When Genocide Isn’t Legally Genocide
Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, the head of state of the former communist regime, already have been convicted of crimes against humanity, including ordering or allowing the forced relocation of much of the Cambodian population and a slew of summary executions. But on Friday, the pair that helped run a regime under ...
Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, the head of state of the former communist regime, already have been convicted of crimes against humanity, including ordering or allowing the forced relocation of much of the Cambodian population and a slew of summary executions. But on Friday, the pair that helped run a regime under which 1.7 million people died in the 1970s returned to the courtroom to face genocide charges.
Those charges are different from charges of crimes against humanity, and most of the Khmer Rouge’s actions, barbarous as they were, don’t actually meet the legal definition of genocide.
The 1948 U.N Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Notably, it doesn’t include acts committed against political, economic, or other social groups. Calling the case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the International Criminal Court a “genocide trial” is technically incorrect, as he’s actually charged with crimes against humanity. And for better or worse, it’s equally incorrect to call Uganda’s anti-gay bill “a genocide in the making.”
That’s partly because Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1944 in response to the Nazis’ murder of Jews and other minorities during World War II. In that context, Lemkin understandably focused on protecting groups with shared ancestries rather than social, economic, or political affiliations. That idea is embedded in the word itself: Genos is the ancient Greek word for “race” or “tribe.”
It’s unlikely that Lemkin’s concept of genocide would have gained much traction if its definition did include the targeting of political or economic groups. Although the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted Lemkin’s Genocide Convention, national governments were much less willing to approve a broader definition of genocide that included behavior many states saw — and still see — as necessary to maintain power and stability. Although many governments see certain national or racial groups as threats, all have political enemies.
Communist purges of certain political and economic classes in the former Soviet Union and Cambodia, in fact, were arguably as horrific as Nazi crimes and suggest the limits of genocide as a technical term. The inability to categorize these crimes as genocide raises questions about whether it’s appropriate to set crimes against racial, religious, ethnic, or national groups in a category apart from crimes against other groups that are distinguished by class, history, gender, sexual orientation, or other traits.
So the definition of genocide is both limited and a bit pedantic. But because it is the global, legal definition, and it has a very specific meaning for the international lawyers building cases, it’s important to be clear on what it does and doesn’t mean. Not all atrocities are genocide, and Merriam-Webster is wrong when it defines genocide as “the deliberate killing of people who belong to a particular racial, political, or cultural group.” Identifying genocide that way not only widens the gap between lawyers and lay people but also threatens to further dilute the power of international law and cause confusion about the nature of actual atrocities, such as the civil war raging in Syria and spilling into Iraq, which has been called genocidal by some observers.
Many tourists who have visited Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng museum, a former Khmer Rouge torture center that’s been transformed into a “Genocide Museum,” would be shocked to learn that there’s a debate over whether a genocide actually occurred under Pol Pot’s regime. Although it’s clear the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of more than a million of its people, the charges of genocide cover a much smaller part of the population that was under its control: the Vietnamese and other ethnic minorities in a country that was and is predominantly ethnic Khmer. Some dispute whether these minorities were targeted more than other demographic groups that weren’t “national, ethnic, racial, or religious.”
That doesn’t diminish the genocide charges’ severity, but it does narrow whom they apply to a lot more than Phnom Penh’s “Genocide Museum,” news articles about Khmer Rouge atrocities, and even some academic research projects suggest. A few scholars have proposed calling the entire disastrous Cambodian experiment “autogenocide,” but that term is both unwieldy and inaccurate. It suggests a policy of intentional, universal extermination rather than killings motivated largely by utopian aims poisoned by widespread paranoia and a breakdown of the social order.
A more expansive official definition of genocide may not be politically feasible at this point. So for now, it’s good to keep the current real definition in mind.