In 1994, I can clearly remember watching State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley standing behind a podium and addressing a room full of reporters. It was the usual State Department briefing, and with the Rwandan Genocide being in the news, one reporter asked, “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?”
It may seem like a strange question, but two weeks before, during a similar briefing, Mike McCurry, another State Department spokesman, was asked: “has the administration yet come to any decision on whether it can be described as genocide?” McCurry responded:
I’ll have to confess, I don’t know the answer to that. I know that the issue was under very active consideration. I think there was a strong disposition within the department here to view what has happened there, certainly, constituting acts of genocide.
Two weeks later, when Shelley got the clarification question, about how many acts of genocide it takes to make a genocide, she responded, “That’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer.” When the reporter then asked if she had “specific guidance not to use the word ‘genocide’ in isolation, but always to preface it with these words ‘acts of’?” she responded:
I have guidance which I try to use as best as I can. There are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of. I don’t have an absolute categorical prescription against something, but I have the definitions. I have phraseology which has been carefully examined and arrived at as best as we can apply to exactly the situation and the actions which have taken place.
The simple fact is, despite all of Lemkin’s hard work, the genocide convention has always been a faulty mechanism, which is backed by sovereign powers only as needed to excerpt policy forces where they’re advantageous. As Jonah Goldberg reported in the Los Angeles Times recently, this type of political maneuvering has recently reared its head in Russia, where the lower house of parliament passed a resolution stating that the Ukrainian famine wasn’t genocide.
Virtually no one, including the Russians, disputes that the Soviet government was involved in the deliberate forced starving of millions of people. But the Russian resolution indignantly insists: “There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines.” It notes that victims included “different peoples and nationalities living largely in agricultural areas” of the Soviet Union.
As Goldberg points out, the distinction the Russians are attempting to make (which many others have attempted to make in the past), is that the victims of this genocide were not an ethnic or religious group, but simply a bunch of people who happened to be living in an area that was decimated by a violent act. He goes on to explain that Lemkin made a number of concessions in order to get the convention passed, after years of fighting for its adoption.
The Russian’s argument, of course, like Turkey’s anti-Armenian lobby, is nothing but a semantic dodge. It’s the same kind of dodge Mike McCurry and Christine Shelley made in order to keep the Clinton Administration shielded from having to take action in Rwanda. And while I agree that this is a loophole that needs to be closed, I can’t help but notice that the United States and her sister nations have plenty of other excuses to ignore genocides, including, unfortunately, those that are currently unfolding.