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What is genocide, and what can we do about it?


Genocide: It’s a term we’ve all likely heard, often emerging in debates about current events. Should this or that atrocity be considered genocide? If so, what does that mean? Once we’ve decided to define an action or set of actions as genocide, what can we do to stop it, or, failing that, to prevent it from happening again? The answers can be tricky.

Genocide, according to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, means any of a series of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The broad range of actions considered genocidal against a group includes, “killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and/or] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Because genocide carries with it significant punishments by the international community economic sanctions, trial of accused leaders and because the label is so stigmatic, consensus agreement on what is and what is not genocide can be elusive. For instance, the government of Turkey has steadfastly denied that it carried out genocide against Armenians during World War I, a time when over 1 million Armenians perished at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Turkey acknowledges the conflict and the casualties, but denies carrying out a deliberate plan to destroy the Armenians.

The legacy of genocide even in recent times is extensive. Atrocities from Armenia to Auschwitz to Rwanda and Bosnia haunt the last 100 years. In Europe, over 6 million Jews and 11 million people total were killed under the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s. In Cambodia, over 2 million “undesirable” citizens died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. And in Rwanda, as recently as 1994 over 500,000 Tutsis were slaughtered” often with just machetes in only 100 days.

Currently, a crisis lingers in Sudan, as the mainly Arab Sudanese government of Omer al-Bashir wages a protracted campaign of violence against the mainly black African citizens of the Darfur region. In Syria, a civil war could spiral into sectarian blood-letting. And in other countries across the globe, tensions exist amidst a lack of stability, posing serious danger.

Gregory_StantonAfter Rwanda, the world watched as its leaders said, “Never again.” And yet, atrocities keep happening. What can we do? Examining the problem systematically is critical. Dr. Gregory Stanton, president of the international Genocide Watch, posits that there are eight stages of genocide: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and denial. At each stage, preventive measures exist.

But what can local people do to affect something that seems to happen far away, and which may seem to require intervention by states and armies, let alone individuals? The answers are closer than you might think. Join the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations for its 16th annual Human Rights Banquet, with Dr. Stanton as a special guest. Dr. Stanton proposes that local movements are in fact the key to preventing genocides.

For more information, please stop by our location (414 W. Fort Grounds Dr., Coeur d'Alene), call 208-292-2359, or email JLaster@hrei.org.
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