The G-Word Paradox

Why calling an atrocity a “genocide” is rarely a game-changer.

MOSUL, IRAQ - AUGUST 9:  Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains as they tried to escape from Islamic State (IS) forces, are rescued by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) in Mosul, Iraq on August 09, 2014. (Photo by )
MOSUL, IRAQ - AUGUST 9: Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains as they tried to escape from Islamic State (IS) forces, are rescued by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) in Mosul, Iraq on August 09, 2014. (Photo by )

On March 17, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the Islamic State was responsible for genocide against groups including Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites. The statement came following pressure from Congress and after the House of Representatives issued a unanimous resolution earlier in the week drawing the same conclusion. “[The Islamic State] kills Christians because they are Christians, Yazidis because they are Yazidis, Shia because they are Shia,” Kerry said solemnly.

There is nothing particularly controversial about his conclusion. Moreover, everyone including the European Parliament and Ted Cruz has already said it. Yet there is an assumption among many in America that if the U.S. executive branch utters the word “genocide,” it will serve as a tripwire action to help victims and options that were previously not possible will become so. In anticipation of Kerry’s remarks, Greg Stanton, the president of the advocacy group Genocide Watch, told the Washington Post that although a genocide determination may not hold any sway on the Islamic State, it “could galvanize the world.”

But the idea that the “g-word” is a true game-changer is the stuff of urban legend. The enormous expectations for what the word “genocide” can accomplish go back to its very inception. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who coined the term in 1944, wanted to create a word that would have high moral salience. In that sense, he succeeded far beyond what he could have imagined; for most people today, the word genocide conveys and communicates the worst crime humanity can inflict. Yet the weight the word carries in the public mind is quite distinct from the impact the U.S. government’s use of the word has on effecting action to stop the crime. In reality, the impact of the U.S. executive branch making an official genocide determination has yet to match up to the hope that many, inside and outside the policymaking process, seem to invest in it. So how did we reach this point? Why is a U.S. executive branch designation of an atrocity as genocide seen as so significant?

In untangling the answer, it helps to go back to June 10, 1994. On that day at a press conference in Istanbul, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher responded to reporters who were pushing him to say whether the slaughter that had begun months earlier in Rwanda was genocide. Genocide is defined under international law as a specific set of acts committed with the intent to destroy “in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” By the time the press starts asking whether a situation is genocide, there is generally little doubt that the specific acts that can constitute genocide, such as killings, or the infliction of serious bodily or mental harm, have taken place. This was certainly true by June 1994 with respect to Rwanda where hundreds of thousands had already been killed.

The more challenging question is usually whether the perpetrators of these acts did so with the specific intent to destroy the group in question, since most genocidaires do not go around making their intentions known. (The Islamic State, a group that has been disarmingly explicit about its intent to destroy certain groups, serves as the exception that proves the rule.) Consequently, the question of intent may not be resolved until years later when a court sifts through the totality of the evidence. And this is one reason government lawyers may be reluctant to let their advisees make a determination of genocide while the genocide is ongoing. Still, by June 1994, even the question of intent was clear in Rwanda. Christopher replied to reporters, “If there is any particular magic in calling it genocide, I have no hesitancy in saying that.”

As is now well known, there was no such “magic” forthcoming; the U.S. government continued to turn a blind eye to the massacres that took the lives of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. One might expect the lesson from Rwanda, then, was that having a U.S. government official call the killing of 800,000 men, women, and children a genocide actually had no impact on events on the ground. Yet that was not the lesson absorbed. Why, even after Christopher called Rwanda a “genocide,” and the United States still failed to mount an effective response, does the belief persist that a U.S. government official invoking the word will suddenly spark effective action?

Part of the reason can be found on the other side of the Atlantic, on that very same June day two decades ago. Hours before Christopher’s response, State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelley had been peppered with similar questions while hosting a press conference in Washington, D.C. But unlike Christopher’s fatalistic acknowledgment, Shelley made a disastrous effort to avoid using the word, sending herself through a set of linguistic hoops that would subsequently be derided as the “genocide jig.”

In the recounting of any story, we seize on certain incidents while letting others fade to the footnotes. In light of Shelley’s made-for-satire performance, it is perhaps not surprising that in future retellings of the American failure to try to stop the genocide in Rwanda it was her remarks, and not Christopher’s, which captured the public imagination. And in time, the narrative solidified to connect the refusal of the executive branch to utter the word “genocide” with the loss of Rwandan lives.

Of course, Shelley’s reticence was the result of simply following official guidance. According to a subsequently declassified memo, State Department lawyers had warned the government that labeling the atrocities in Rwanda “a genocide” would commit the U.S. government “to actually ‘do something.’” They were referring to Article 1 of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, originally drafted in 1948, which the United States ratified in 1988; it requires that those who join “undertake to prevent and to punish” genocide.

Since the “do something” memo was written, legal opinion within the State Department has shifted. A 2004 memo that I got declassified a few years later concluded that a U.S. executive branch acknowledgment of genocide would have no legal consequences. Nonetheless, genocide remains a determination that government lawyers are generally cautious to endorse. Indeed, prior to Kerry’s announcement on March 17, the first and only formal declaration of genocide made by a U.S. secretary of state was issued in September 2004 by Colin Powell about Darfur. In remarks given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Powell said: “The evidence leads us to the conclusion that genocide has occurred and may still be occurring in Darfur.”

In 2009, I interviewed Powell and learned that it was not only advocates who had connected a U.S. acknowledgement of genocide with the hope of effective action. In explaining the reasons for his declaration, he told me he hoped that his use of the word genocide would mobilize the governments of the world to stop the killings in Darfur. As is now clear, it did no such thing. Today, Darfur remains in crisis, killings continue, and there are an estimated 2.5 million people still displaced.

So where does all this leave us? If we let go of the idea that a declaration of genocide has some outsized power to it and instead absorb a new and more modest set of expectations, then does Kerry’s statement last Thursday even matter? The answer is a resounding yes — just for different reasons.

Although labeling something “genocide” doesn’t stop the destruction any more than labeling a situation “famine” feeds the hungry, it can, in Lemkin’s words, “help to crystallize our thinking.” Effective policy requires a clear-headed assessment of the problem at hand. When used correctly, the word genocide provides a more accurate and specific description to guide the formulation of a policy response than general references to “atrocities,” “horrors,” or “crimes” ever can.

But beyond the instrumental value that the word can offer the policy process, there is something bigger at stake. As scores of survivors from Rwanda, Serbia, and Sudan have told me over the years, there is inherent value in calling something by its rightful name. We should not expect Kerry’s statement to magically transform the situation for those in Islamic State-held territory. But by calling the crimes committed against Yazidis, Christians, and Shiites genocide, Kerry adds the voice of his office to that of others who have publicly acknowledged the experience of those groups for what it is.

EMRAH YORULMAZ/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Rebecca Hamilton is an Associate Professor of Law at American University, Washington College of Law. She is the author of Fighting for Darfur.