Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Lemkin's Law"? Not Really

In my prefatory comments on CNN's recent special, Scream Bloody Murder, I made some mention of how the UN's Genocide Convention ended up being a very watered-down version of what Raphael Lemkin initially proposed. To call it "Lemkin's Law" as Amanpour does is a bit misleading. Rather, for the sake of political expedience, much of what would have made it a force to be reckoned with was removed. In A Little Matter of Genocide, Ward Churchill refers to the final producted as having been gutted1. Or, as Norbert Finzsch says a bit more diplomatically, the original language was "debilitated for political reasons"2. Certainly, one can read the evolution of the Genocide Convention from its initial draft to the final resolution (as an aside, today marks that resolution's 60th anniversary).

It might be helpful to recall Lemkin's own formulation of genocide:
By "genocide" we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), thus corresponding in its formation to such words as tyrannicide, homocide, infanticide, etc.(1) Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.

The following illustration will suffice. The confiscation of property of nationals of an occupied area on the ground that they have left the country may be considered simply as a deprivation of their individual property rights. However, if the confiscations are ordered against individuals solely because they are Poles, Jews, or Czechs, then the same confiscations tend in effect to weaken the national entities of which those persons are members.

Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor's own nationals.
As I've noted before,
Genocide could thus be seen to include a wide array of actions that contribute to the annihilation of a target group, including destruction of the target group’s crops (e.g., via fire or chemical agents), destruction of the target group’s infrastructure, the mass murder of women of child-bearing age and children, forced sterilization of members of the group, indoctrination into the dominant group’s cultural practices at the expense of the target group’s own traditions, forbidding the target group from engaging in its traditional religious and cultural practices, etc.
In his article Genocide - A Modern Crime, Lemkin outlined numerous facets of genocide, including physical, biological, social, economic, religious, moral, and cultural. The initial draft of the Genocide Convention (known as the Secretariat Draft), seemed to flow reasonably well from Lemkin's formulation, and goes into a some detail in outlining physical, biological and cultural genocidal acts. By the time the final draft came into being, the document was barely recognizeable - the only surviving prohibition against cultural genocide, for example, had to do with the forced transfer of children3. It was also the case that very specific prohibitions against a variety of forms of had been replaced merely with a prohibition against "direct and public incitement to commit genocide." Much of the restrictions in language arguably had to do with the objections the US and USSR (among other nations) might have had to concerns about being potentially in jeopardy as a consequence of their own policies and actions (e.g., US treatment of First Nations peoples).

Even the considerably less forceful document met with resistance in the US, where the Senate refused to ratify the Genocide Convention, and even then with reservations, until the mid 1980s4. It seems safe to say that when the atrocity in Cambodia unfolded in the 1970s, the US government was nowhere near prepared or willing to take any sort of tangible action in cooperation with the UN. We'll turn to Cambodia next.

1. Churchill, W. (1997). A Little Matter of Genocide. San Francisco: City Lights, pp. 364-368. See also Churchill, W. (2003). On the Justice of Roosting Chickens. Oakland, CA: AK Press, p. 110.

2. Finzsch, N. (2008).If it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck. Journal of Genocide Research, Vol. 10, No. 1. pp. 119-124.

3. See Churchill, W. (1997), A Little Matter of Genocide, p. 367.

4. ibid, pp. 368-387.

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