Genocide Today: Retaining Power in Language

Gabriel Coffey, Managing Forum Editor

In a generation where American youths seem increasingly worried about preventing offensive language, one would assume accusing a country of genocide to be cause for ceasing relations. Yet, in the Biden-led State Department, they see the word “genocide” in a different light – as a malleable tool that can be compartmentalized alongside trade and climate policy with China. That is, just because the administration takes offense at Chinese internment of Uyghurs, doesn’t mean they don’t wish to work with China. This begs the question of whether or not the U.S can work with China after accusing their leadership of comitting genocide, and even more importantly, should it? 

Responding appropriately to genocide has always been diametrically opposed by threats of aggravating allies and damaging trade. Thus, declarations of genocide are only as good as the action taken to follow up such a claim. The U.S has used the word to describe the situation in Bosnia in the 90s, Darfur, Sudan in the early 2000s, and areas occupied by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2016-17. In all of these cases, the word genocide has been limited to the mass extermination of a people. Yet, the U.N. convention has gone further by saying that genocide can also include measures intended to prevent births within the group.” This is paramount to understanding genocide as the prevention tool it has become today as the United States seeks to prevent future atrocities, but all the while stays silent on others. 

The term genocide ought to be used sparingly and with caution to ensure it retain its damning impact on a country. In the case of China’s Xinjiang region, the use of the term genocide by the U.S must be followed up with similar accusations by others to ensure multilateral action against the Chinese government. This has not been the case. European leaders recently negotiated a trade deal with China with little mention of Xinjiang. In this lies the root of the problem surrounding the word genocide: promulgating the notion with little backing and insufficient economic tools to do damage to the country in question. 

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide sought to prevent genocide from ever happening again after the incalcuable horrors of the Holocaust. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who helped to define the word “genocide,” pushed for the convention to not only punish, but prevent genocide through the addition of “measures intended to prevent births within the group,” to the definition. While rarely used within this context, the United States is not without cause for labeling the situation in Xinjiang an act of genocide based on this accepted definition.

Yet, in neighboring Myanmar, the Biden administration has not deemed a more obvious case of genocide just that. The killing of Rohingya refugees constitutes a clear act of genocide despite silence by the adminstration on the topic. Said silence on Myanmar shows how the word genocide has been politicized beyond its original intention as a preventive mechanism for mass slaughter. 

The arbiters of genocide must adhere to a basic system of rules for delineating between genocide and the less egregious term “crimes against humanity.” By deciding to call out all forms of genocide that either prevent birth or involve the mass murder of a given people, the United States would be able to counter any claims by the Chinese government that involve telling their people and allies that the U.S is unfairly punishing them in a western driven plot, as is the tendency by the Chinese Communist Party. 

And if the U.S government is going to continue its run of calling out countries for acts of genocide, then it has to start following it up with action – expect little.