December 9 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Adopted in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the Genocide Convention embodied the hope that this most heinous of all crimes—the annihilation of an entire people—could be prevented from happening ever again.
The word “genocide” didn’t exist as recently as the early 1940s, when Churchill—trying to get his mind around the “methodical, merciless butchery” being committed by the Nazis—said, “We are in the presence of a crime without a name.” The Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin, writing that “new conceptions require new terms,” coined the word “genocide” in his seminal 1944 study Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin, who himself lost forty-nine members of his family in the Holocaust, then led the campaign for the adoption of the Genocide Convention, which was the United Nations’ first human rights treaty.
In the past seventy-five years, the problem of genocide has not disappeared. In fact, it’s gotten worse during the last decade as a by-product of the global resurgence of authoritarianism. It should not be surprising that Lemkin—having fled Poland in 1939 when it was conquered by its two murderous totalitarian neighbors, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—saw a link between genocide and dictatorial systems that lack both the rule of law and institutions that make political, cultural, and religious diversity possible. The rulers of such systems not only encourage malignant nationalism and ethnic hatred as a method of political control, but also fear that the existence of diverse ethnic and religious minorities is a threat to their highly centralized, despotic order.
Why, for example, is a country like China, with a population that is 93 percent Han Chinese, trying to eliminate its small minority of Uighur Muslims? It hasn’t established extermination camps for the Uighurs, as the Nazis did for the Jews. But it is committing acts that the Genocide Convention designates as genocidal if undertaken “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” In addition to “killing members of the group,” these acts include “imposing measures intended to prevent births,” which Beijing is doing through forced sterilization and abortion. The Chinese regime is also suppressing Uighur religious practices and has destroyed more than 16,000 mosques since 2017, interned up to 3,000,000 Uighurs in state-sponsored concentration camps, and subjected tens of thousands of them to forced labor.
China is also carrying out a comprehensive policy to erase the culture and identity of its Tibetan minority. More than three-quarters of Tibetan children are being sent to state-run boarding schools where they are separated from their families, stripped of their language and traditions, and indoctrinated with the ideological beliefs of the communist state, according to a recent report. While the Genocide Convention doesn’t recognize “cultural genocide,” which is what the Dalai Lama said in 2008 was Beijing’s objective toward Tibetans, it nonetheless includes as genocidal acts—if committed with the intent to destroy a particular group—“deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction” and “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” That certainly is what China is doing in Tibet.
The spread of genocide today goes far beyond China’s efforts to destroy the Uighur and Tibetan peoples. Two decades after the United States declared that genocide was taking place in Sudan’s western Darfur region, and just two years after a military coup overthrew a civilian government that had awakened hope for a democratic transition in Sudan, there is once again credible evidence of genocide taking place in Darfur against the local Masalit people.
Another genocide has been committed in Burma against the 1.4 million Muslim Rohingya, who were stripped of their citizenship in 1982 and continuously persecuted afterwards. The violence came to a head in October 2016 when a months-long military onslaught left hundreds of villages burned to the ground and more than 10,000 Rohingya slaughtered, with 740,000 others forced to flee to Bangladesh. While the State Department in 2018 released a 15,000-page report detailing the atrocities, the United States refused to call the slaughter genocide in deference to Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of a civilian government that never controlled the military and who had herself remained silent on the Rohingya issue. In 2021 the generals who orchestrated the atrocities overthrew the government and imprisoned Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders. The Biden Administration recognized the violence against the Rohingya as genocide the following year.
As troubling as these examples of genocide are, the two most recent cases pose an even greater threat to human life and world order. The first is Russia’s war on Ukraine, in which it has committed all the genocidal acts designated by the Convention and done so with genocidal intent, according to a definitive legal analysis. The acts include the systematic bombing of civilian targets, the destruction of entire cities, the deportation of 10 percent of Ukraine’s population, and the transfer of 700,000 Ukrainian children to Russia where they are to be forcibly Russified. The exterminationist intent is evident not just in Vladimir Putin’s denial that Ukraine has ever existed as a real nation, but in statements made regularly on Kremlin-controlled state TV, a sampling of which has been shared by Yale historian Timothy Snyder:
They should not exist at all. We should execute them by firing squad. We will kill one million. We will kill five million. We will obliterate them all. We will drown the children in the raging river. We will throw the children into burning wood huts.
The second case is the massacre of 1,200 Israelis by Hamas on October 7, which Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi has called “a pre-enactment of Hamas’s genocidal vision.” If the jubilation Hamas terrorists displayed in videos of their savage acts, which they proudly posted online, were not sufficient proof of genocidal intent, the organization’s founding charter, which calls for the obliteration of Israel and “killing the Jews,” stands as the most unequivocal expression of genocidal intent of any government, institution, or political movement in the world. Hamas supporters have tried to flip the genocide charge against Israel because of Palestinian civilians killed in Israel’s counterattack, but Israel has made clear that its target is not Palestinians but Hamas, which callously uses civilians as human shields.
The Genocide Convention imposes a legal obligation on states to prevent genocide beyond their borders, but the effectiveness of preventive action like moral condemnation or economic sanctions is limited (though still necessary), and most states shirk the obligation entirely for political or economic reasons, especially in the case of China.
The best defense is resistance. Unlike the other targeted groups, Ukraine and Israel have the ability to fight back and are doing so with courage and determination. The question is whether they will get the support they need to prevail or be pressured by their irresolute friends to compromise with their assailants for the sake of peace. The trouble is that those who commit genocide have no interest in real peace, making their defeat necessary to reverse the downward spiral of world events and preserve civilization and the rule of law. Such is the challenge facing the United States and other democracies at this pivotal moment in world history.
Carl Gershman, a senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, retired in 2021 as the founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Image: A tulip placed on the door of a freight train car used to transport German Jews and others to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp. (Unsplash: Sonia Dauer)
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