Does it matter whether we call Russia’s war in Ukraine ‘genocide’?

The term has its origins in the Holocaust and is properly applied to attempts to destroy a people or group. Putin’s war is horrifying, but there are consequences to diluting the word’s meaning.

From the Nyamata Memorial Site in Nyamata, Rwanda. Credit: Fanny Schertzer via Wikimedia Commons.
From the Nyamata Memorial Site in Nyamata, Rwanda. Credit: Fanny Schertzer via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

When President Joe Biden used the word genocide to describe Russia’s actions in Ukraine, it raised some eyebrows. But it didn’t generate the same kind of pushback some of his other previous unscripted remarks about that conflict, such as his call for regime change in Moscow or his threats to use chemical warfare against Russia. Nevertheless, the White House still walked back this statement and even the president conceded that he was just speaking for himself rather than announcing an official policy determination for the U.S. government.

In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed his thanks to Biden, calling his comment “true words of a true leader.” Predictably, a Kremlin spokesman denounced the talk of genocide as “unacceptable” and having come from a nation that was itself “committed well-known crimes in recent times.” French President Emanuel Macron was also critical of Biden, saying that he is being more “careful” because “I’m not sure the escalation of words is helping.”

Most of Biden’s domestic foes held their fire. Indeed, some sources that are often critical of the administration spoke up in favor of his statement. For example, Fox News host and media commentator Howard Kurtz devoted a segment of his Sunday show to supporting Biden’s use of the word.

Given the mounting evidence of atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, the question of what exactly we should call them seems a matter of little importance to most observers, who think there’s nothing wrong with using the strongest possible terms to describe them. Russian bombing and missile fire causing heavy casualties and the abuse of civilians in areas occupied by Moscow’s troops involving rape and murder is also well-documented.

Still, the meanings of words always matter, and that is especially important with respect to a term that was first used to describe the Holocaust. As with the promiscuous use of terms associated with the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, if every atrocious thing that happens is comparable to the Holocaust and every person that we think is awful is Adolf Hitler, then these terms become meaningless. And that is equally true when it comes to the use of genocide.

The term was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who had escaped the Nazis and dedicated his life to creating a body of international law that would prosecute those guilty of such crimes. The mass murder of Armenians by Tukey during World War I had initially drawn his attention to the fact that governments could attempt to wipe out a people with impunity. But the destruction of European Jewry inspired him to work to create a definition for such crimes. In his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, he combined the Greek word genos, which means “race” or “people,” with the Latin suffix cide, meaning “killing,” to create the new word.

In December 1948, the Genocide Convention established by the United Nations was adopted by its General Assembly. It defined genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The five acts it specifically mentions include killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to the group, deliberately inflicting conditions intended to bring about a group’s physical destruction, trying to prevent births and forcibly transferring children to another group.

That definition fits neatly with what the Nazis did to the Jews. But there are other historical examples just from the last century.

From 1932 to 1933, the Communist government of the Soviet Union, led by Joseph Stalin, deliberately imposed a famine on Ukraine. The country was then under a Communist occupation that would only end with the fall of the Soviet Union. The policy of deliberately removing all food supplies from Ukraine—in order to destroy them as a people, as well as to prop up Soviet rule elsewhere as the Communist system failed—led to the deaths of as many as 4 million people and is known to Ukrainians as the Holodomor.

In the postwar era, the U.S. government has recognized six examples of genocide. They include the 1993 ethnic cleansing of Muslims by Bosnian Serbs; the 1994 massacre in Rwanda of approximately 600,000 members of the Tutsi minority by members of the majority Hutu tribe; the 1995 murder of approximately 150,000 Kurds by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; the 2004 slaughter of about 500,000 Darfuris by the Sudanese government; the systematic murder of non-Islamic minorities in the areas of Iraq and Syria that were controlled by the ISIS caliphate during its rule from 2013 to 2017; and the systematic oppression of Muslim Uyghurs by the Chinese Communist government in that country’s western Xinjiang province, which has led to the imprisonment of approximately 1 million people and the systematic killing and forced abortions associated with a campaign to wipe out that minority group.

The comparison to these clear examples of genocide shouldn’t lead to the downplaying of Russian crimes in Ukraine. But as horrifying as the results of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion has been, it is by no means clear that his intention is mass murder, as opposed to merely the conquest of territory as part of his ambition to reassemble the old tsarist/Soviet empire.

To acknowledge this doesn’t mean one approves of Putin’s invasion or is willing to give him a pass for crimes that are being committed by his forces. Though there is no good answer as to how these crimes might ultimately be prosecuted, there should be no hesitation about labeling the war and its conduct by the Kremlin as criminal.

Yet there is a difference between horrible wars and genocide, almost all of which generally involve defenseless ethnic or religious groups being victimized by governments. The point being is that all wars involve unjustified deaths and various kinds of horrible acts by combatants, even those which are fought on behalf of good causes, including the one fought against the Nazi regime, whose policies forced the world to come up with a word to describe its atrocities.

A loose definition of genocide enables bad actors to treat those who oppose them as being guilty of outright massacre. To this day, some who minimize the Holocaust claim that the Allied bombing of Germany and Japan were criminal acts. Indeed, it was Putin’s regime that was wrongly throwing around the word genocide to describe what it considered mistreatment of ethnic Russians inside Ukraine before the war started.

The same kind of unjustifiable use of the word genocide has been cynically employed by critics of the United States, who accuse Americans of committing crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, essentially treating Islamist terrorists and those who fight them as morally equivalent. Even worse is the way Palestinians and their supporters indiscriminately use the word genocide to describe Israeli policies and measures of self-defense against a movement bent on the destruction of the sole Jewish state on the planet.

The accusations against the United States and Israel are lies. Still, the willingness to use the word genocide in this dishonest manner is the natural result of a watering down of its definition to describe anything horrible as opposed to its specific meaning, which refers to a particular kind of crime that is not comparable to even a very brutal armed conflict.

Genocide, like Holocaust analogies, must be reserved for only such barbarism that fit its definition. When we apply it to other events, we undermine our sense of outrage at those crimes that actually are genocides—something that is painfully obvious when you consider the world’s continued indifference to what is happening to the Uyghurs at the hands of the Chinese, even as the world registers outrage about Ukraine. Anger about Russian crimes is justified; however, talk of genocide is, to date, both unjustified and a gesture that saps the foundation of our efforts to oppose mass murder elsewhere, as well as to minimize past examples such as the Holocaust.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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