«THE CONCEPT OF GENOCIDE: origin, meaning, related concepts, denial» - Roger Smith

It is a privilege to be with you on this important occasion and in such a beautiful setting. But the occasion is also sad: that what brings us together is a reflection on the worst crime that can be committed against a people. There is also another element that you will be particularly mindful of: that the Genocide of the Pontic Greeks has never been recognized as genocide by the world, nor has that of the Assyrians. For many years, the Armenian Genocide was referred to as the “forgotten genocide,” a terrible outcome, and one that took more than 60 years to overcome. But at least it was recognized at the time as an example of “race extermination.” To my knowledge, until the last few years, the destruction of the other Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire has not been part of either public or even scholarly awareness. There are many reasons for the silence, the lack of knowledge: the respective communities were decimated, the political climates in the countries where they found themselves were not conducive to demanding acknowledgement, reparations, restitution, and the world, not long after 1915-23, was increasingly in turmoil, with the rise of Fascist states, the specter of the Soviet Union, and, then the global war. The Armenians were in the same situation: it was only on the 50th anniversary of the Genocide of 1915 that there was a new assertiveness, new demands, and the genesis of a scholarship, by both Armenians and non-Armenians, including our Turkish friend who is speaking here today, Taner Akcam, that has produced irrefutable evidence of the genocide against Armenians. This has led also to the mobilization of the Armenian community to press for international recognition of the Genocide, and this has been widely successful.

The Greek community, whether in Athens or New York, Paris or elsewhere, has, for reasons that I can’t explain, not made the demands, and its scholars have not done the work that will be required to put the case of the Pontic Greeks before the world as an example of genocide. And as always, what follows if the genocide is recognized by the world, and, especially by the successor regime of the perpetrator? In part, there is catharsis, closure perhaps, a sense of vindication, of ethnic identity reinforced, but the dangling questions of restitution and reparations.

But my impression is that you are on your way to providing a scholarly basis for the claim to genocide against Greeks, Assyrians, and Armenians, and that this will result in a very different understanding of what the Young Turk regime was about, and why it went all out against its Christian minorities. Here it is important, however, to keep open the question of WHY. That Christian groups were exiled, massacred, force marched to their deaths, does not necessarily mean that the atrocities happened always for the same reasons. The Turkish state maintains to this day that the Armenians were revolutionaries and allied with the Russians, but they have not, to my knowledge, alleged the same about the Greeks. These and other questions loom, but at present we don’t have the answers. This conference, however, is a hopeful sign that the answers will be pursued and brought to the public before long. There is a danger, however, that occurs early on in this kind of research, and I have seen it in the Armenian case: a kind of nationalism, righteousness, and perhaps inadequate assessment of the evidence available. And many people get into the act: not just scholars, but the general public, politicians and others. The result can be that, not only are the waters muddied, but the whole narrative is politicized. On both counts, there is an undermining of the historical record, and one makes the deniers’ task far easier. And make no mistake about it, the deniers (in this case the current government of Turkey but also academics that they have recruited by various means) will seize on any factual errors, or unsupported positions, to discredit the entire narrative, to discredit the entire case that a genocide against the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians was committed. Of course, they will hammer away at this forever (it still happens with the Armenian case, now well documented) but in the beginning, in the fragile stage of incomplete documentation, of ongoing research, and some errors (historians do make mistakes and then tend to correct them), they will try to kill the entire enterprise and make it seem a nationalistic, stereotypical fantasy. Please make no mistake about it: Turkey plays rough where claims are made about genocide committed by its processor some 90 years ago. You would think that maybe it should just acknowledge that a previous regime, many years ago, did some terrible things and then distance itself from that. But perhaps for some reasons that Prof. Akcam will explain that will not happen now.

Denial was the universal strategy of perpetrators in the twentieth century and it will likely be the same in the twenty-first century. Those who initiate, or otherwise participate in genocide, typically deny that the events took place, that they bear any responsibility for the destruction, and that the term “genocide’ is applicable to what occurred. Moreover, they will question the significance of the destruction; here relativism and trivialization are used to diminish the perpetrators’ deeds. Over time, denial, unchecked, turns politically imposed mass death into a ”non-event”: in place of words of recognition, indignation, and compassion, there is, with time, only silence.

Denial is the last stage of genocide: it continues it in terms of dehumanization, justification, and a veiled suggestion of possible repetition. But denial is also a government’s default position: it will only deny when there is assertion of a genocide. For the most part, until recently, the Pontic Greeks have not made such an assertion. Once you do it in earnest, then you will find that the Turkish government and its allied “scholars” will come down hard against you: not only in terms of arguments of denial but the tactics that accompany denial. In the U.S., for example, millions of dollars are spent attempting to defeat Congressional resolutions recognizing the genocide, threats are made about contracts, about use of air bases in Turkey, about including the Armenian Genocide in school curricula on human rights, and so-called research institutes are created to further denial and create a favorable image of Turkey in the West. The Pontic Greeks have not experienced this to any extent, but you will as you press your case and make public the narrative of destruction.

So, what is “genocide?” The philosopher Nietzsche said that “We can only define those things that have no history.” And, make no mistake about it, genocide has a long history, going back to at least the 12th century B.C. (See Numbers 31 in the Bible) and continuing into the present. Indeed, the twentieth century can be considered an “age of genocide,” with numerous examples throughout the century, claiming as many as 70 million lives (some scholars would say many more than that). And thought after the Holocaust, the watchword was “Never Again,” since 1945 the lives claimed by genocide exceed those killed in international and civil wars combined. But with so many genocides, different situations, motives, victim groups, it does indeed become difficult to define “genocide.” Moreover, the term is widely used in a rhetorical fashion to attract attention, and sometimes it seems that anything that is less of a crime than “genocide” doesn’t really count. For example, “crimes against humanity,” a term I will return to a little later, along with other concepts closely related to “genocide.”

A recent study of genocide begins with this statement: “The word is new, the crime is ancient.” This should read: “The word is new, the phenomenon ancient,” for while the slaughter of whole groups has occurred throughout history, it is only within the past few centuries that this produced even a sense of moral horror, much less been thought of as “criminal.” Indeed, from ancient times until well into the sixteenth century, genocide was not something that men (and it was men who committed it) were ashamed of, felt guilt for, or tried to hide; it was open and acknowledged. In the twentieth century and now into the twentieth-first, no regime has acknowledged that it engaged in genocide. Monuments have been raised for victims, but not by perpetrators, as in earlier times, to commemorate their deeds.

Nietzsche is right: it is hard to define anything that has a long history. But it is more complicated because many different impulses are brought to the definition: genocide as a symbol of evil, as radical evil, as a matter of ethnic identity, as a matter of healing and closure, of political demands, of the need for justice, of international law, of the scholarly pursuit of how and why genocide is enacted, of the attempt to devise early warning systems and the prevention of genocide.

Before the term “genocide’ existed, mass killings were referred to as “massacres,” as “race extermination,” and so on. It was not until 1944 that the term “genocide” was created by the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in his book AXIS RULE IN OCCUPIED EUROPE. The term was based on the Greek “genos” (race, group) with the Latin “cide” (killing). Lemkin used the term to describe, not so much the destruction of individuals, but “the destruction of a nation or ethnic group.” Political and social groups, such as classes, were not included in his definition, nor was the partial destruction of a group. As he stated it: “Genocide is a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups completely.” For him, the core of the crime was the destruction of groups, not individuals; he thought that groups were the bearers of civilization and culture, of identity, of diversity, and thus of special need of protection.

Lemkin pressed the United Nations to declare genocide a crime against international law. From 1946 to 1948, the UN debated the eroding of what would become in December 1948, by unanimous vote, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. With sufficient ratifications of the Convention by member states, the Convention entered into force in early 1950. But despite the occurrence of numerous examples of genocide in the years following, not a single case of genocide was tried under international until the first years of the twenty- first century. The International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have now both charged individuals, and had several convictions, for genocide. One problem with this, however, is that a vast, state-organized process is treated as if it were just another trial for murder.

The Convention makes genocide and related crimes, such as incitement to genocide, crimes under international law, “whether committed in time of peace or in time of war.” But the heart of the Convention is found in Article II, where the crime of genocide is defined, and where many of the problems with the concept of genocide, lie:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Let me briefly comment on a few of the issues that arise from this conception of genocide. First, not all groups are protected; in particular political groups and social groups such as classes lie outside the boundaries of the definition. The reason for this is that (1) only groups would be covered that were “stable and permanent,” and (2) and perhaps more to the point, that many countries wanted to keep open their right to suppress by violence any political or social challenge to the authority of the ruling power.

Second, not only must there be intent to destroy a group, but there must also be “specific intent,” that is, the intent to destroy the group must be because of its particular characteristics (national, ethnical, racial, or religious). Destroying such a group for, say, economic reasons, would not count as genocide. Third, the question of destroying a group “in part,” has raised questions about how large a part, and whether it is a matter of numbers or a percentage of the overall group that counts. In general, this issue has now been dealt with by saying “a substantial Part,” leaving it to courts to decide just where to draw the boundaries. However, some lawyers would add that “in part” could mean “a significant part,” that is in some functional sense; for example, culling the leadership elements of the group. Four, there is also the problem about what constitutes a group. For example, the Tutsis in Rwanda were neither a national nor ethnic group, but they were perceived by their killers to be members of a group. In the UN Rwandan tribunal, the court decided that groups and membership in them is in the eye of the perpetrator. Finally, I would point out that the acts that are listed as constituting genocide are physical, biological, and cultural. Moreover, of the five acts, any one of which constitutes genocide, only one of them actually involves killing, though all aim at the destruction of the group. The UN definition focuses on intent not results: Yet it is surely an odd notion that genocide could occur with few or even no deaths.

There are other concepts that bear a family resemblance to “genocide,” but also can be distinguished from it. For example, war. Many genocides occur within the context of war, but war traditionally was a battle between armed combatants, not between perpetrators and largely unarmed civilians. For many years now, war has often been total war, and was waged against civilians as well as soldiers. Still, it was not with the idea of eliminating the “enemy” as a group. Genocide, on the other hand, is a species of total war: it is aimed at a particular group, most of whom are unarmed, and the intent is not the subduing of the group, but its elimination, if not in whole, in substantial part.

Or consider the term “massacre.” Massacre can be part of how genocide is carried out, but more often it is geared toward revenge or repression, not annihilation. It tends also to be episodic and isolated rather than sustained and pervasive as in genocide. On the other hand, massacre does fall with another category we will talk about in a moment, “crimes against humanity.”

But it is that awful term “ethnic cleansing” that has gained so much traction since the wars and genocides within Bosnia. In practice, “ethnic cleansing” is often part of the genocidal process, and the term is also a euphemism used by the perpetrator to disguise what is actually taking place. But in theory, ethnic cleansing means using violence, rape, terror, and forced deportation to drive out or remove a particular group from a common territory. The emphasis is on creating a homogenous society through fear and expulsion, not as in genocide of annihilating the group.

The term “ethnic cleansing” is one that the Pontic Greek community needs to pay special attention to because of the role it will play in denial of the genocide. Turkey will attempt to deny everything in ways I suggested at the outset of my presentation, but will, if that fails, fall back on the notion of ‘ethnic cleansing:” yes, the Young Turks deported the Greeks , and some perished along the route of march, but this was “ethnic cleansing,” not genocide. The government wanted to eliminate large concentrations of foreign elements, repatriating some to Greece and dispersing others in Turkey, but this was a far cry from genocide.

Finally, and with this I shall close: in 1998 the Statute of Rome created an International Criminal Court, with the following crimes within its jurisdiction: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. The very term “crimes against humanity” came out of the Young Turk genocide of the Armenians, when the Allies in May 1915 warned the Ottoman rulers that they would be held accountable and tried for “crimes against humanity and civilization.” In the Statute of Rome, “crime against humanity” is defined in terms of a number of particular acts, including murder, extermination, and deportation or forcible transfer of population, but more widely, torture, apartheid, and “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” Any of these acts “when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” constitutes a crime against humanity. The key category here is “civilian population,” not particular groups as indicated in the Genocide Convention; and the question of intent is different from that required under the Convention: here no specific intent is required.

Though one can differentiate “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” in important respects, the two concepts overlap in many ways. And it is much easier to prosecute actions as crimes against humanity than as genocide; the former also have a wider reach, not being restricted to crimes against particular groups named in the Convention. So where do we go from here? I leave you with the view of William Schabas, one of the foremost authorities on the international law of genocide, who states that with the increased emphasis on crimes against humanity, the international community could dispense with the Genocide Convention. On the other hand, I would remind everyone that the Convention is not only about punishment, but also prevention.

Athens, Old Parliament Building, May 10, 2009