By Klaas den Tek
A fierce row has broken out between Ankara and Paris following a French decision to adopt a law criminalising the denial of the Armenian genocide by the Turks (1915- 1916). Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan today accused France of committing genocide in Algeria after World War II. When the word “genocide” enters the argument, it seems, sweet reason flies out the door.
“Genocide” is one of the most loaded terms in international law. The systematic killing of a racial or cultural group is commonly regarded as the most serious crime against humanity. It is an indelible stain on a nation’s history. The word brings to mind gruesome images of the Holocaust or the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
The Polish law professor Raphael Lemkin, who fled to the United States in 1941, introduced the term “genocide” in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In 1945 and 1946 it was used during the Nuremberg Trials of Germany’s Nazi leaders. In 1948, the newly established United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Due to pressure from Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, mass murder of a political group was not included in the Convention.
Thijs Bouwknegt of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) explains that the term “genocide” is strictly defined:
“It refers to violence against just four groups: national, ethnic, religious or racial groups. Genocide occurs if one of these groups is systematically murdered or driven out of a country. The latter is what happened to the Armenians in 1915. The Ottoman (Turkish) regime deported them in large numbers.”
It has become more and more common in recent years to characterise a conflict as genocide. Opponents of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi were quick to accuse his regime of the crime. Critics also accuse Syrian President Bashir al-Assad of genocide, due to his regime’s violent suppression of protest. Larissa van den Herik, professor of international law at Leiden University, says the word is used for an important reason:
“’The term is used so often because it’s an emergency call to the international community to intervene in a conflict. It doesn’t get worse than genocide, so the word is used for political reasons. Often it’s a matter of responding emotionally rather than looking at cold, hard facts. There’s a real danger that the whole concept of genocide becomes devalued.”
That’s a danger international judges and prosecutors are alert to, according to Van den Herik. Genocide is not automatically or easily included when charges are drawn up against war crimes suspects. There are a range of other charges available. Genocide, moreover, is a very difficult crime to prove. In recent history, the charge has only been brought successfully in connection with the conflicts in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
NIOD’s Thijs Bouwknegt: “Not only must you prove that a large group of people are exterminated or victimised in some way, but also that those victims fall under one of the four specific categories. There’s a heavy burden of proof.”
There are currently a number of genocide cases being heard, notably by the Cambodia Tribunal. A number of senior figures of the former Khmer Rouge regime have been charged with the genocide of two separate groups in the 1970s: the Vietnamese minority (a national group) and the Islamic Cham community (a religious group).
Even denying a particular genocide has taken place is a crime in some countries. In the Netherlands, among other countries, it is illegal to deny the Jewish Holocaust by Nazi Germany during World War II. France has now become the first European country to ban denial of the Armenian genocide. It’s unlikely that countries such as the Netherlands or Germany will follow the French example.
Van den Herik: “Both countries have large Turkish communities. No one will be keen to offend them with a ban. But it would be good to put a bit more pressure on Turkey. It’s always good to take an honest look at your history.”
Honesty may be the best policy, but politics is a messy business and Ankara’s furious reaction to the French move may discourage other European governments from taking similar steps.