Calling a Genocide a Genocide

Human rights advocates are too quick to use the G-word to describe mass atrocities. But in the case of the Rohingya, it applies.

Rohingya refugees wait to receive food at a camp in Ukhia in Bangladesh on Monday.

Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

The Rohingya refugees who have been pouring across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border for the past month carry with them stories of unspeakable brutality. Enforced starvation, torture, mass rape, the slaughter of newborn infants, the litany of horrors inflicted by Myanmar’s military goes on. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has called these acts “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” But as the death toll mounts, many are asking whether Myanmar is expelling the Rohingya or exterminating them.

In other words: Is this genocide?

The “crime of crimes” was named and outlawed in 1948 by an international community still reeling from the shock of the Holocaust. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it—“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”—and codifies a commitment to “liberate mankind from such an odious scourge.” Nearly 150 countries have signed the convention, accepting an obligation to prevent genocide from happening and punish those who commit it.

Although the convention doesn’t explicitly say anything about stopping ongoing violence, the mandate “Never Again” echoes in the minds of policymakers and the public. Famously, during the slaughter in Rwanda, the Clinton administration was so convinced that a designation of genocide would carry with it a moral obligation to intervene that it instructed its officials not to say the word. Human rights activists invoke the charged term to ring the alarm about ongoing attacks on civilians, signaling by analogy to the “worst crimes in human history” that the situation demands international action. And given how frequently serious violations of human rights are met with apathy and inertia, persecuted groups often see a genocide label as their best hope of intervention on their behalf.

But there are important reasons to avoid invoking genocide liberally. And like many international lawyers, I’ve been a broken record cautioning against the rush to deploy the G-word. It has a specific legal meaning, one that hinges upon the perpetrators’ intent to destroy a group. Using it to refer to mass slaughter without evidence of that intent risks diluting the definition of the crime beyond all meaning. For instance, the torture, rape, and murder of huge numbers of civilians in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria are war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, but not genocide. Although the violence is systematic and devastating, civilians are not being targeted on the basis of their group identity.

Activists often claim that deferring to these concerns yields a definition of genocide so harshly restrictive that it rarely applies, letting the international community off the hook from responding to horrific violations of human rights. It’s true that most atrocities don’t qualify. But misclassifying atrocities as genocidal can lead to poorly tailored policy solutions because it obscures who is being attacked and why—information that is critical to an effective response.

If we’re careful to avoid crying genocide when it’s not warranted, we should be all the more confident about doing so when it is. And in Myanmar, the signs of genocide are there for anyone who knows how to read them. Not in the scale or savagery of the violence, although both are shocking, but in the evidence of the military’s intent to eradicate the Rohingya minority.

Without mind-reading powers, it can be hard to identify genocidal intent. For instance, in both the Central African Republic and South Sudan, widespread and brutal violence is being inflicted on civilians, clearly on the basis of their ethnicity. But whether these attacks are genocide or another crime depends on what’s inside the perpetrators’ heads. Was the slaughter of 500 members of an ethnic minority part of an effort to wipe the group out, discourage them from supporting a rival armed group, or scare them into fleeing the country? It’s difficult to distinguish among these possibilities without knowing what the perpetrators were thinking.

The Nazi regime kept extensive records documenting its plans to wipe out the Jews, but most atrocity perpetrators aren’t so meticulous. Because of this, international courts have repeatedly ruled that genocidal intent can be inferred from context. The tribunal convened after the genocide in Rwanda convicted perpetrators of genocide based on the huge numbers of Tutsi victims and the systematic nature of their targeting. And the Yugoslavia tribunal looked to “the general political doctrine which gave rise to the acts” to establish intent.

As we witness the horrors being unleashed in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the contextual clues that international courts look for are abundant. The Rohingya are subjected to harsh deprivations of citizenship rights and restrictions on the ability to marry and bear children, pursuant to a series of formal laws beginning in 1982. A leaked 1988 policy document tellingly titled “Rohingya Extermination Plan” outlines the government’s intent to limit the Rohingya’s population growth “by application of all possible methods of oppression and suppression against them.” And for the past five years, they have been denied freedom of movement, kept in squalid displacement camps and urban ghettos ostensibly in the name of security.

Together with ominous comments from high-ranking military officials that refer to the Rohingya as “an unfinished job,” these measures suggest the existence of a long-standing plan to eliminate the group. They make up exactly the sort of sociopolitical context in which international courts have inferred in the past that mass atrocities were committed with genocidal intent.

Viewed against this background, many of the Myanmar military’s recent actions that could have plausibly been interpreted as efforts to terrorize the Rohingya into fleeing instead look like measures in pursuit of their destruction. The targeting of teachers and religious leaders, systematic burning of homes, and the particular brutality inflicted on women and very young children appear calculated to erase Rohingya culture, eliminate all traces of their presence, and prevent the survival of future generations.

The Rohingya crisis is a rare case where we can make an even stronger claim, based on more than just suggestive evidence. Some of the military’s actions are simply inconsistent with any goal other than the Rohingya’s extermination. Aid workers on the ground report that security forces have surrounded a number of villages blocking both the delivery of supplies and any escape routes while the inhabitants starve to death. Others have documented multiple instances of soldiers shooting people as they attempt to flee across the border. And finally, international media reports confirm that the military has laid landmines in the border area, causing those attempting to seek refuge in Bangladesh to be killed and maimed. These are not efforts to coerce the Rohingya population into flight but to pen them in and eradicate them.

Observing the scale of the crisis and the viciousness with which Myanmar’s military is targeting the Rohingya, international actors have denounced these atrocities as crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. But these terms do not capture the full extent of the attack on the Rohingya population. Failure to correctly identify genocidal violence when it is clear what is happening has grave consequences. Not only for the victims, who risk annihilation, but for citizens of all the repressive states whose leaders are watching, and may be emboldened by international inaction.

The atrocities unfolding in Rakhine state are not the actions of a military using violence and terror to expel an undesirable population. This is a government bent upon the destruction of a vulnerable ethnic minority. It’s time to call it what it is: genocide.