Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Crime By Any Other Name

Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime is responsible for killing between 1.7 to 3 million people; but did they commit genocide?

At first glance, that question might seem a bit rhetorical or perhaps even offensive; what other crime, or indeed word, can capture the killing of 20% of Cambodia's population? Yet, for all of its undeniable brutality, the killings by the Khmer Rouge might not legally be considered genocide.

In popular discourse, genocide is an emotional, and sometimes politically charged word that has become synonymous with the 'ultimate evil,' the 'crime of crimes.' Under this understanding of genocide, there is no doubt that the Khmer Rouge committed genocide.

Yet, genocide has a specific legal meaning. It is the intent to destroy in whole or in part; members of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group. In the case of Cambodia, with a few noted exceptions, victims were persecuted and singled out on the basis of their political viewpoints (or perceived viewpoints) and socio-economic standing. Groups that are not mentioned under the Genocide Convention. Under a strict legal interpretation of genocide, the Khmer Rouge is certainly responsible for mass crimes against humanity; but might not be guilty of genocide.

With members of the Khmer Rouge being tried for crimes during the regime; questions of the legal definition of genocide and its relevance to Cambodia are not just the subject of academic and legal debates; but have real world consequences with far reaching implications for how genocide is defined and understood; both in legal and popular terms.

The Cambodia case outlines the inherent limitations in the genocide convention and its narrow definition of 'group'; and there is strong argument to be made that the definition should be expanded upon to include (but not limited too) political, social, economic and sexual groups as well. Indeed, political groups were originally under consideration to be a protected group; but under protest from the Soviet Union, it was removed, leaving the protected groups to the ones mentioned above.

But changing the genocide convention and expanding upon it does not seem to be a rather likely option. Perhaps there needs to be a new understanding of genocide, crimes against humanity and our response to such crimes. Instead of having genocide be equated solely with the 'ultimate evil'; perhaps we should understand genocide as being a specific type of 'evil'. And that mass crimes against humanity, such as Stalin's Gulag System or Pol Pot's "Killing Fields" are just as worthy of our outrage and intervention as genocide.


Daniel said...

Genocide is not about numbers. It's about intent to kill or destroy specific groups and it's much more complex than my simplistic explanation.

Daniel said...

PS: Shaina, better moderate all messages, because you have no way of knowing when someone posts obscene material as a comment to your old blog articles...

Shaina said...

you're right genocide is not *solely* about numbers, it is about the intent to destroy a racial, ethnic, religious or national group.

But, in the Cambodian case, the majority of the victims were not killed because of their racial, ethnic, religious or national group membership (although certainly some were). The vast majority were killed because of their percieved membership in political and socio-economic groups. However, under the genocide convention, political and socio-economic groups are not given protection.

So, while without a doubt "the intent to destroy in whole or in part" has been met in the Cambodian case; under a strict interpretation of the genocide convention, most of the "groups" targeted are not groups protected under the genocide convention. Which shows one limititation in the genocide convention; or one limit in how we percieve genocide. Because even if the mass murder in Cambodia does not meet the strict legal definition of genocide; there is no doubt it was one of the worst mass murders and humanitarian disasters of this century.

Daniel said...

Shaina said: "...there is no doubt it was one of the worst mass murders and humanitarian disasters of this century."

Absolutely. But first we need proof that 1.7 million people were killed. We need their first and last names, dates of birth and other information. We have this information for Srebrenica genocide victims, but do we have it for Cambodian?

The point: we are not sure how many died. We can't rely solely on estimates.

Shaina said...

It would be wonderful if we could list every single one of the people who died in the Cambodian gneocide. Unfortunately, that is not so easy, as entire communities perished; and the genocide was nation wide including mass executions, deaths by starvation and forced labor.

The best we have are scientific estimates based on mass graves, interviews, demographic trends and other data & research. That cannot give us exact number; but it can give us statistically a pretty accurate account of how many people killed.

While the exact numbers are subject to debate, what isn't subject to debate is that a huge segment of Cambodia's population lost their lives as a result of the Khmer Rouge.

It is sometimes hard to comprehend such a high death toll, but here is the story of one survivor, which tells the human story behind the statistics.

Shaina said...

the article link got cut off:

Daniel said...

Hi Shaina,

I have learned from Bosnian war that estimates are never "statistically a pretty accurate account."

Serbs claimed over 3,000 dead around Srebrenica when factually only 480 died, 75% of them soldiers.

Serbs also claimed Srebrenica genocide was invented, when factually over 8,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) died there.

Also, government of Bosnia-Herzegovina claimed 200,000 people died in Bosnia, when factually there was a bit over 100,000 dead.

Now, you get my point. We cannot rely on estimates. Was it genocide? I don't know. As I said earlier, genocide is not about numbers, it's about tons of other factors and it's almost impossible to prove.

PS: On the other note, I have nominated your blog as the best in 4 categories, among them Best Education Blog. See here:

I have to go now (see other replies I posted in your previous posts). Good night...

Daniel said...

PS: In my previous reply, I stated: "Was it genocide?"

Having said that, I was refering to Cambodian war (not to Srebrenica).

Owen said...

Shaina, genocide is a qualitatively different crime from the other war crimes tried by the ICTY. Genocide is a *systematic* crime. It is a programme of crime. The other crimes are instrumental or even incidental but they are specific crimes capable of being prosecuted and punished whereas genocide in the sense of the Convention is a from of social transformation that denies the possibility of justice.

Shaina said...

From my understanding, and perhaps I'm mistaken here, in terms of the convention and strictly the narrow legal definition of genocide alone; what distinguishes it from other mass crimes are:
1. THE INTENT TO DESTROY. Lemkin wanted the term "destruction" to be more elastic, understanding other forms of destruction such as cultural destruction that also destroy the life of the group. However, the UN convention takes a much narrower view of the word "destroy" and limits it to physical and biological destruction. In genocide cases in general proving the specific intent to destroy is legally a challenge. Clearly, the intent to destroy in whole or in part, was the will and policy of the Khmer Rouge.

2. A RACIAL, ETHNIC, RELIGIOUS, NATIONAL GROUP. The vast majority of the regime's victims (with exceptions of course-such as Buddhist Priests, the Vietnamese, Chams) were not targeted and destroyed because of their race, ethnicity, religion or national group ties; but because of their socio-economic ties. Entire familes were exterminated if they were Middle Class. It was clearly an organized and systematic attempt to destroy a specific group. But, under the genocide convention, only racial, ethnic, religious, national groups are mentioned.
This shows, IMO, the limits of the convention. It would be ideal (although probably not feasible) if the convention was extended the definition of group. Or perhaps to have "auto-genocide" (killing of one own racial, religious, natioanal, ethnic group also be mentioned). But, that does not seem likely to happen. If on a legal technicality the perpetrators of the Cambodian genocide are found to have *not* committed genocide, because the groups they so purposely anihlated aren't groups protected under the Genocide Convention; I think we need to re-think how we think about the term Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.

Crimes Against Humanity can overlap with Genocide; and Crimes Against Humanity do appear to be systemetic as well. What distinguishes CAH from Genocide (again in a very strict legal sense). is the intent to destroy in whole or in part a racial, ethnic, religious, or national group.

Obviously you have a very deep understanding of the crime of genocide and other war crimes. And I'm sure you are already intimately aware of the various aspects of the genocide convention mentioned. And I hope you won't find my reply condensending in the least; because that was obviously not my intention.

These articles, I felt were helpful to me (and maybe they might be helpful to others as well)

Shaina said...

Thank you Daniel for the nomination-I'm not sure if I deserve it at all; but I appreciate it.

About the numbers; you bring up a good point about numbers being manipulated for political purposes; and of course, that is something that needs to be taken account in all situations.
But, for numerous reasons, finding the exact number of victims of Pol Pot's regime is difficult. The fact that various scholars, demographers, researchers, interviews, US State Department, not to mention the physical evidence of the mass graves have all seem to accepted a mininum of 1 million dead (and some put the death toll much higher) is fairly conclusive that at least that number of people have died, either in mass execution, slave labour or starvation.
This article gives an excellent account of how demographers and experpts have researched evidence of the Cambodian genocide and some of the problems and issues associated with finding an exact death toll for the victims;

Owen said...

Sorry, Shaina, my keyboarding skills probably didn't contribute much to intelligibility - it should have read "genocide in the sense of the Convention is a *form* of social transformation that denies the possibility of justice." In fact so was the Cambodian "genocide" - it was the destruction of a group defined in terms of class and culture.

Of course genocide is only genocide once it has been found to be such through due legal process. But I think we are all aware of the shrotcomings in the legal framework and in particular the Genocide Convention. I would argue that it is becoming clearer and clearer that the definitions enshrined in the Genocide Convention are to some extent counterproductive as far as the Convention's (Lemkin's) general purpose is concerned.

We can talk about genocide being established under the terms of the Convention but I think we can only overcome the limitations of the Convention by trying to understand the underlying meaning of genocide.

And I think genocide is a meaningless concept if it can encompass a term such as "auto-genocide". Although Pol Pot and friends sought to eliminate the intelligentsia, they were not attempting to destroy the group to which they saw themselves as belonging - they saw themselves as a group distinct from the reactionary intellectuals they were determined to purge.

The destruction of a group isn't an arbitrary action. It brings about a change in the society of which that group is part and the group's destruction is aimed at bringing about that change. Genocide is a social crime, the group's destruction creates a new and different society.

Logically of course one can envisage the possibility a genocide carried out by an individual or a small group for nothing more than their own advantage but it's hard to think of one in practice. Motivated individuals co-opt others' anticipation of social change.

The nature of the group whose destruction is intended betrays the type of social transformation that the perpetrators of the genocide are seeking to bring about (the transformation can't be achieved by marginalisation or containment of the group).

Genocide is a crime of social murder - literal murder in the case of the target group and philosophical murder in the sense of the death of the old society.

Looked at from that perspective the activities of Pol Pot and Stalin should be seen as sketching out the landscape that the Genocide Convention should but doesn't yet occupy. If you see genocide as being a social crime then it is obvious that the destruction of any group identified by a set of characteristics that distinguish it from the other members of the society to which that group belongs should be deemed a crime of genocide, and that includes the destruction of political and class-based/socio-economic groups. The Genocide Convention needs to be amended accordingly. (And I know, logically that argument may lead to some strange conclusions but I would argue that the targeted destruction of criminals is as much a genocide as the targeted destruction of the mentally-ill).

Shaina I disagree strongly with your use of the expression "humanitarian disaster" - a disaster is something that occurs without intent. It may have been preventable and individuals may be culpable of having failed to prevent it, but it is not the intended consequence of their actions. The extermination of the Cambodian intelligentsia and middle class was not a disaster, even though it had disastrous consequences as well.

And I would argue that it was not a mass murder. To me mass murder is a series of individual murders. Genocide may involve mass murders but as I've explained it's a social crime, not an aggregation of individual crimes.

Numbers are important insofar as they provide evidence that satisfies the test of substantiality (as applied by the ICTY). There are adequate records of substantial numbers of deaths attributable to the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero programme.

Sorry to have gone on so long.

Shaina said...

P.S. Nice to hear from you; please don't feel obligated to keep your posts short. As you can tell, I also have trouble keeping my posts short as well!

Shaina said...

"process. But I think we are all aware of the shrotcomings in the legal framework and in particular the Genocide Convention. I would argue that it is becoming clearer and clearer that the definitions enshrined in the Genocide Convention are to some extent counterproductive as far as the Convention's (Lemkin's) general purpose is concerned."

I think maybe that is what I argued as well(if i've understood correctly your argument). That the very narrow legal definition of genocide (just the strict narrow legal definition) is limited; especially in the fact that it limits a "group" to a racial, ethnic, religious, or national group.
Perhaps I should have been clearer in my original article; but my focus was strictly on the very narrow *legal* definition of genocide; and the problem with this narrow definition, vis a vis the Cambodian case.

Shaina I disagree strongly with your use of the expression "humanitarian disaster..."

I certainly didn't mean to imply anything by that. Poor choice of words, but I didn't purposely pick them; or have any underlying reason to pict them; or quite frankly, even think about it when I used them.

"Numbers are important insofar as they provide evidence that satisfies the test of substantiality (as applied by the ICTY). There are adequate records of substantial numbers of deaths attributable to the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero programme."

I'm not sure if this was a misunderstanding on either of our parts; but I want to clear it up. i'm not denying the substainial death toll, or the fact that this death toll is well established by evidence. (My last post points out the mass graves, demographic research, etc, which all gives undeniable evidence of such a death toll).
I don't mean to sound so insistant on this point. But I just wanted to clarify it. Especially since all of my posts on the numbers and death toll have been exactly to show that there *is* beyond a shadow of a doubt evidence of such a high death toll, that has been well substantiated by evidence.
My point was finding out the *exact* death toll (literarily the exact number of deaths) was very difficult; and that in many cases since entire families were wiped out, it might not be always possible to list *every single* victim who died; because there might not be any surivors to provide information on the deaths.
Obviously, as I have pointed out in all of my post, the high death toll is undesputible, and supported by mass graves, demographic research, etc. etc.
Sorry if I've misinterpreted or misunderstood your point; I just wanted to clarify my point beyond any doubt.

Harun said...

Hi. I guess I should introduce myself before replying to your post... I just recently started my own (Bosnia related) blog. I've visited yours before, but never actually left a comment.

The thing to keep in mind about the genocide convention is that, when it was first drafted, many actually wanted it to mention socio-economic groups. However, the final version purposely didn't due to pressure from the Soviet Union. Why the Soviet Union would insist that the genocide convention not include socio-economic groups... well, I'll let everyone figure that one out by themselves.

Shaina said...

Hi Harun, thanks for visiting.

You are right about the convention and the Soviet Union, and the possible motive that USSR represenatives had for not wanting political groups be mentioned in the convention.

Owen said...

Shaina, I hope you realise that I have tremendous appreciation for your extensive knowledge about and sensitivity to the issues. When I "disagree strongly" with you I have to confess to using an element of rhetoric aimed at drawing attention to a point that needs to be emphasised - I'm as guilty as anyone else of saying something in passing that isn't 100% rigorous.

I think you and I and Dan are in fundamental agreement on the issue of numbers but we seem to have got a bit tangled up, so again I thought I'd be a bit dogmatic as a way of making the point.

Harun, welcome to Shaina's excellent blog and thanks for making the point about the political battle involved in getting the Genocide Convention adopted (as with other great steps forward in international humanitarian law).

Owen said...

Dan, go to Harun's blog. He's just posted news about the European Court of Human Rights upholding the German Federal Court's genocide ruling on Nikola Jorgić.

Daniel said...

Owen, Shaina and Harun,

It is a great pleasure to hear that the European Court of Human Rights upheld Jorgic's conviction for Bosnia Genocide. I couldn't have heard better news.

Harun, please update this information @ wikipedia.

I will also launch an article at Srebrenica Genocide Blog.