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An ethnic and linguistic minority in the Near East, the Kurds now live divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, in a region unofficially known as Kurdistan, where they have always been the object of persecution and oppression.

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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Intercultural Lexicon
IT Tuesday, 7 November 2006


Marcello Flores

The word genocide is nowadays used in a number of different ways and one must to try and analyse them separately, to the extent that this is possible. Often it is precisely the superimposition or intermingling of various levels that confuses further the possibility of obtaining clear information and coherent communication on this subject.

The most important issues appear to be:
1. the definition (limits, need to review and update, sharing the concept)
2. the public use of this word (in the international political debate – UN judgement or that of other institutions dealing with interventions in risk areas such as for example Darfur; within the context of the international political debate – for example Turkey’s entrance in the EU and the genocide of the Armenians; the debate on remembrance – reconciliation or justice, contraposition of memories, tendency to victimization etc); in the field of national and international justice – the work of the special courts for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the international Penal Court, ongoing trials in Argentina, Cambodia, etc)

Each of the aforementioned points would deserve to be addressed more broadly. One can however suggest that the greater problem basically lies in an apparently insuperable contradiction. At the basis of the definition and concept of the word genocide, there is a fundamental and insupressable juridical element, which can be summarised in the pioneeristic contribution provided by Raphael Lemkin, in the work done by the Nuremberg Courts and in drafting the Convention for sentencing and for the prevention of the crime of genocide in 1948.

This contribution instantly became interlaced with political and diplomatic factors that – to make the most clamorous example – led to the expulsion of the category of “political” groups from the list of possible victims of genocide, as insisted by the Soviet block that obtained this change in the original draft. On the basis of that juridical and international political decision-formulation, over time a debate developed between scholars of the various disciplines that increased over the years; while as far as the public was concerned this issue was mainly ignored until the Eighties, and above all the Nineties, when with the end of the Cold War and communism, and the appearance on a large scale of mass violence with probable genocide-like characteristics, the issue once again became a current one.

One can state that the first thoughts by social sciences on genocide appeared during the Eighties of the 20th Century, although it was only in the next decade that these became the object of in-depth analysis and debate, providing multiple and often diverging opinions and beginning to increasingly intensely interact with the work carried out for years by the Holocaust Studies, a place for encounters and debates mainly between historians. The issue most debated during these meetings was the one concerning the uniqueness or the singularity of the destruction of European Jews within the framework of the 20th Century mass killings and mass murders. In Genocide Studies, set up later and usually by social scientists, the main objective seemed instead to be the search for a definition that would satisfy both the knowledge and the explanation of the Holocaust as well as genocides that took place before and after this word was invented.

New proposals of definitions presented by sociologists, political analysts and historians (Horowitz, Kuper, Fein, Chalk and Jonassohn, Mann, Weitz, Gellately and Kiernan, Levene), have allowed the debate to achieve greater depth and become enormously more refined, albeit without reaching any shared conclusion. The distance has on the contrary increased between those who see genocide as mainly or exclusively as a product of modernity (following Bauman, but not only) and those who relate it - although this is a recent conclusion – to the entire history of humankind, starting with the destruction of Melus, of Carthage, the massacres by Genghis Khan and the conquest of the Americas.

The rejection by many adhering to the historically-socially disciplined juridical-political definition (that of the Convention), and the unsuccessful attempt to provide a new and more coherent and shared version, was however accompanied – especially in recent years – by a renewed capability in the world of law to analyse in depth the very issue of the definition and attribution of the crime of genocide. This is in fact what took place in the courts of The Hague and Arusha for crimes committed in ex Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, or in the course of the still ongoing debate addressing the existence of a genocide in the Darfur crisis.

The Darfur crisis has above all shown the increasing importance, both in the past and nowadays, of public opinion and how within this framework the use of the word genocide becomes an element of emotive mobilisation used with increasingly fragile references to both the juridical definition and the debate among scholars. All in all, over time genocide has appeared to progressively lose the characteristic of a “legal” crime and has assumed above all that of “moral” condemnation. The use if the word is increasingly an analogical one, starting from the juridical definition or reference to the Shoah, but with the objective of strengthening and emphasising condemnation – or proposed intervention – in situations where there is clearly the presence of crimes against humankind and a tragic humanitarian crisis.

In some way this takes place in opposition to the past, when the use of the word genocide was intentionally avoided: for many years, for example, as far as events in Cambodia in the second half of the Seventies were concerned, or more recently during the Rwanda genocide, acknowledged as such immediately after it took place but not while it was happening. It is however obvious that in a historical reconstruction and in making comparisons one cannot put aside or ignore the juridical element at the basis of the definition of genocide. If however this does happens, what is compared or told is more simply the history of mass violence and collective massacres, even if one uses or should wish to use the word genocide.

Beyond the link with the Convention’s profound and precise meaning, the concept of genocide is a synonym – that also includes stronger condemnations, and hence also particular attention – for great massacres, extreme violence, barbaric events that are difficult to envisage. Genocide will therefore no longer be a word capable of having a cognitive characteristic, which will only be provided by the articulation and depth of analysis; while the reference to genocide will be useful for catalysing emotive participation and rendering stronger the link between current sensitivity with regards to violence and the re-interpretation of the violence of the past.

Faced with this complex problem, which involves levels of research and study, that of the theorisation and juridical practice and that of public opinion and international politics, it is obvious how hard it is to provide a solution – within the framework of a definition and as far as the current and public use of this word is concerned– that will satisfy all requests for specification, improvement, updating, greater clarity and coherence. It is also obvious how only within an inter-disciplinary context, capable of involving and encouraging all the resources used in past years to address the issue of genocide, will it become possible to take a step forwards that will make talking about it and discussing it less complex and conflictual.


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