The Human Condition | Massacre, Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing and the Limits of International Law

Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or a tribe. Genocide was first recognised as a crime under international law in 1946. The United Nations in 1948 Codified Genocide as an independent crime. On the other hand, Ethnic cleansing according to UN definition is the “purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.

The international court of justice has repeatedly stated that the convention on Genocide embodies principles that are part of the general customary international law. This means that even if the United States or any other country is not a signatory to the Genocide convention, they are still bound as a matter of law by the principle that Genocide is forbidden under international law. Under international law, on the other hand, ethnic cleansing has not been recognised, and an independent crime and there is no precise definition of ethnic cleansing. The other definition is “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.

UN definition of Genocide

Article I

  • The contracting parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent.

Article II

  • 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:
  • 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;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It is important to note that in a Genocide there is nothing that the tribe, race or ethnic groups being attacked can do to prevent the harm being done to them. For example, there is nothing the Jews could have done to appease Hitler for him to spare their lives. The same can be said for ethnic and tribal conflicts that happen in parts of Africa.

According to Africa News, 45 people died as a result of ethnic fighting in Sudan last year, the attack against the Ruop was carried out by the Pakem fighters in retaliation for the attacks that were carried out by a group of Ruop youths.  The fighting was very heavy, it left more than 45 people dead and much more injured. The military was deployed from the state capital to try and stop the violence that saw the burning down of houses and property.

These tribal clashes are not new in Sudan, for example, the and Rizergat ethnic groups had multiple encounters throughout 2014 that turned into an all-out war in the oil-rich region of Darfur. This left a lot of people dead and many more injured by both ethnic groups.  The conflicts about land rights and shared resources have lasted for more than ten years. The conflict in South Sudan has seen people flee Sudan into neighbouring countries and Sudan itself. There have been nine big refugee camps that have been created, but to According to Rev. Michael Didi, the fighting follows them even in the refugee camps. And because of this, each ethnic group are put separately even in the camps.

The ethnic fighting is not confined to Sudan, almost everyone will remember the genocide in Rwanda where members of the Hutu majority murdered about 800,000 Tutsi minorities. Ordinary people were incited by local officials to take arms against their neighbour. The brutality spread throughout the country with shocking speed, no one spared Women, Children and the elderly Tutsi’s. Another country that is still being damaged by the effects of tribalism is Congo, as it was reported a couple of weeks ago, there was an insurrection by an ethnic in one of the towns in Congo that so members of another killed. So why do Genocides, Slavery, Holocaust or ethnic cleansing continue to happen?


Firstly, dehumanisation, dehumanisation is described as “the process of equating others with an animal, insects or disease until it overcomes normal human revulsion”. Dehumanisation is usually what gives ideological justification for treating people in the most inhuman way. By dehumanizing people, you start believing that killing them is doing a service to society. This one of the reasons Slavery took a long time to abolish, Black people were viewed as half human. During the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats, Hutus called Tutsis Cockroaches. On the other hand, Dehumanisation is true to an extent, this is because slave owners during slavery treated their dogs a lot more humane than they treated their slaves.

Secondly, according to Dr Gregory Stanton discrimination is another reason Genocides happen. This is because when you have the ruling class, caste or ethnic group that think they are better than others and if these groups are in power.  They tend to enact laws that separate and segregate groups of people that they deem inferior. In South Africa, Black people were not allowed to live in the same neighbourhoods as white South Africans. In Rwanda, the Hutus limited Tutsi’s access to medical schools and civil service. Even in Zimbabwe under segregation, black people were not allowed to do a lot. The result of systematic oppression and discrimination is that the oppressed eventually revolt.

Philip Carl Salzman in an article that was published in the middle east forum also found that the Arab world is also deeply tribal, this tends to affect everything from family relations to governance. The membership is based on being a descendant of a common male ancestor,  the members of the tribe are deemed to share common interests and have obligations of solidarity with one another. Descendants of other ethnic groups are viewed as different and are seen as opponents, sometimes even enemies”.

Article IV

Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.

As stated, the scope of punishment for people committing genocide is broad, for example, article III lists, conspiracy to commit and direct and public incitement to commit Genocide punishable under international law. The problem here is that genocide or ethnic cleansing that happens during the time of war is hard to prove, evident by the fact that not many leaders have been charged, prosecuted and sentenced for crimes and atrocities that happen under their watch during the time of war.


Complexities of prosecuting war-time sexual violence 


One main limit of international law is that grounds for prosecution comes down to a specific definition of the crimes committed. For example, it is hard to separate what constitutes massacre and Genocide. The main difference I see between the two is that Genocide is directed towards one group of people and nothing the group can do stop the killing. It is, however, hard to differentiate what constitutes Genocide and Massacre during times of war. Especially, where two different countries fight and as a result of that the more powerful nation indiscriminately wipes out another group of people for the purpose of wiping out.

Question

Why does Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing and Massacre happen?

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