Why Russia’s war in Ukraine is Genocide — (Part 3)
On Russia’s Genocide
According to the UN, “The word “genocide” was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It consists of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing.”
The UN states that:
“Genocide was first recognised as a crime under international law in 1946 by the United Nations General Assembly (A/RES/96-I). It was codified as an independent crime in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention). The Convention has been ratified by 149 States (as of January 2018). The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has repeatedly stated that the Convention embodies principles that are part of general customary international law. This means that whether or not States have ratified the Genocide Convention, they are all bound as a matter of law by the principle that genocide is a crime prohibited under international law. The ICJ has also stated that the prohibition of genocide is a peremptory norm of international law (or ius cogens) and consequently, no derogation from it is allowed.”
Lemkin called genocide the crime of crimes. It has its own place in history because it seeks to wipe out a people altogether. Genocide is different to war. War and invasion seek to conquer and seize a land; genocide seeks to erase the identity of its people, remove the country from the map. Like war, genocide kills women and children, but genocide also replaces teachers, destroys history books, changes place names, bans languages, arrests and kills those in whom a society’s identity and culture resides, such as artists, political thinkers, poets, and writers.
After a genocide, there is nobody left to fight back, to re-take land, rebuild buildings, restore a government, or celebrate a culture. Genocide is absolute destruction at the most human level. After a genocide, there is nobody left to talk about the people who died, to reminisce about their lives, to paint pictures of their past or write books about their culture. When genocide kills you there is nobody to mourn you, it is as if you had never existed, erased from history. We are all part of societies and cultures, which is why we recoil at the idea of an entire culture being erased by another.
In Foreign Affairs, Kristina Hook writes that under the UN Convention on Genocide, it is “defined as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” No country or organization has ever fundamentally challenged this legal definition or the international community’s obligation to stop genocide.”
Genocide requires an intent and prior planning, as well as an infrastructure in place to execute it. Russia has done both with Ukraine. Hook references the Russian state media channel, RIA Novosti, which “explicitly defined this genocidal goal, stating that “de-Nazification will inevitably include de-Ukrainization,” that Ukrainian desires for independence veiled the country’s true “Nazism,” and that “Ukrainism is an artificial anti-Russian construct” that must be eliminated.” The idea that Ukraine does not exist and should be absorbed into Russia has been part of Putin’s stated thinking for some time before the war.
The intent is also reflected in the infrastructure imposed by an invader. Russia has not only sent troops to Ukraine, it has also sent teachers to take over occupied schools to teach a false Russian history to children, signwriters to change street names and to replace Ukrainian with Russian language. In areas occupied by Russia, Ukrainians have been coerced into giving up their passports to be replaced with Russian passports, effectively erasing their national identity. Hook observes that “Russia’s forced deportation of approximately 1.9 million Ukrainians — with Russian officials themselves confirming that 307,423 Ukrainian children have been fast-tracked for adoption by Russian parents — fulfils another clear criterion for genocide.”
The Soviet Union has a long history of deporting or killing large segments of the population from countries it invaded, such as the Baltic States, and replacing them with Russians. This dilution of a society was calculated to erase its culture and replace it with that of Russia.
Filtration camps in which people are searched for tattoos, text messages, or any indication that they may resist the impending Russification have been established, with ‘Reports from human rights organizations, the U.S. State Department, and numerous media outlets…that Russian authorities mark for death, disappearance, or torture those detainees deemed irredeemably Ukrainian.’ In occupied regions, “Russia has introduced the rouble and forced schools to adopt the Russian curriculum.” As well as imposing Russian phone networks and television to control information and communication.
Another hallmark of genocide is when a war is fought against all parts of a society, not just its military. The war in Ukraine has been fought against civilians from the start, with entire cities being reduced to rubble, and schools, housing, and hospitals being the target of Russian bombardment.
Russians have knowingly killed children, for example bombing the theatre in Mauripol, outside which the locals had written ‘Children’ in rocks on the ground to show it was sheltering women and children. This has been acknowledged as a war crime, but it needs to be viewed as part of a wider pattern that is genocide.
Rape is a also weapon of genocide because it seeks to replace a new generation, just as forced adoptions remove that generation and absorb it into the perpetrators culture. Rape is being used as a weapon in Ukraine, as it was used by Russians during the Second World War. Russia has already carried out these genocidal crimes against children, bombing and killing them, raping women, and kidnapping hundreds of thousands of children to be deported to families in Russia.
As Hook observes, “Moscow’s desire to extinguish Ukrainians as a national group helps explain the confounding behavior of its forces. As cholera outbreaks gripped Mariupol in June, Russian occupation authorities prioritized making miniscule changes to Ukrainian language road signs over delivering humanitarian aid to the civilians they were ostensibly rescuing from a “fascist” Ukrainian regime.”
The importance of the word genocide in this context, as with the word fascism, or indeed pandemic is that it frames our response. Genocides happen quickly, they are like wildfires. Civilians cannot defend themselves, and once the perpetrators are either numbed by their violence or sufficiently brainwashed by their leaders they accelerate their genocidal behaviour. During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in just 100 days over 500,000 Tutsis were killed, and up to half a million women raped.
As with declaring Covid19 a Pandemic, we need to declare Russia’s war in Ukraine a genocide in order to focus the international response.
This response is different to a conventional war. Hook argues that, “typical diplomatic strategies, cease-fires, and negotiations over territory do not stop genocidal wars. The West learned this lesson in countering Hitler’s aggression and atrocities and must remember it again.” Yet, credible Western leaders are still talking about negotiated settlements, peace treaties, ceasefires, compromise. They have not yet grasped that this is a genocide being committed by fascists.
Understanding Ukraine as a genocide rather than just a war should trigger far faster and more decisive support from Ukraine’s allies. It should also push more of the fence-sitters to come out against Russia; opposing a war is a political choice, not opposing a genocide is far harder to justify.
Various leaders, including Joe Biden, have used the word genocide, but what we need now is universally to replace the word war with the word genocide. News reports, political speeches, passing conversations should only be about the genocide in Ukraine, not the war in Ukraine. Putin is so scared of the word war he has banned its use in Russia in relation to Ukraine. This shows how much weight a word carries. The word genocide is special, but it needs to be used in anticipation, not just in retrospect.
We urgently need our media and our leaders to adopt these two historically powerful words to describe Russia and what it is doing in Ukraine.
The precedent for this adoption of a linguistic norm was when the media and politicians started to refer to ISIS as ‘the so-called Islamic State.’ This was hardly damning, but it tried to avoid recognising them as the Islamic State, as their name forced us to do. It caught on and has held, thanks to leadership by politicians and journalists. We now need that same leadership to hold Putin to account by calling his regime fascist, and his war genocide.
We can lead in that movement, with our own use of social media, discussion, comment, and even thought. Think of this as a genocide by a fascist dictatorship, then talk about it in those terms. Correct people when they talk about the war in Ukraine, or about the Russian government. We can each change the narrative.