraine) that Putin put forward for the invasion was that the Ukrainian authorities replied to a “real genocide” that has been taking place since 2014 in the Donbass against Russian or Russian-speaking citizens. Ukraine, for its part, immediately asked the United Nations High Court of Justice to investigate whether this accusation was true or not. The High Court ruled at the state of the proceedings that there are no elements to configure a genocide perpetrated by Ukraine in Donbass, and that the use of force by Russia was illegitimate.
I think one of the reasons Zelenskyy used and still uses the term “genocide” repeatedly is because Putin was the first to use it even though he was not justified in doing so. Zelenskyy also uses the term on the basis of the massacres we have seen committed, also to leverage public opinion since it is communicatively stronger than talking about “crimes against humanity.” From what we are seeing, although very serious crimes are being committed in Ukraine, they do not fall into the category of “genocide” but rather “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” First of all, because military conquest continues to be the prevailing logic, and not the will to destroy the Ukrainian national group as such.
But even if we are not facing a “genocide” proper, we cannot and must not refrain from condemning the crimes that are being committed, on both sides, which cannot be justified as a “normal side effect of war.” But even on this point it is appropriate to make some differences: while on the Ukrainian side there were statements admitting the willingness to check whether their troops had committed crimes, on the Russian side there was an attitude of total denial of such crimes which in any case have been well-documented by the international press and which the International Criminal Court is investigating and which could even lead to the indictment of Putin for crimes against humanity.
So those we have seen are not mannequins….
It should be said that, if Ukraine had the capacity to stage such a scenario, it would be like a supercharged Hollywood to the tenth degree. Unfortunately it is the terrible truth, a scene that we have already seen played out by the Russian army in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria. Unfortunately, what we should ask ourselves is why we have waited so long for it to happen at the gates of Europe to realize it.
Ph. Special Emblem of International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime © United Nations via Wikimedia Commons