When Is It Genocide?

Would there have been such a furor over the war in Bosnia last week if New York Newsday had not used the phrase "death camps" in its front-page headline? Maybe not. The existence of miserable and murderous Serb-run camps for Muslim prisoners and deportees had at least been rumored for some time, and certainly the camps are not the only places in Bosnia where Serbs are killing and torturing people as part of their campaign of "ethnic cleansing." Yet in Western society there is something uniquely evocative, and politically potent, about the image of a concentration camp and the charge of genocide. The ghosts of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot flit through Western consciences. And once again the world is haunted by the vow "Never again."

Do the analogies apply? And should the vow be honored? As it happens, there is a definition of genocide on the books in international law. The United Nations Genocide Convention, drafted in the shadow of the Holocaust, outlaws all acts, such as murder and torture, that are carried out with "a specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." That convention, ratified by the Senate in 1988, has been incorporated into the U.S. Criminal Code. George Bush is legally bound to enforce it.

Yet this apparently straight-forward standard has never been easy to apply in practice, which is one reason the United States was so late to ratify the convention. This is partly because the word "genocide" itself has cheapened through politically motivated overuse. Manuel Antonio Noriega claims the U.S. invasion that resulted in 500 or more Panamanian deaths was "genocide." Some African-Americans charge that the rising murder rate among black teens is white "genocide," too. The genocide convention establishes two tests-massive scale ("in whole or substantial part") and "specific intent"-that neither of these examples meets.

And there are more serious difficulties in drawing a distinction between genocide and ethnic or tribal war. The world is full of places where one ethnic group is feuding with another: Sinhalese kill Tamils in Sri Lanka, Muslims and Christians do battle in Nigeria, Liberia's ethnic groups engage in mutual slaughter, the Chinese snuff out an ancient culture in Tibet. In every case, the fighting is characterized by atrocities, and the victims cry genocide. But outsiders are puzzled. Often the accusation has merit. Just as often the violence in question seems to answer better to the description of civil war: a battle for power, territory or resources.

The whole subject is a minefield of moral equivalence. Those who invoke the Hitler analogy must be prepared to stand by it. Nobody should know this better than George Bush. When he was preparing the country for war in the Persian Gulf, he branded Saddam Hussein a modern-day Hitler, likening the stakes in Kuwait to those at Munich in 1938. It was a bold use of some of the most loaded imagery in the lexicon of 20th-century politics. It may have helped rally public support for the war. But Bush's rhetorical gambit ultimately left him open to two charges: from the antiwar minority, that he was overstating the case; from the prowar majority, that, having defined Saddam in such powerful terms, he was a hypocrite for not finishing Saddam off, or at least helping Kurdish and Shiite rebels to do the job themselves.

And what about all those other "Hitlers" around the world-in Beijing or Damascus, say-that Bush wasn't taking up arms against? This is precisely why Bush is under the gun now. Congress and the public are becoming morally aroused by reports of death camps, by footage of busloads of orphan children whose fate will be decided by the ethnic sound of their names and by the specter of another religious minority subjected to deadly persecution. But Bush, a consummate realist who doesn't see the same compelling U.S. interests in Bosnia that he did in the gulf, says he "can't confirm to you some of the claims that there is indeed a genocidal process going on there." His administration describes the bloodshed in Yugoslavia as yet another tribal war, militarily messy and morally indecipherable.

As yet, the atrocities against the Bosnian Muslims, heinous as they are, do not rank on the same quantitative level as the Nazi extermination of the Jews. After all, one reason we're hearing about them now is that there are so many Muslim survivors to tell the tale. But if smaller in degree, they do seem similar in kind. It is a deliberate, organized effort, motivated by a nationalist ideology, to liquidate a distinct people, if not physically through actual murder, then culturally through mass deportation and destruction of homes. And all of it has been chillingly cloaked in euphemisms about "departed residents" and the like.

There is undoubtedly an element of hyperbole even hypocrisy-in the current outrage of Western journalists, politicians and voters. And perhaps even a strain of racism: no one is talking about airstrikes to save the African nation of Somalia from the ethnic war and starvation that now engulf it. U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali has himself noted this contradiction and leveled the charge of a double standard. But for better or worse, it is a political fact that the sight of bone-thin men behind barbed wire in the Balkans, on the doorstep of the West, resonates more deeply with Americans than the many horrors of Asia and Africa. For a Western civilization that vowed "Never again," Bosnia may not be Buchenwald, but it's bad enough-and embarrassing enough. And that is why George Bush may soon find himself obliged to do more about it than he has done so far.

When Is It Genocide? | News