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Is "Genocide" Really Worse than "Mere" Mass Murder?

Columbia lawprof Michael Dorf discusses some of the issues raised by the congressional resolution that seeks to condemn Turkey's World War I-era mass murder of its Armenian citizens as "genocide." The Turkish government is angry at the prospect that its predecessors actions might be so characterized. Back in 1994-95, there was a similar debate over the question of whether the mass murder of Rwandan Tutsi by Hutu nationalists counted as genocide. As Samantha Power describes in her book, A Problem from Hell, the Clinton Administration and others took the position that it was not genocide in order to reduce political pressure to mount a military intervention. Today, there are arguments about the question of whether there is a genocide in Darfur.

This raises the more general issue of why genocide should be considered worse than the deliberate murder of a similar number of innocent people for other reasons. As I see it, the evil in 1994 Rwanda and 1915 Turkey was that hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered without any justification. That they were slaughtered because of their ethnicity rather than for some other reason does not make things worse than they would be otherwise. Yes, it is wrong to kill an innocent person because they are Tutsi or Armenian or Jewish. But why is it somehow less wrong to kill her for being a moderately affluent peasant "kulak" (as in Stalin's mass murders during the 1930s), a member of the wrong social class (as in Pol Pot's mass murders in Cambodia), or a political opponent of the government (many examples throughout history)?

Sometimes, it is argued that genocide is worse than other types of mass murder because it deprives the world of valuable cultural diversity, not just of the contributions of particular individuals. That may well be a real harm of genocide. But other types of mass murders also destroy diversity and other cultural resources. For example, Pol Pot's decimation of Cambodia's educated classes surely did severe damage to Cambodia's culture. Stalin's extermination of Russians active in political movements other than his own certainly undermined valuable diversity in that country, and so on. Whether genocide causes more cultural damage than other types of mass murder will vary from case to case.

Thus, I am left with the question: Is there any good reason to distinguish genocide from other forms of deliberate mass murder of innocent people? If not, then I suggest that both domestic and international law should eliminate the crime of genocide and replace it with a more general crime of mass murder, applicable in all cases where large numbers of innocent people (one can legitimately debate how large they have to be) are deliberately killed for unjustifiable reasons. Among other advantages, this proposal would enable us to avoid unedifying debates over whether obvious instances of mass murder - including those in Rwanda and Sudan - count as "genocide" or not. More importantly, it would eliminate the excuse for inaction created by claims that a particular instance of mass murder doesn't qualify as genocide.

UPDATE: I should note another problem with the cultural damage rationale for considering genocide to be worse than other kinds of mass murder. In some genocides, there is no chance that the killers will succeed in eradicating the entire ethnic group in question, or even a large fraction of it. Thus, there is no danger that that group's cultural contribution to humanity will be completely wiped out. For example, in addition to his non-genocidal murder of hundreds of thousands of his fellow Khmers, Pol Pot also targeted Cambodia's Chinese minority for extermination. There was never any chance that this would result in the destruction of the Chinese contribution to world culture, since there are hundreds of millions of Chinese outside of Cambodia. Yet it was clearly genocide under the current international law definition thereof, which defines the term to include all killings "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such" (emphasis added).

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The International Law of Genocide and the Soviet Terror Famine of the 1930s:

Last October, I explained why international law is wrong to classify "genocide" as a different and more serious crime than mere mass murder. The recent brouhaha between the Russian and Ukrainian governments over Joseph Stalin's terror famine of the 1930s is a case in point. Not even the apologists for communism in former KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin's government deny that Stalin ordered the deliberate mass murder of millions of peasants in order to facilitate the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. In his classic study, The Harvest of Sorrow, historian Robert Conquest estimates that as many as 14 million rural people may have died because the Soviet government confiscated their land and food supplies.

However, the Ukrainians claim that this mass murder counts as genocide because Stalin specifically targeted Ukrainian peasant farmers for extermination. The Russian parliament, by contrast, claims that Stalin was an equal opportunity mass murderer, targeting Russians, Ukrainians, and others alike. International law considers mass murder to be genocide only if it is the result of an "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." Thus, if Stalin killed the Ukrainian peasants because they were peasants rather than because they were Ukrainians, it wasn't genocide, and therefore a less serious crime.

Frankly, I see no reason why this difference in Stalin's subjective intentions affects the severity of the crime in any way. The impact of the mass murder is exactly the same either way. And I don't see why Stalin and his henchmen somehow become less immoral if they killed millions of innocent people for "economic" reasons rather than for racial or ethnic ones.

Interestingly, as Jonah Goldberg points out in a column on this dispute, the international law definition of genocide may have been crafted to exclude mass murders targeting political or economic groups precisely because the Soviet bloc insisted on it. Although communist states sometimes do target groups based on ethnicity (as in the USSR's ethnic cleansing and partial extermination of the Crimean Tatars), most of their mass murders were based on economic and political grounds; and Stalin apparently wanted to make sure that they weren't covered by the international law of genocide. If so, this is another example of the pernicious influence of nondemocratic states on international human rights law, which John McGinnis and I discuss in this paper.

UPDATE: Various commenters argue that genocide is worse than other mass murders because it destroys cultural value as well as killing individuals. I addressed this point in my earlier post on genocide and mass murder. For readers' convenience, here's what I said:

Sometimes, it is argued that genocide is worse than other types of mass murder because it deprives the world of valuable cultural diversity, not just of the contributions of particular individuals. That may well be a real harm of genocide. But other types of mass murders also destroy diversity and other cultural resources. For example, Pol Pot's decimation of Cambodia's educated classes surely did severe damage to Cambodia's culture. Stalin's extermination of Russians active in political movements other than his own certainly undermined valuable diversity in that country, and so on. Whether genocide causes more cultural damage than other types of mass murder will vary from case to case.

UPDATE #2: For what it's worth, I think the evidence on Stalin's motives is somewhat unclear. There is little doubt that Stalin's main objective was to achieve the collectivization of agriculture by destroying the class of private landowning farmers - regardless of ethnicity. In addition to the Ukrainians, millions of Russian peasant farmers were also killed, along with members of other ethnic groups (including a good many Georgians - Stalin's own nationality group). On the other hand, Stalin, like other Russian and Soviet rulers, feared Ukrainian nationalism, since the Ukrainians were the Soviet empire's largest minority group. As Conquest and other historians suggest, he may well have been happy to cut down on the number of Ukrainians under his rule, thereby reducing the chance that they would ever be able to achieve independence. The terror famine enabled him to achieve both his ethnic and his economic objectives at the same time.

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Is Genocide Worse than Other Mass Murder Because it Targets People Based on "Immutable" Characteristics?

Some commenters on my earlier post arguing that international law should not consider genocide a more severe crime than other types of mass murder argue that genocide is worse because it targets victims based on immutable characteristics, such as race and ethnicity. This is a common argument. But I don't think it works.

First, the current international law definition of genocide is not in fact limited to immutable characteristics. It includes targeting of victims based on religion, which is most certainly not immutable.

Second, and far more important, many mass murders that are not genocide under current international law also target people based on immutable characteristics. For example, communist regimes routinely target people based on their economic class origins. Obviously, you can't do anything to change the fact that your parents were "bourgeois" or "kulaks."

Even in the case of targeting based on characteristics that can be changed, it is often too late to change them at the time the mass murder occurs. For example, my great-grandfather was arrested by the NKVD (as the KGB was then called) in the 1930s for having attended speeches by Leon Trotsky years before. At the time he went to the speeches, such attendance was not only legal but actually encouraged by the communist government, since Trotsky was a high-ranking Party leader. Years later (after Stalin had his rival Trotsky exiled and executed his most prominent supporters), such attendance became a crime punishable by a term in a Gulag (which often resulted in death). There was no way that my great-grandfather could have foreseen this at the time he decided to attend Trotsky's speeches. Fortunately, he was able to persuade the NKVD investigator that he really hadn't attended the speeches in question (although he actually had been present). A great many others were not so lucky.

Finally, even if the current definition of genocide really did capture a neat divide between mutable and immutable characteristics, I don't see why the mutable-immutable distinction should carry any moral weight. Killing a person because of his political affiliations wrong; so is killing a person because of his race or ethnicity. I don't see why the latter is somehow more wrong than the former merely because political affiliations can be changed and racial ones can't. The key question, it seems to me, is whether the killers are justified in demanding such a change as the price of allowing their victim to live. If not, their actions are just as reprehensible as murder based on characteristics that the victim can't change. If future technological developments allow people to rewrite their DNA and thereby change their race, would racially-based mass murder become less reprehensible than it is today? I think not.

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The 75th Anniversary of Stalin's Terror Famine and the Genocide-Mass Murder Distinction:

Cathy Young, a fellow Russian emigre, has a fascinating article on the 75th anniversary of Stalin's terror famine of the 1930s. Some 6 to 10 million peasants were deliberately starved to death by the Soviet government as part of its campaign to force the peasantry to accept the collectivization of agriculture.

Unfortunately, as Young points out, proper commemoration and public understanding of this horrendous atrocity has been partially forestalled by an ongoing dispute between the Russia and Ukrainian governments. The Ukrainians claim that this case of mass murder amounts to "genocide" because Stalin deliberately targeted Ukrainian peasants in order to prevent any possible resurgence of Ukrainian nationalism. The Russian government notes that many of the victims were members of other ethnic groups (including millions of ethnic Russians), and therefore argue that there was no genocide, but "merely" a mass murder.

Despite the current Putin government's efforts to minimize the scope of Soviet atrocities and play up the supposed positive aspects of the communist era, the Russians do not deny that millions of people were deliberately starved to death during the collectivization campaign. Instead, they focus on denying the "genocide" charge. As Young puts it, "it seems that the only time Russia's government remembers the Russian victims of the Terror-Famine is when it needs them to counter Ukrainian claims [of genocide]."

The ridiculous nature of this dispute highlights the arbitrariness of distinguishing between genocide and "mere" mass murder, and of holding that the former is somehow far worse than the latter. I have written about the issue before in this series of posts.

To the millions of peasants who died in the terror famine, it hardly matters whether they were targeted on ethnic grounds or merely because they were "class enemies" and "kulaks" who were considered obstacles to Stalin's plans. Moreover, given that Kulak and class enemy status was largely determined by family background (and both were defined broadly enough to include virtually all peasants whose families owned even a small plot of land), one cannot even make the claim that a genocide targets people for characteristics they cannot change, while more traditional communist mass murders target people based on mutable attributes.

On a more personal note, I recently discussed this dispute with my grandmother, who actually lived through the famine in early 1930s Ukraine (though she is not Ukrainian). She reacted with incredulity. "How can anyone doubt there was a genocide," she said, "I saw the starving and dying people myself!" I tried to explain to her the genocide-mass murder distinction embedded in current international law as neutrally as I could, noting some of the justifications offered for it. She, of course, was unmoved, and continued to see the distinction as a dubious contrivance. I have to agree.

UPDATE: I should note, in response to commenters, that there are clearly cases where Soviet policy could be considered genocide under the international law definition thereof. Examples include Stalin's deportation of the Crimean Tatars and other defined ethnic groups from the Crimea. This led to thousands of deaths, and clearly targeted the Tatars on ethnic grounds.

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