Professor, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford
THE month of December this year has the 70th anniversary of two remarkable documents that have played a pivotal role in the evolution, globally, of the concept of human rights (HR) and of institutional mechanisms to protect these rights.
On December 9, 1948, the United Nations (UN) passed unanimously the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and on December 10, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. The UN itself was the product of the realisation of the horrors of World War II (1939-45) and of the recognition that the differences and conflicts between nation states need to be negotiated and resolved not by totally ignoring those differences and conflicts but moderating them by juxtaposing them and, if necessary, subordinating them to common concerns of humanity.
The fact that another World War has not taken place since 1939 is a testament to the robustness, however limited, of that 1948 resolve especially if we keep in mind that the Second World War had taken place merely 25 years after the First World War (1914-18) when such an international coordinating body such as the UN did not exist.
The post-World War II period was also the period of decolonisation and of the birth of several new post-colonial nation states. The creation of the geographical boundaries of these nation states, sometimes done in extreme hurry as in 1947 in the case of India and Pakistan, and the idea of the new nations were not unproblematic outcomes. Many aspiring nations, linguistic groups and ethnic communities were clubbed together to form the territorial boundaries of the new post-colonial nation states.
The potential for future nationalist and ethnic conflicts was, therefore, created right at the very birth of the new nation states. It is not a mere coincidence that the wars between countries have been replaced increasingly by internal wars within countries ravaged by their internal nationalist and ethnic conflicts. The largest deployment of armies does not take place now to fight wars between countries but to deal with internal contestations — armed or otherwise. Such contestations, when turned into armed conflicts, have been the major cause of large-scale violations of HR not only in the post-colonial states in the Third World but also in parts of Europe, especially in the wake of the break-up of former Yugoslavia.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted in 1948 was itself a response to violence by a nation state against its own citizens. The German government of Adolf Hitler's Nazi party had murdered six million Jews between 1941 and 1944. Most of the massacred Jews were German citizens.
The genocide convention
Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish Jewish descent, coined the term 'genocide' in 1943 to characterise this mass murder and drafted the genocide convention passed by the UN. In his autobiography published in 2013, many years after his death in 1959 at the age of 59, Lemkin mentions that he was originally led to his researches and the subsequent life-long anti-genocide campaign by the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1917 in which between one million and one and a half million (estimates vary) Armenians died. The Armenian genocide is believed to be the first modern genocide in which the Turkish Ottoman Empire organised pre-meditated killings of Armenians, most of whom were citizens of the Ottoman Empire.
The definition of genocide used in the 1948 Convention includes reference to acts committed with 'intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group'. This definition, though admiringly precise, is not sufficiently comprehensive in capturing all instances of mass murder.
Genocides in 20th century
There are two instances of mass murder in the 20th century that present different degrees of difficulty in reconciling with this definition.
1 First, the Stalinist purges of political opponents in the 1930s and the repression let loose against the Russian peasantry that led to about one million deaths (estimates vary around this figure). These murders did not have an ethnic dimension; they were either due to political opposition to Stalin's appropriation of power or due to misguided Stalinist industrialisation strategy requiring peasanty to be suppressed.
2 Second, the Stalinist Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime murdered over 1.5 million Cambodians, close to 25 per cent of the total population, during 1975-79 in their campaign of social engineering involving forcible uprooting of the city population for agricultural collectivisation. Because of a certain shade of racial superiority in Khmer Rouge nationalism and its dealings with other religious (Christians and Muslims) and ethnic minorities (Vietnamese), the Khmer Rouge murders have been characterised as 'genocide'.
The Convention signed and ratified by a majority of the countries (149) is aimed at both prevention and punishment of genocidal crimes but there has been massive failure on prevention although some limited progress on punishment has been made. Two Khmer Rouge leaders were convicted of genocide last month; Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's president, was accused of genocide in 1999 and died in police custody before being convicted and a Hutu politician (Jean-Paul Akayesu) from Rwanda (where half a million people of Tutsi minority were hacked to death in 1994) became the first person ever to be convicted of genocide in 1998.
From the viewpoint of institutionalising accountability, eliminating impunity and providing deterrence, it is important to convict those accused of genocide and other human rights violations.
However, from the viewpoint of protecting vulnerable citizens in any region of the world, it is even more important to prevent a genocide. This requires new tools of gathering data that can provide early clues to a possible mass-scale murder and intervention strategies to prevent such murder. New advances in information technology, such as satellite imaging, can help in such data collection, but even more important is to monitor the political language of hatred against a community.
If there is one lesson to learn from global history and from the Indian tragedies of 1984 and 2002, it is this that all genocidal murders targeted at a community were preceded by propaganda of hatred against the community. This means that human rights violations occur on a sliding scale. Ignoring lesser violations amounts to creating the stepping stones for larger violations. In a period of the rise of aggressive nationalism that we are going through globally, the UN needs to be even more active and effective than it was 70 years ago.
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