Grappling with the issue of recognizing the historic genocide

Is it a weapon of war between states? A trend emerging from the rise of identity politics? An attempt to learn lessons, to prevent history from repeating itself? An ethical obligation with significant consequences?

Genocide is one of the most difficult crimes, under international law, for experts to define and to accept by its perpetrators. In recent times, however, we have witnessed an unprecedented series of direct accusations accompanied by an explicit recognition of genocide, a crime, according to the Rome Statute of 1998, defined as the systematic and deliberate destruction (total or partial) of an ethnic, racial, national or religious group led by a government. This definition does not satisfy everyone, as, for example, it does not specify what “partial destruction” can refer to, does not include social or political groups as victims – to which the lesser-known term “democide” has been reserved – nor does it contemplate acts against the environment which could entail serious survival risks for a given group.

It is a crime that includes not only killing and causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group, but also acts that directly affect their living conditions, such as destroying their homes or force them to abandon them, deprive them of food or health care. , preventing their reproduction by policies of forced sterilization or decreeing forced relocations to other territories.

This is how genocide has been interpreted since Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1944 and how it is defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. The International Criminal Court is the judicial body now charged with prosecuting and trying these crimes, although it has actually opened only one genocide case since it began operating in 2002 – against the dictator. Sudanese Omar al-Bashir (dismissed in 2019), for his responsibility in the successive massacres, between 2003 and 2008, of the local population in Darfur by the Sudanese armed forces and local militias supported by Khartoum.

This case is part of a short list that only dates back to the 20th century and, by UN criteria, only includes the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923, during the Ottoman Empire), the Holocaust (1941 -1945, Nazi Germany against the Jews), the Samudaripen (1941-1945, Nazi Germany against the Roma), Cambodia (1975-1979, the Khmer Rouge government against its own people), that of Rwanda (1994 , the Hutu government against the Tutsis), which of Srebrenica (1995, the government of the Bosnian Serbs against the Bosnian Muslims) and that of the Yazidis (2014, the jihadist group Daesh against this non-Muslim Kurdish minority in northern Iraq ).

It is a list that others deem incomplete, whether it is because it does not go back further than the 20th century or because it does not include more recent cases, such as those accusing the ultra-Burmese government. nationalist to be responsible for the massacre. of the Rohingya minority from 2017.

Back to the international agenda: driven by ethics … and interests

Among the various factors that have brought this issue back to the international agenda, there is perhaps none more significant than the Black Lives Matter campaign. The public reaction in the United States to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in May 2020 has resonated in many other countries, accelerating a process which, combined with other motivations, has, for example, leads to Germany finally recognizing, on May 28, 2021, its responsibility in the massacre of at least 60,000 Ovaherero and 10,000 Nama in Namibia between 1904 and 1908. Similarly, France has just apologized for its “responsibility overwhelming “(to quote President Macron) in the Rwandan genocide, while Belgium expressed its” deep regret “last year for the atrocities committed under the reign of Leopold II in the current Democratic Republic of the Congo. More recently, on July 1, 2021, the mayor of Amsterdam apologized for the city’s role in the colonial era in the slave trade.

Viewed in a positive light, this growing trend also seems to reflect a clear attempt to tackle the worrying rise of supremacist groups and parties in many Western societies. The objective is to curb the populist dynamics which continue to fuel the most deplorable racist instincts making coexistence so difficult in a globalized world. However, we must not forget, as a counterpoint, that the reference to the crime of genocide is also still used as an instrument of international relations, used by one government to punish another, as illustrated by the decision of the Biden administration to formally recognize genocidal Armenia, in the context of its growing differences with Ankara.

In this same search for the reasons for this apparently sincere multiplication of excuses and the recognition of historical responsibilities, there are of course other reasons which are much more of geopolitical and geoeconomic interests than of ethics and sincerity.

Thus, as competition rages on for market conquest, with the economic structures of many world and regional powers hit hard by the crisis, it is easy to see how such excuses aim, at the very least, to avoid severing ties. with the former colonies, more and more aware of their potential and more assertive in their demands in the face of the abuses they have suffered. A good example is what is happening with African cultural and artistic heritage, considering that, according to the conclusions of a report commissioned by Emmanuel Macron in 2018, between 90 and 95% of this wealth is currently located outside the continent ( in other words, in the public and private hands of a few Western European countries). This is why Germany, for example, announced its commitment to return the impressive “Benin bronzes” to Nigeria, now Africa’s largest economy.

The same Germany, in an attempt to back up its statements recognizing responsibility for the genocide in Namibia with acts, made the gross mistake of offering – without prior negotiation – 1.1 billion euros (about 1.3 billion euros). dollars) to the Namibian government (to fund development projects over a 30-year period). The amount was immediately rejected by local communities – who saw it as an attempt to buy their approval for a pittance and demanded compensation to the tune of hundreds of billions, which Berlin, in turn, rejected. This is just one example among many (the Netherlands also offered aid to Indonesia for similar reasons) that shows how difficult it is to set a precise amount of compensation that would help really to overcome a trauma of this magnitude.

In addition to the desire to preserve ties with the former colonies, there is a growing concern that anti-Western sentiment will be exploited by those who do not carry this colonial past with them. The most obvious example here is China, which has already become the main investor and trading partner of many African and Asian countries. In its attempt to consolidate its hegemony vis-à-vis Washington, Beijing is taking advantage of the resentment accumulated within societies and governments that have suffered contempt and abuse from the West to promote its interests.

Clearly, and seen from the point of view of the West, this is an issue used by all to make the most of a reading of a past which is seldom a source of pride. It focuses on a present and a future that seeks to preserve, at the lowest possible cost, a status quo threatened by the growing awareness of the heirs of the victims and the competition of new external actors who seize the opportunity to gain ground in the eternal competition for global or regional leadership. So far, however, we’re still seeing a lot more talk than action.

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