What if I told you that genocide is simply the extreme denial of human dignity? This statement may sound too simplistic, and of course, it is not the legal definition of genocide, but it is not far from the truth.
Nadia Murad, survivor of Daesh genocide, and Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecological surgeon, were awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their campaigns against the use of rape as a weapon of war. Daesh used rape and sexual violence as a method to bring about its genocidal campaign against targeted religious minorities. (Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Before I explain why genocide, in its various forms and degrees, amounts to the extreme denial of human dignity, I shall explain what genocide is.
Genocide, the crime of crimes, was a nameless crime until Raphael Lemkin coined the term shortly before the end of World War II. Genocide then received its legal definition in 1948 under Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention). Under Article II of the Genocide Convention, genocide is committed when various mass atrocities are perpetrated against a protected group with the specific intend to eradicate the group in whole or in part.
What is not referenced in this definition of genocide is an acknowledgment that genocide does not happen overnight. It is simply not the case that one day the situation is normal, there are no challenges, no red-flags, and the next day we can see a full-blown eradication of a protected group. This is not how a genocide is perpetrated. The systemic, and often complex, nature of genocide prevents genocide simply occurring out of nothing.
If genocide cannot happen overnight, this is positive. It means that there must be red-flags which can be seen before a genocide occurs. Red flags that if spotted in time, would prove effective in offering an opportunity to prevent the crime in the first place. Again, this can only be positive. Prevention of genocide is something that we should strive to achieve.
What are the red-flags?
Professor Gregory Stanton, in his paper "The Ten Stages of Genocide", proposes a formula that seeks to identify the different elements (or red-flags) that ultimately lead to the crime of crimes.
Stanton’s 10 stages of genocide highlight the fact that genocide is a process, a well-planned and organized crime. It is not spontaneous or committed in the heat of a moment. Scrutinizing the stages, and examining behaviors or practices during these different stages may provide an effective tool to help identify scenarios that have the potential to develop into genocide.
Applying the ten stages of genocide to some recent events may shed some light onto the nature of conflicts. Taking the example of Daesh genocide committed against religious minorities, the 10 stages can be clearly identified.
Under stage one, the classification stage, Daesh classified and distinguished between believers and non-believers, a classic example of “us and them” mentality. The symbolisation stage occurred when Daesh gave names and associated the groups with symbols. For example, to readily identify members of the group, the houses of Christian minorities were marked with the Arabic letter N for Nazarene. Daesh then targeted the marked houses. Under stage three, the discrimination stage, Daesh introduced practices denying the rights of Christian, Yazidi and other minorities in Syria and Iraq. These include the denial of the right to live in accordance to their beliefs, the right to move freely and many more. Under stage four, the dehumanization stage, Daesh stripped the individuals within the targeted group of their humanity by calling them derogatory names, for example, the infidels or the crusaders.
These are the first four out of ten stages of genocide. Stages that are subtle and do not involve acts of violence. However, they escalate, leading step by step, to the crime of crimes. The subsequent six stages take the genocidal campaign further and further. Genocide begins with the denial of human dignity and does not stop at the mere denial of human dignity but ultimately leads to the annihilation of a protected group, in whole or in part. Each stage is a denial of human dignity, each stage is more severe than the one before and moves further towards the end goal of genocide, one step at a time.
In most situations, the denial of human dignity will not develop into genocide, genocide is the extreme extrapolation. However, whether it is genocide or another denial of human dignity - the core is clearly the same. Hence, preserving and protecting human dignity of all is the first and crucial step to prevent mass atrocities, especially identity targeting atrocities like genocide.
The piece was presented at the 25th annual International Law and Religion Symposium on "Human Dignity and Freedom of Religion or Belief. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70", BYU, Provo, Utah.
Ewelina U. Ochab is a legal researcher and human rights advocate, and author of the book “Never Again: Legal Responses to a Broken Promise in the Middle East.”
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