BY ALEX HINTON, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR - 02/19/23 7:00 AM ET
Tatiana Alexeyevna mourns over the coffin of her son, Col. Oleksiy Telizhenko, during his funeral in Bucha, near Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 18, 2022. In March, Oleksiy was abducted by Russian soldiers from his home in Bucha and six months later, his body was found with signals of torture buried in a forest not far from his village.
As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion draws near, the reality of Russia’s genocide in Ukraine becomes clear. A long-time scholar of genocide, I immediately recognized that Russia was committing war crimes and soon saw warning signs of genocide. But I was hesitant to call Russia’s mass violence “genocide” without more information.
Sufficient evidence is now in hand.
Why has there been so much debate about this point? Politics and different understandings of genocide provide the answer. Naming genocide is political. It can sully a foe, summon outrage, and legitimate action. Indeed, a year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to justify his invasion by making the baseless claim that Ukraine was committing genocide in the Donbas.
This “accusation in a mirror” was quickly called out. On March 9, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the “genocide of Ukrainians is happening.” Others soon followed suit, especially after the early April discovery of a Russian massacre in Bucha. On April 12, President Biden declared that Russia was committing genocide. Lawmakers from other countries supporting Ukraine soon did the same.
These political claims often play upon colloquial understandings, or the idea that genocide involves the mass killing of a group. The Holocaust looms in the backdrop of such understandings, with its iconic images of perpetrators, victims and large-scale killing.
Thus, Zelensky made his March 9 claim in reference to Russia’s bombing of a children’s hospital. Biden, in turn, used the term “genocide” after the discovery of Bucha’s horrors. More broadly, because it is capacious, the colloquial understanding of genocide has been applied to everything from AIDS to abortion.
Such colloquial usages rankle legalists, who are hesitant to invoke the term for two reasons. First, the law is slow. It takes years to gather evidence, make arrests, hold trials and render judgments. This process has barely begun in Ukraine.
Second, for legalists, a determination of genocide requires proof of intent. This term is a centerpiece of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, which defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” Besides killing, the Convention specifies four other methods of group destruction: inflicting “serious bodily or mental harm,” creating harsh conditions of life, inhibiting reproduction, and “forcibly transferring children” to another group.
If there is widespread agreement that Russia has committed war crimes and, quite likely, crimes against humanity in Ukraine, some politicians and legal scholars remain hesitant to label Russian atrocities “genocide” given the high standard of proof required by the Convention. Even when Biden used the term, U.S. officials clarified that this was his opinion, not the official U.S. position.
Scholars who view genocide through a social scientific lens are less hesitant. Although their views vary, social scientists are more concerned with patterns of group destruction than with strict legal criteria — which are contested, have limits, and are intertwined with power.
This social scientific perspective aligns with the work of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish jurist credited with coining the word “genocide” in 1944. Although physical destruction was often key, Lemkin pointed out that genocide includes attacks on a group’s cultural, economic, social, religious and political life and the attempt to replace these with “the national pattern of the oppressor.” The Nazis, he argued, sought to do this to multiple groups.
Given these different understandings, how is it possible to determine whether Russia has committed genocide?
There are grounds to do so based not just on the capacious conventional understanding but also on the legalistic and social scientific understandings. Significant evidence points to Russia’s genocidal intent and incitement. Putin, for example, repeatedly has claimed that Ukraine is really a part of Russia and needs to be “de-Nazified,” a claim his cronies have echoed.
Among other legal evidence suggesting genocide, Russia has forcibly deported large numbers of Ukrainian children, a violation of the UN Genocide Convention. It has illegally annexed parts of Ukraine and set out to render them Russian — precisely the sort of imposition of the national pattern of the “oppressor” that Lemkin highlighted.
For these reasons, I am convinced Russia has committed genocide.
Regardless of one’s position, we must not lose sight of what is most important: bringing an end to the tremendous loss of life and suffering in Ukraine — and ultimately holding Russia accountable for its brutal war of aggression and crimes of atrocity.
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