Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Meaning of Genocide

This article appeared on the Bar Council blog dated 5 June 2007.
Last month Judge Higgins, the President of the International Court of Justice, gave a lecture to the Human Rights Lawyers Association on the work of the International Court of Justice. She spoke authoritatively on the development of human rights law and international criminal law and on the relationship between the different layers of international courts.
Among the thought provoking issues raised, was that the concept of genocide is increasingly being misunderstood in the media. Genocide is a crime against international law. The definition of genocide is laid down in The Genocide Convention 1948. Article 2 defines genocide as the commission of prohibited acts (such as killing members of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group) with intent to destroy that group in whole or in part. It is this specific intention to destroy a group of people that separates genocide from crimes against humanity and war crimes. This distinction was recently emphasised by the International Court of Justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina v Serbia and Montenegro.

In recent times, genocide has come to be regarded in some quarters as the king of international crimes. As a result the media frequently reports that atrocities are examples of genocide, seemingly without pausing to consider if the requisite intention is there. The focus on labelling atrocities as genocide, seems to draw attention away from crimes against humanity and war crimes which are themselves both enormously serious crimes and integral to the structure of international criminal law. The Defendants at Nuremburg for instance were not charged with genocide, because the Genocide Convention did not exist at the time.

This is in no way to undermine the extreme seriousness of crimes against humanity or genocide. It is simply a plea to get the terminology right. Lawyers and journalists are both used to being precise with language. When addressing matters as profoundly serious as genocide, it becomes all the more important not to be loose with language.


Jeremy Jacobs said...

Very interesting article Tim. Thi issue was raised at a talk I attended recently. The subject, Darfur.

Lucia said...


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Lucia Martin