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Armenia and the ongoing genocide debate

Those interested in the ongoing debate surrounding the Armenian Genocide (as well as its implications for modern relations between Armenia and Turkey) would benefit from an event being held at Rutgers Thursday evening. The Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights will launch its Armenian Genocide Project with a lecture from John Evans, former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia.

Armenia has been back in international headlines recently with the recommendation from the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee that President Obama recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide. Scholars still debate whether the term is accurate.

As I have discussed a number of times before on this blog, it seems that this debate over the terminology of genocide is constantly resurrected because the U.N. Convention defines it too narrowly.

As scholar Alex Hinton notes in Anihiliating Difference: The Anthropology of Genocide, a preliminary resolution on genocide passed in 1946 "stated that genocide occurs 'when racial, religious, political or other groups have been destroyed, entirely or in part.' It is crucial to note that the preliminary resolution included the destruction of 'political and other groups' in its definition. Much of the subsequent U.N. debate over the legislation on genocide revolved around the question of whether political and social groups should be covered by the convention. A number of countries -- particularly the Soviet Union, which, because of the atrocities it perpetrated against the kulaks and other 'enemies of the people,' feared accusations of genocide -- argued that political groups should be excluded from the convention since they did not fit the etymology of genocide, where mutable categories, and lacked the distinguishing characteristics necessary for definition. In the end, the clause on 'political and other groups' was dropped from the final version of the 1948 Genocide Convention ... which dealt only with 'national, ethnical, racial or religious groups.'"

Thus, it is pretty clear that the current legal definition of genocide was limited due to political expediency. I still do not understand how, for example, "religious groups" are less mutable than the categories of "New People" and "Old People" distinguished by the Khmer Rouge. If someone in pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia came from an educated background and had spent a lifetime as a city dweller, there was little they could do to remove the "taint" of being a New Person.

Recognizing the limits of the current legal definition, scholars in various disciplines have come to describe genocide in a number of ways. For example, scholar Helen Fein has stated "Genocide is sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity, directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim."

It seems like this portion about "threat offered by the victim" is particularly meaningful, as this distinguishes genocide from civil conflict. Hopefully legal minds will continue what scholars have begun and try to create a more comprehensive definition of the term. 

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