“Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual” wondered out loud Raphael Lemkin. Who is Lemkin? You might ask. He is a Polish lawyer, home educated by his brilliant mother, mastered 9 languages and became preoccupied at an early age with mass atrocities through human history such as the sack of Carthage and Corinth and persecution of Huguenots.
It was however the mass killing of Armenians in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire that he started looking for laws that deal with such crimes. There were none. He made it his life’s mission to make it an international obligation to punish such crimes. He coined the term genocide in 1944. Following the carnage of the Second World War and the Holocaust in which members of his family perished, he led a one man dogged campaign at the newly established United Nations, pestering the delegates relentlessly until a resolution was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1946 recognizing genocide a crime under international law (A/Res/96-1). This led to the adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention), first human rights treaty in 1948.
Genocides have occurred with some regularity throughout human history. The near extermination of Native Americans is one example. Chief Seattle’s memorable speech best sums up the loss of his people. “My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain…There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory.”
The Genocide Convention stipulates that the following acts shall be punishable under article III: (a) Genocide; (b) Conspiracy to commit genocide; (c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide; (d) Attempt to commit genocide; (e) Complicity in genocide. Unfortuately many countries accused of genocide have invoked the doctrine of sovereignty which gives governments “the right to conduct internal affairs as they see fit”. This doctrine has provided cover for many governments, big and small suspected or accused of genocide to elude accountability and punishment. It is not surprising therefore that the crime of genocide continues to be committed with impunity in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Myanmar, and China (with the Uighurs).
The latest genocide is the one unfolding in Tigray, Ethiopia where the PM Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace laureate believe it or not, declared war on his people on November 4, 2020 deploying the entire national defense force and inviting foreign troops from Eritrea to participate in the invasion of Tigray, euphemistically dubbed a law enforcement measure which would take a few days.
The war is now more than 600 days and shows no sign of abetting. The invading forces have committed unimaginable atrocities- killing young men and boys on sight, gang raping women of all ages, setting fire to farms, looting medical supplies, medicine and equipment and systematically destroying the region’s educational, medical, agricultural and industrial infrastructure and targeting cultural and religious sites. The Tigray regional state has been under complete communication blackout with no internet, telephone, electricity or banking services. The region remains under siege with food and medicine only now trickling despite a ceasefire agreement to allow food and medicine in.
A research study by the University of Ghent in Belgium estimates half a million Tigrayans may have died from lack of food, medicine and civilian casualties of war.
Article III of the Genocide Convention cites, among other things-complicity in genocide as punishable crime. There is enough blame to go around in this regard. Internal players and the external enablers among whom I would include the Nobel Committee, the World Bank, the African Union Commission under its ineffectual Chairman, the US which continues to show only its ‘concern’ since the war began, the UN that has practically washed its hands off the crisis and the list goes on.
The report of atrocities affecting people of color does not merit media coverage as contrasted to that of Ukraine. Ethiopia/Tigray no longer commands our attention. Bertoit Brecht said it best “When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer”. The Finnish Foreign Minister and envoy for the EU, Pekka Haavisto who met PM Abiy Ahmed behind closed doors earlier this year reports that the Ethiopian PM told him that he would wipe out Tigrayans for a 100 years. Chilling!
Today’s perpetrators of genocide don’t come in the guise of a Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. They are seemingly harmless looking. Some, like Abiy and Aung San Suu Kyi are even rewarded with the Nobel Prize for Peace (Can one get more Orwellian)
Hannah Arendt, arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century reporting for the New Yorker on the Eichmann trial in Israel was struck by how ordinary, “horrifyingly normal’ Eichmann looked, incapable of such evil deeds and intentions. Her ‘banality of evil’ thesis as a result exposed her to vicious attacks by friends and colleagues who disagreed with her, some accusing her of trivializing the Holocaust. I would present Abiy Ahmed as exhibit A in her defense. The Responsibility to Protect Doctrine has been a dismal failure, the international community repeatedly failing to prevent genocide or protect victims of such crime. What more does it take to wake the international community up from its apathy. Could it be that the hierarchy of value of life is at play here? It is a rhetorical question.
Mohammed A. Nurhussein MD