What Makes a Genocide?

originally posted Wednesday, March 4 2015

The United Nations has been historically slow to recognize genocide when it occurs. It’s understandable, in part- to coin something a genocide is to essentially make an admission that intervention can no longer be avoided. In other words, genocide is not a word that can be taken lightly. It commands the attention of the international community, for there is no such thing as a genocide that is anything less than devastating.

In some cases, such as the Rwandan genocide, the international gaze veers away for as long as it can. The number of people lost in Rwanda is estimated to be roughly one million in the span of three months. Still, the UN failed to act promptly and decisively. Though the UN’s failure to recognize the genocide as soon as it became apparent is probably multi-faceted, there is one argument that can not readily be dismissed; by intervening in the atrocities in Rwanda, foreign powers had very little to gain.

In the year 2014, the number of civilians killed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria met upward of 11,000. The death toll shows no signs of slowing down; deaths have skyrocketed since the year 2015 began, and January was the deadliest month in the conflict to date. The UN announced at the end of February that the acts perpetrated by ISIS might comprise a genocide. Granted, the UN has not committed to this terminology. But the mere suggestion that what we’re witnessing could be a genocide is highly significant. Is this an honest assessment of the circumstances? If there weren’t Western political and economic interests at stake in the Middle East, interests that could be compromised if ISIS gains momentum, might the UN still go so far as to call it a potential genocide?

ISIS’s activities in the region are truly reprehensible. Ethnic minorities are particularly at risk, but Sunni Muslims who do not subscribe to the same Islam as ISIS are also unsafe. If we call this a genocide, we might just be calling a spade a spade. However, it’s also possible that western hegemonic powers only see genocide where egregious violence interferes with their foreign investments.