When we hear genocide, most people primarily think of the Holocaust, Arbeit Macht Frei, gas chambers. Some people would also consider the machete-wielding murderers in Rwanda, perhaps mention the Khmer Rouge, Srebrenica and perhaps even the Armenian death marches of the early 20th century. A few may bring up mass atrocities of the recent era such as the civil war in Darfur and South Sudan. Some people would also be adding the “genocide” of indigenous peoples carried out during the era of colonialism.
It should be noted that legally speaking, the Holocaust was not a crime of Genocide, as no such crime did exist at the time. Not until 1951 would the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide enter force. Not until the 1990’s and the Rwanda Tribunal were there sentences for genocide. For what was branded “a crime without a name” by Winston Churchill, it is perhaps not surprising that so few instances of this extreme crime have occurred in the postwar era. Yet, it is worth looking more closely at the actual convention and the ideas behind it. Rafael Lemkin, a Jewish legal scholar, coined the term genocide during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
There are two parts of Genocide which are integral to the notion (both as Lemkin envisioned it and as it was later defined in the Genocide Convention) that people are usually unaware of. First: Genocide is initially not a crime of violence, but rather a crime of discrimination, as no act of Genocide can happen until a group has been defined and targeted. Second: Genocide is not only a crime of the killing of members of certain groups, but can also be defined as the destruction of cultural identity. The Genocide Convention lists five acts of Genocide, namely:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(f) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
With these broadened criteria, there can no longer be any doubt that according to the legal definition, as clearly stated in the Convention, several events of the 20th century are in fact acts of genocide. I am not only referring to events far away from the democratic “free world,” but to several acts of genocide perpetrated by the governments of Canada, the United States, Australia and several others which target their respective indigenous populations.
Through increasingly progressive laws and legislative practices, most of the openly genocidal practices and laws have been abandoned in liberal democratic countries, perhaps below the level of what would constitute genocide. The damage has been done, though, and today indigenous communities are among the most vulnerable communities in their respective countries. They are usually overrepresented in several categories such as incarceration, forcibly removed children, murder and rape, and general poverty. So while actively no acts of genocide are ongoing, the effects still linger. Sufficient work has not been done to repair the damage caused, and there is continuous legal action which violates treaties and damages the possibilities for indigenous communities to maintain their traditional lifestyle, cultural identity and territory. Indigenous people should thus be considered survivors of genocidal acts, and all further legislature and economic development concerning indigenous peoples and their land should take this into consideration.
Legislation and activities that go forward without consent, such as fracking and uranium mining, damage indigenous communities and are in fact a continuation of genocide. Genocide scholar Gregory Stanton has created the “8 stages of genocide” in order to better understand the process of genocide. When Donald Trump signed the Presidential Memorandum to continue the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, he did so without mentioning the fierce resistance from the indigenous community, The Standing Rock Sioux tribe. It is over their land that the pipeline was being built and Donald Trump failed to even mention their existence or acknowledge the breach in the treaty which protects their land. The above actions, or rather non-actions, echo the eighth and final stage of genocide: denial.
Most people should be somewhat aware of the third criterion of the Convention, which concerns the fact that genocide is an international crime. If a country has enough military, financial or influential power, however, it will typically be able to get away with human rights violations, even genocide. Who, after all, should have prevented the genocides I talked about in this article? Should Russia and China, countries themselves guilty of similar crimes, be the cops bringing about justice in the world?
Though human rights law may be weak at an international level, a strong movement has been growing which makes numerous human rights causes (including those of indigenous peoples and other minorities) quite popular. Furthermore, environmental activists have become allies of both human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples, since many of the methods that continue to undermine and destroy indigenous societies are in fact exploiting natural resources and threatening the environment.
Thus, both environmental activists and indigenous activists have made mutual cases against the creation of pipelines, fracking and more. While countries rarely stand up for indigenous rights on their own initiative, increased activism from indigenous communities and their allies has heightened awareness, and some progress has nevertheless been achieved.