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Debate is ongoing about whether Putin’s deliberate targeting of civilians meets the international definition of genocide

Genocide – the mass murder of a group of people based purely on race, religion, or national allegiance – has made an unwelcome reappearance into national headlines recently with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There seems to be little doubt that Russia has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity on a wide scale since its attack began in February. CNN is just one of the many new sources citing Russia’s indiscriminate killings of civilians. A bomb attack on a maternity hospital, a theater-turned-shelter and a mass grave outside the city of Mariupol, estimated to contain as many as 9,000 bodies all indicate that Russian has committed genocide in Ukraine. 

On 14 April, Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said her office was investigating 5,800 cases of alleged Russian war crimes, with “more and more” proceedings opening every day. The mass graves and the shelling of civilian areas in recent weeks have only added to that number. However, as grisly a distinction as it is to make, any legal proceedings after the war would need to distinguish between general crimes against humanity and specific instances of genocide.

Is there a consensus on Russian genocide?

Ukraine’s President Zelensky has been understandably unequivocal in categorising the Russian actions. When he visited a mass grave in Bucha on 4 April, he said: “We know that thousands of people have been killed and tortured with extremities cut off, women raped, children killed. It’s genocide.”

After initial hesitation on using the word “genocide” to describe Russian actions in Ukraine, US President Joe Biden eventually used it on 12 April, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to “wipe out the idea” of Ukrainian identity. The BBC hypothesised that the US reluctance to use the term had been tied to their obligation to act in cases of genocide, as with previous conflicts in the Balkans and Darfur. 

French President Emmanuel Macron has been more cautious about using the term. Speaking about Biden’s use of terminology, he replied: “I am prudent with terms today. Genocide has a meaning … It’s madness what’s happening today. It’s unbelievable brutality and a return to war in Europe. But at the same time I look at the facts, and I want to continue to try the utmost to be able to stop the war and restore peace. I’m not sure if the escalation of words serves our cause.”

What is genocide?

Genocide is widely understood to be one of the gravest crimes against humanity. But its specific definition is contentious and complicated. It is understood to be the mass extermination of a particular group of people – whether for racial, religious, or national allegiances. The term was created in 1943 by the Jewish-Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in light of the Holocaust, during which every member of his family apart from his brother was killed. It combines the Greek word genos (race or tribe) with the Latin suffix -cide (to kill).  

The horrors of the Holocaust motivated Dr. Lemkin to have genocide recognised as a crime under international law. This led to the adoption of the United Nations Genocide Convention in December 1948. Article Two of the convention defines genocide as "any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such”:

  • 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
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

The convention places a responsibility on signatory states to “prevent and punish” genocide. 

However, applying the term to actual actions has proven problematic. Difficulties include proving intention beyond a reasonable doubt, a reluctance by UN member states to accuse other members or to intervene (as with Rwanda), and determining what number of deaths actually define genocide. 

What are the recognised cases of genocide?

Former Secretary-General of Médecins San Frontiers Alain Destexhe has warned against the overuse of the term for fear that it would lose its gravitas. However, certain events in world history are widely considered to be acts of genocide. These include:

  • The Armenian mass killings by Ottoman Turks between 1915-1920.
  • The Holocaust, resulting in the killing of 6 million Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War.
  • Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus died in 1994.
  • The Bosnian massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 was officially ruled genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
  • Islamic State killings of Christian Yazidi and Shia minorities in Iraq and Syria.

Does Russia have a policy of genocide in war?

If past atrocities are anything to go by, there could be a valid case to be made for concluding that Russia has a policy of committing war crimes, including the mass murder of civilians, to achieve their goals. Though not technically not the same as genocide, such indiscriminate killings can quickly devolve into it. Let’s examine Russia’s actions under President Putin:

  • Two wars in Chechnya in Russia flattened the city of Grozny, which once contained 400,000 people; the UN called it the “most destroyed city on Earth”. According to Human Rights Watch, Russian soldiers under Putin’s command executed at least 38 civilians between late December 1999 and mid-Jan 2000 and a further 60 civilians on 5 February 2000
  • During the recent Syrian civil war, when Russia intervened on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, 8,683 civilians were killed by Russian bombardments according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
  • In addition to conventional forces, Russia employs a mercenary proxy group, the Wagner Group, known for their brutality. The EU has imposed sanctions against them because of their "serious human rights abuses, including torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions” in Libya, Syria and the Central African Republic. The Wagner Group is believed to have deployed forces to Ukraine, where some have alleged they were helped carry out the Bucha massacre.

As reports of the horrors in Ukraine mount, it’s clear that a longstanding Russian strategy for war has been to break the morale of the people by committing heinous acts against them. The strategy shelling of civilian areas, the targeting of train stations, execution-like killings, and widespread reports of rape all indicate a scorched earth approach, with the annihilation of all Ukrainians, military or not. 

It is for these types of atrocities that the word genocide was coined. Certainly, the wider western world seems to be coalescing around the opinion that Russia has committed genocide. Lawmakers in Canada’s House of Commons adopted a motion stating: “The House recognize that the Russian Federation is committing acts of genocide against the Ukrainian people.”  

Latvia and Estonia have also voted to declare Russian mass killings to be acts of genocide.

But many instances of genocide go unpunished because the autocrats, dictators and warlords that sanction it are never brought to justice. Tsarist Russia conducted a genocidal campaign against the Circassians in the 1860s, and Stalin attempted to mass-starve the Ukrainians into submission, resulting in 3.5 million deaths, in the 1930. If Russia’s past is anything to go by, it’s unlikely that Vladimir Putin will ever be punished for the actions under his command, unless he loses power.

Written By: Olivium staff


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