Nation & World

Panel looks at ‘the crime of all crimes’

5 min read

On Dec. 9, 1948, the United Nations adopted a convention that for the first time in history provided a legal definition for genocide.

Organized mass murder with the intention of destroying an ethnic or national group, a legacy of World War II, was still a fresh world memory — just as it is fresh today, in the shadow of Rwanda and, some say, Darfur.

Sixty years to the day after that legal landmark (Dec. 9), a panel of experts convened at Harvard’s Tsai Auditorium to discuss the fate of what is formally called the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

What has changed in the last 60 years, they asked, and how has the sparely written document — 19 brief articles — held up? Does modern genocide present new challenges, or just old ones endlessly repeated?

The panel, moderated by Jennifer Leaning, co-director of the sponsoring organization, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), presented a variety of views: The convention may soon be “trivial.” It’s still a useful expression of ideals. Its language isn’t fitting for legal applications. It didn’t go far enough — and now “crimes against humanity” suggests a better legal framework. It’s still new. It’s too old.

Richard Goldstone, Learned Hand Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and once-chief prosecutor of the United Nations’ criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, said in keynote remarks that there is nothing new about genocide itself. It’s an act that dates to the ancients, he said, and “was appropriately called by Winston Churchill ‘the crime of all crimes.’”

Nor is there anything new to what the act of genocide universally requires, said the one-time South African jurist: dehumanizing the victim.

Unchanged too is how genocide is preceded early by warning signs, said Goldstone. He recalled how the Nazis slowly built a legal framework to exclude Jews, and the decades of ethnic unrest in Rwanda before one hundred days of violence in 2004 left 500,000 dead.

What is new, he said, is that early signs of genocide can now be observed and reported in real time, thanks to speedy new communications technology.

Even newer is a document released this week (Dec. 8) that “deserves to be read by everyone,” said Goldstone.

“Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers,” from the federally funded United States Institute of Peace, calls on the Obama administration to exert international leadership and political will on the issue of genocide. These are qualities that only the powerful and admired United States can supply, said Goldstone, through the United Nations.

An Obama White House, he added, “will be open to calls for … meaningful action.”

In 1948, the genocide convention itself called for meaningful action — or did it?

Not really, said genocide scholar Jens Meierhenrich, an assistant professor of government and of social studies at Harvard. He provided a close reading of Article 8, arguing that it contains no explicit call to “prevent or prosecute” genocide. The article’s definition of “action,” he said, could be as mild as sending a fax.

“We’ve gone beyond the language of 1948,” said Meierhenrich, and now must turn to the “more important” case law built up by war crimes tribunals between 1994 and the present.

The 1948 convention “is at a crossroads,” said HHI senior fellow and Darfur expert Alex de Waal. Charges being considered now against Sudanese officials at the International Criminal Court, he said, may broaden the definition of genocide in such a way that the U.N. document — in legal terms — becomes “much less useful, if not trivial.”

The legacy of the genocide convention to “prevent and punish” is still robust, but the means to do so has dramatically evolved in the intervening years, said Susannah Sirkin. She’s deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, a Cambridge-based research and advocacy group that in 1997 was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Even 30 years ago, documenting genocide through forensic exhumations was at “a very primitive stage,” she said; now advances in DNA technology make it faster and more accurate. Satellite uplinks and the Internet have turned citizens into real-time watchdogs, opening up to scrutiny even societies as closed as Burma and North Korea.

The 60th anniversary of the genocide convention should prompt us to reflect on the displaced survivors of mass murder, and not just on the “sexy” issue of international justice, said Jacqueline Bhabha, Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer in Law at Harvard Law School and director of the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies.

Sixty years ago, the world had a “sense of moving forward into a new era,” she said, in which countries welcomed millions of refugees. Today, the displaced are more likely to be consigned to the “precarious limbo” of refugee camps, said Bhabha, where assistance is “very meager, very belated, and often very grudging.”

Why not again embrace the idealistic aspirations of 1948, she said, “and not be ashamed of it.”