Thursday, September 24, 2009

Genocide and Intent

The issue of genocide is one that has suffered from a severe narrowing of Raphael Lemkin’s original conceptions and constricted interpretations of the already watered down and politically deformed Genocide Treaty. At the heart of the matter is the claim that instances where deliberate state actions which directly lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of people belonging to racialized ethnic groups are not genocide because the element of “intent” is missing. In the case of the USSR this has led to Arseny Roginsky one of the founders of Memorial in Moscow to remark with regards to Stalinist terror that there are only victims and no crimes. The mass deaths caused by Stalin's deportation of whole nationalities are thus portrayed as purely accidental with no moral or legal responsibility accruing to the Soviet government for causing what were the inevitable consequences of their deliberate actions. Of course intent in such cases is always interpreted in an extremely narrow manner which makes it a synonym for motive or goal. That is the primary purpose of an action must be the extermination of a targeted group and that actions which inevitably have the effect of killing off large portions of specific nationalities undertaken for other reasons thus do not constitute genocide. This interpretation of the word intent is very different from the meaning of the word in Anglo-American common law. Under this definition it is not necessary for death to be the sole object of an action for it to be intentional. Rather it is only necessary for death to be the foreseeable consequence of a voluntary action for it to legally count as intentional. It is quite obvious that moving an entire national population numbering hundreds of thousands of people and consisting mostly of children, the elderly and the disabled in the middle of war time to desolate deserts and frozen taiga will result in a large percentage of them dying. This is exactly what happened during World War Two with the various nationalities deported by Stalin.

The defense that the deportation orders called for the local Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Siberian and Uzbek authorities to provide food, housing and other necessities for the deportees does not morally or legally absolve the Stalin regime of these deaths. The regime knew on the basis of previous deportations that the local authorities in Siberia and Central Asia did not have sufficient resources to provide enough housing, food, clothing and medicine to the deportees to prevent a large minority of them from dying. Rather these provisions appear to have been put in the deportation orders as a way of deflecting responsibility for any problems arising due to the deportations such as the spread of contagious diseases, housing shortages, and unemployment from the central government in Moscow to the regional authorities. Indeed in every single case the local authorities repeatedly reported a severe lack of food, housing, clothing, shoes, soap and medicine and consequently mass deaths due to malnutrition and disease among the deportees shortly after the first trainloads arrived.

FLG also has a post on his blog to which I have posted a comment. If anybody else picks up this discussion and links to me please let me know in the comments.


marc b. said...

I haven't studied this topic in-depth since law school, but as I understand it, no deaths at all need result in order for a program to constitute 'genocide'. It is the intentionally destruction of an ethnic, religious or racial group. Theoretically, at least, a religious minority, for example, could be forcibly prevented from fulfilling their religious obligations. Would this constitute genocide? I believe it would under the international legal definition of 'genocide'.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Under the 1948 Genocide Treaty there are three ways to commit genocide without killing anyone. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group, preventing births among the group, and removing children from a group and placing them with another group. But, these actions have to be done with the "intent" of destroying the targeted group in whole or in part. So the prevention of religious obligations would not constitute genocide under the treaty. The Australian policy of removing Aboriginal children from their mothers and placing them under the care of Whites, however, would fall under the provisions of the treaty.