The Magazine

Bodies Count

A definition of genocide that makes sense of history.

Apr 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 28 • By AARON ROTHSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In 1929, Stalin began an aggressive program to collectivize the Soviet Union, which placed peasants on communal farms and socialized agriculture. But because many of the peasants, known as kulaks, refused to give up their land, Stalin ordered 10 million of them forced from their homes between 1929 and 1932, and declared that the kulaks “were to be eliminated as a class.” In total, Stalin had more than 30,000 kulaks killed outright and around two million deported to labor camps in the far north, Siberia, and Central Asia. Half a million of those deported to the camps had died by 1932.

As Stalin shipped off kulaks to their death, he also targeted Ukrainians for deportation. Part of the process of collectivization required the state to collect grain after it had been harvested as a way to pay for rapid industrialization, leaving peasants hopelessly underfed. In total, three to five million people died in Ukraine due to hunger. And as Naimark reminds us, Stalin encouraged this: Soviet authorities set up roadblocks to prevent Ukrainians from entering urban centers where food was available, refused shipments of food from abroad, and exported grain despite shortages. Stalin commanded that grain be obtained from Ukrainians “at all costs” and wrote that the Ukrainians “deliberately tried to undermine the Soviet state. It is a fight to the death.” Stalin, in other words, saw Ukrainian peasants as a political entity intent on undermining the revolution, and he sought to exterminate them.

There were also cases in which Stalin could have been condemned using the narrower concept of genocide as the murder of national enemies, particularly the Poles. One Soviet official, for example, declared that the Poles were to be “completely destroyed,” and Stalin commanded one bureaucrat to “dry up and purge this Polish espionage mud in the future as well. Destroy it in the interest of the USSR.” Stalin had 144,000 Poles arrested and 111,000 of those killed. Additionally, in what Naimark calls one of the clearest cases of genocide, Red Army soldiers removed Polish officers from detention camps and killed 4,400 of them in the Katyn Forest. This went beyond a simple political purge: “There is good reason to think that these actions,” Naimark writes, “derived from deeply embedded Russian and Soviet prejudices of anti-Polonism.”

But omitting political and social exterminations from the U.N. convention, Naimark argues, still weakened the concept of genocide. Samantha Power claims that because political groups were excluded from the convention, international lawyers had a difficult time accusing the Khmer Rouge of committing genocide in Cambodia when they “set out to wipe out whole classes of alleged ‘political enemies.’ ” A redefinition of the convention, Naimark believes, might allow for a more successful prosecution of genocidaires. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have passed their own laws which “have broadened the definition of genocide to include specific crimes .  .  . such as forced deportation and the execution of a group of resistors and their supporters,” and have convicted the first Soviet officials of genocide.

Naimark’s case is compelling: Who, after all, would want to leave loopholes for mass murderers to escape punishment they rightfully deserve? But one important problem with Naimark’s argument is his failing to consider the mixed consequences of such a major shift in the law. It is worth wondering what the immediate pragmatic results of such a change would be, given the failures of international law to pursue clear cases of racial and ethnic genocide. In places such as Rwanda and Sudan the international community failed to act even though the mass killings committed there fell under the old definition of genocide. A wider definition wouldn’t necessarily alter things.

A broader legal definition could also be a double-edged sword, making things worse for Western democracies who value human rights. In a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in 2009, Libya and Iran both accused Israel of committing genocide in the Gaza Strip, while Yemen’s representative referred to Israel’s military response to Gaza rocket fire as the “Gaza Holocaust.”

Naimark’s new definition makes the most sense in principle. It would be right to include oppressed political groups in our definition of genocide, especially if it allows us to make a stronger legal case against genocidaires. But broadening the convention’s definition will not make any difference in preventing genocide, and may multiply the accusations against countries, such as Israel or the United States, defending themselves against terrorism.

Aaron Rothstein is a writer in New York.


Recent Blog Posts