Is genocide just another form of war?
The first half of the 20th century saw the destruction of approximately 150 million lives according to Matthew White and Steven Pinker in Atrocities, in which they account “Humanity’s 100 Deadliest Achievements” (Pinker, White, 2013, p. 34). The underlying causes of the tragic acts of genocide during this period have deep historic roots and scholars have searched far and wide in order to provide an explanation for this phenomenon. Academic discourse on the topic varies, including questions as to the role played by modernity and the effects of war and revolution on the political sphere. However, despite the conflicting arguments amongst researchers, there are common themes within their analyses. This essay will explore some of those common themes, arguing that genocide and war are closely linked while also recognising the distinctions between genocide, war, revolution and degenerate killing as proposed by Martin Shaw (Shaw, 2003). It will conclude, to a certain extent, that genocide is a manifestation of modernity by drawing on the works of thinkers such as Bauman, Horkheimer and Adorno. Ultimately, it will be found that there is no definitive explanation for genocide and that it is the product of a combination of factors.
The Oxford Dictionary says genocide is “The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.” This is a definition, which stems from the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a legal document agreed by the United Nations General Assembly, defining genocide in a legal sense and committing the signatories to prevent and punish crimes of genocide accordingly in the future. Initially, the term genocide had been created following both the Armenian Genocide and the Nazi’s systematic extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. However, looking more closely at the UN’s definition, it’s clear that there are gaping holes in its formation. An example of this is the fact that political and social groups were effectively left unprotected under the agreement, resulting in campaigns of genocide like the mass murders committed under the Stalin regime to go uncounted. Also, the Convention states that genocide refers to “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group…” - this statement is yet another dangerous grey area within the Convention which fails to clarify what exactly constitutes the destruction of a group and also how many deaths are required in order for the act to be deemed as genocide. Martin Shaw, in his book War and genocide: organised killing in modern society, highlights that this ambiguity lead to differing interpretations of the Convention with some using the term ‘genocidal massacre’ to describe mass killings with intentions of genocide that didn’t quite meet the numbers for the whole destruction of a population. While others only used the term genocide to refer to full-scale extermination like the acts committed during the Holocaust – a view, Shaw argues leads to a misunderstanding of the concept of genocide as strictly being the total extermination of a population, without incorporating the smaller, yet equally significant, violent massacres (Shaw, 2003). There’s also the issue of application when it comes to the Convention – yes, as previously mentioned, signatory states are committed to prevent and punish acts of genocide but in practice, this has been largely ignored by the UN and many of the signatories since the agreement was made in 1948. Thus, it’s clear that there are many issues in trying to define genocide. However, regardless of the limits and exclusions set out by the Convention, there is no denying that genocide is fundamentally linked to war. In fact, the majority of acts of genocide have occurred under the context of war and during periods of severe social and political crisis.