Genocide Denial Bans: What Would Raphael Lemkin Do?
The French Senate’s recent decision to criminalize denial of the 1915 Armenian Genocide prompted backlash from the Turkish government and charges of hypocrisy. While Turkey officially denies the systematic destruction of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, in Turkey, a common response to the French ban on Armenian genocide deniers is that French occupation of Algeria constituted genocide.
Many find it strange to equate the two. The Armenian genocide appears to be the prototype of violent attempts to destroy entire groups of people. France certainly didn't attempt to kill all of the Algerians. How could they compare? To answer this question, it serves us to investigate the origins of the term.
In his 1944 “Axis Rules in Occupied Europe,” Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide,” described the concept as "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 themselves.” Genocide had two phases: "One, the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor." This destruction of groups could be equally waged through economic policy, the law, or violence.
Thus for Lemkin, the Nazi occupation of Europe, Stalin's attempts to destroy the Ukrainian people through religious persecution and famine, the Belgian colonization of Congo, and the Ottoman massacres of Armenians were all genocide. They were not genocide because of the killing that occurred, but because they were all purposeful attempts to destroy the way of life of the oppressed.
On the Algerian genocide, Lemkin wrote that a nation-wide campaign of violence and torture targeted Algerian national consciousness while colonial land and resource policy brought decimating poverty and disease upon the Algerian population. He believed these coordinated policies were purposeful attempts by the French colonial government to destroy Algerian culture. This was no different from the Ottoman Empire's genocide of the Armenians, Lemkin believed.
Under the UN's current definition, it would be hard to define the French rule in Algeria as genocide. But if we go back to the roots of the concept and pay attention to Lemkin's ideas, those in Turkey who charge the French with hypocrisy make a valid point. Let us be fair, we all live in states built on bones. In the US, we hide our genocide in plain sight, calling it manifest destiny. Kill the Indian and save the man, from sea to shining sea.
What would Lemkin do if he heard this debate about criminalizing the denial of genocide? He would probably point to the genocides both governments are currently facilitating either tacitly or directly, from Libya and Iraq to Congo. Instead of fretting over criminalizing the denial of past genocides, our governments should be criminalizing the support of current genocides. For one, the US, France, and Turkey could ban domestic sales of global conflict materials. The eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo are some of the wealthiest places on earth, and the genocide makes a lot of money for a lot of people. Besides the loss of life and physical trauma, there is also a tremendous amount of cultural destruction in as well. Lemkin would remind us that this is just as dangerous to the welfare of our collective humanity.
We like pointing to other people’s genocides without considering our own role in facilitating and denying the suffering of others. We do not like thinking about how much our cell phones would cost if we had to pay a fair price for the blood minerals used to make them. It is actually less than we think: people are dying for a few cents per cell phone.
Solidarity requires too much sacrifice. So, we’re quarreling over defining past atrocities.
Submitted by Douglas S. Irvin
The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.