It has also become clear that while citizens of powerful countries can be guilty of crimes against humanity, only Africans are tried and sentenced by the ICC.
In recent months, words like genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes have been widely used in the media. These are important legal terms, they should not be used loosely, and using them as political weapons risks rendering these words meaningless.
The word “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Polish Jewish law professor Raphael Lemkin after studying the Armenian Genocide and watching his family suffer under the Nazis. Lemkin, who had fled to the United States, combined the Greek word “genos”, meaning people or tribe, with the Latin word “cide”, meaning to kill.
After the war ended, Lemkin pressured the newly formed United Nations to adopt the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in 1948. This not only defined what genocide was, but stipulated that the following acts would be punishable:
(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
(d) Attempted genocide;
(e) Complicity in Genocide.
Crimes against humanity is a broader term for crimes committed by a state or state actors against civilians in peacetime or wartime.
International humanitarian law stipulates what is permitted and what is not in times of war. These are the rules of engagement for the military.
The period following the Second World War was a golden age for human rights. After the Holocaust and the deaths of millions of innocent people in the crossfire of war, humanity was finally ready to listen to people like Raphael Lemkin. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, was also adopted in 1948.
Unfortunately, this was only a very short period in the history of mankind. With the advent of the cold war, the promotion of human rights fell to the back of the political agenda. As Jane Springer says in her book GENOCIDE“The Universal Declaration and the Genocide Convention may as well have been phantom documents written in ink that disappear despite all the protection they provided for the half-century after the war.”
It is staggering, for example, to compare the generous Western media coverage of the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s to the East Timor genocide information blackout of the same period. The reason? Indonesia, which murdered people in East Timor, was an important Western ally and its weapons were supplied by members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
When the Cold War ended, it became safe to talk about genocide and crimes against humanity without being called a traitor to one’s nation. As we tried to combat the carnage in Rwanda in 1994, genocide studies became a legitimate social science and one was as free to discuss the alleged war crimes of George Bush as those of Josef Stalin.
As a result, we have become aware that neither the United States nor Russia have ratified the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), the legal body that upholds the Genocide Convention. Nor have they signed the 1997 Landmines Convention.
The problem for those who still cling to the Cold War geopolitical map is that we cannot put the genie back in the bottle. In much of the world, it is common knowledge that the leaders of NATO countries are guilty of crimes against humanity, but only Africans are tried and sentenced by the ICC.
Moreover, the citizens of the countries of the South recognize the impunity which reigns among the representatives of the powerful nations. Many are well aware that no American was held responsible for the 1991 bombing of an Iraqi air raid shelter, which killed 1,500 innocent civilians.
When Joe Biden and other NATO leaders accuse Vladimir Putin of genocide, the words of Jesus of Nazareth become clear: “Hypocrite, first take the log out of your eye.
Gerry Chidiac is a writer from Prince George.