PERSECUTION OF THE Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Myanmar, has reached horrific levels. The government wants to push all of them out of their homeland. To encourage them to leave, it sends soldiers to burn their villages. Hundreds of thousands have reportedly been displaced. Hundreds have been killed. It is one of the great tragedies now unfolding in the world. But it is not, as some argue, genocide.
When Serbian soldiers killed more than 8,000 men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995, they committed mass murder. When the president of Sudan dispatched militias to ravage the Darfur region a decade ago, he was guilty of a heinous crime. Indonesian soldiers who killed perhaps one-fourth of the population of East Timor at the end of the 20th century deserve history’s harshest censure. None of these acts, however, should be called genocide.
We toss this word around so lightly that it is losing its power to shock. Whenever there is a murderous atrocity in the world, victims and their defenders jump to call it genocide. This makes genocides seem fairly common. Since they have become an almost permanent feature of modern life, people are slow to react to them. When a true genocide erupts, it is lost in the fog of other atrocities and does not seem as horrific as it should.
As long as the word “genocide” was rarely used, it had special meaning. It no longer does. It has become a synonym for “massacre” or “mass killing” or “ethnic cleansing.” Survivors of these grave atrocities, and their supporters, have come to realize that they attract more attention to their plight when they call it genocide. That worked for a while, but now the inevitable has happened. The power of the word has led too many victims to claim it. Because it is applied to such a wide variety of crimes, it has lost its resonance.
The conflation of genocide with other war crimes is based on confusion over what the word means. The Polish-Jewish jurist who coined it in the 1940s, Raphael Lemkin, provided a definition: “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. . . with the aim of annihilating the groups.” The first step toward corrupting that definition came in 1948, when the United Nations codified a ridiculously broad definition. Genocide, it declared, is an attempt to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group “in whole or in part,” including by causing “mental harm to members of the group.” By that definition, President Trump could be accused of genocide for insulting Haitians and Mexicans.
Most people, however, have a quite different understanding of genocide. They agree with the dictionary definition: genocide means “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political or cultural group.” This is the definition we should use, not the all-encompassing one enshrined by the United Nations. Attempts to destroy a communal group “in part,” or the infliction of “mental harm,” are offenses that can be devastating, but they are not genocide. A high death toll does not turn killing into genocide.
By the dictionary definition, Nazis may be judged guilty of genocide because they sought the “systematic extermination” of European Jews. Slaughter that shattered Rwanda in 1994 was genocide because its intent was to kill every member of a specific group, the Tutsi. Pushing the Rohingya out of Myanmar, even with horrifically violent means, is not genocide because it aims to force victims to flee, not to kill them.
In 2014 the terror gang known as ISIS began systematically attacking a relatively small community of heterodox Iraqis, the Yazidi. Several thousand were killed — a tiny fraction of those killed in places like Darfur. Nonetheless this campaign was a true genocide because ISIS intended to wipe out the entire Yazidi population. Calls to defend or help the Yazidi, however, were largely drowned out. That was in part because genocide no longer seems different from any other kind of human slaughter.
Asserting that your people have been the victims of mass murder no longer makes their fate sound sufficiently awful. If they haven’t been victims of genocide, their suffering doesn’t grab enough of the world’s attention. They must compete to show that it rises to the level of genocide.
Their competition also has a legal purpose. Under terms of a 1951 treaty, dozens of nations have agreed to “provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide.” They are not required to take comparable action in cases of slaughter that is not genocide. This has fueled an unseemly race to the top of the atrocity standings, and debased the word “genocide.” We have become inured to it, and shrug when we hear it. That does profound injustice to those victimized by this special evil.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.