It was not only the shoe thrown at home minister P. Chidambaram that potentially ended the careers of Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar; it was the role they may have played in the mass violence against Sikhs in the hours after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. Likewise, business leaders’ endorsements notwithstanding, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders are not about to name Narendra Modi as their next prime ministerial candidate, because his conduct in 2002 will forever haunt him.
Activists have called both those massacres—of Sikhs in 1984, of Muslims in 2002—as genocidal. Defenders of the Congress and the BJP challenge the characterization, diverting the debate away from the issue that matters—that thousands of innocent people were killed.
Difficult word that, genocide. Lawyers get embroiled in knotty discussions because international law gives a very precise meaning to the term genocide—a deliberate, planned, and systematic destruction of an ethnic, religious, racial, or national group. The United Nations genocide convention defines it as singling out a group for killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births, and forcibly transferring children of the group elsewhere. The definition, written in 1948, was clearly written with the Holocaust vivid, to capture the heinous acts the Nazis inflicted on the Jews.
What about other killings? Many accept that what began on 6 April and lasted nearly 100 days in Rwanda 15 years ago was an act of genocide. The singling out of Bosniaks during the Balkan War, too, was genocidal. But then it gets trickier. Were Joseph Stalin’s purges genocidal? And what about Pol Pot’s rule in Cambodia?
During his visit to Istanbul last week, US President Barack Obama had to tread that path carefully. There, despite a congressional resolution describing the horrific events of 1915-1917 which killed or displaced at least 1.5 million Armenians as genocide, Obama did not use the G-word, so as not to offend his hosts. When another US secretary of state, Colin Powell, called the killings in Darfur an act of genocide, some saw it as a political act.
There is another term, with a less onerous definition, to deal with horrendous acts. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, for example, defines crimes against humanity as “particularly odious offences” which constitute a serious attack on human dignity. These acts are not sporadic, and are either part of a state’s policy or widely practised and tolerated. Murder, torture, rape and the persecution of specific groups are all included in this.
These are powerful words, and when we misuse them, we demean their meaning. And yet, loose language prevails. Jean Ziegler, a Swiss human rights expert who was formerly the special rapporteur on the right to food, once called US policies in Cuba akin to genocide, and condemned the use of biofuels to replace petroleum as “a crime against humanity”.
Think of the victims and perpetrators of Kigali, caught in the dance of death in Rwanda, whose lives Jean Hatzfeld describes so chillingly and accurately in his books The Machete Season (2005) and Life Laid Bare (2007) and The Antelope’s Strategy (2009), based on clinical conversations with the killers and survivors of the genocide. The language is sharp and clear, revealing the portrait of a fractured society breaking apart with astonishing brutality. That’s genocide. Ziegler’s commentary is not only hyperbole, worse, it is political posturing. It cheapens the discourse of human rights, demeaning it.
Genocide and crimes against humanity have become coded jargon. Use them, and you prevent more substantive discussion. You end up arguing whether a particular outrage is an act of genocide or not, and not whether what happened was reprehensible or not. When every outrage is a genocide, no outrage is a genocide. In his seminal essay Politics and the English Language (1946), George Orwell wrote: “The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism… The great enemy of clear language is insincerity... When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”
What happened in Rwanda mustn’t happen again, but then we’ve said this before: when we discovered the horrors of Auschwitz. And yet, the anniversary of the tragedy of Rwanda went past almost unnoticed: anti-globalization demonstrations at the Group of Twenty summit and the daring rescue effort off Somali waters crowded out meaningful commemorations in Africa. If what Tytler, Kumar and Modi are accused of is not genocide, that’s okay; a massacre by another name will be as bloody.
More important is the removal of the politics they represent, not terminological exactitude.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org