Genocide rears its head as a campaign issue in the United States elections once again. In September 2004, George Bush and Colin Powell launched the charge that the Sudanese government was committing genocide. It was a demagogic appeal aimed at obtaining votes from American fundamentalists. Some months later, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry ruled that the word genocide was not an appropriate description of the atrocities that had taken place in Sudan.
This time around, it is Mitt Romney trying the same trick. Yesterday, in New Hampshire, he made a statement concerning Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
‘What Ahmadinejad said this past week about Israel ... the awful, offensive, obnoxious things he said should lead to him being indicted under the Genocide Convention [and] his people being treated like the pariah they are’, Romney said. Romney was referring to one of Ahmadinejad’s periodic outbursts, in which the Iranian president apparently said that the State of Israel was a ‘cancerous tumour’ that should be ‘destroyed’.
Nobody is claiming that Ahmadinejad or Iran have actually committed genocide. There is a Jewish minority in Iran, represented in Parliament, that is probably better off than Jewish communities in many countries of the Middle East.
Romney was building on a campaign that has been going on for several years now aimed at charging Iran, and its President, with ‘direct and public incitement to commit genocide’. This is a distinct crime from genocide as such, and exists even if genocide itself is not committed. It is committed by words alone.
When the United States incorporated the crime of genocide into federal legislation, in 1988, it provided that direct and public incitement to genocide was subject to a fine of not more than $500,000 or imprisonment for a maximum of five years. On the Richter scale of crime in the United States, it is hardly a tremor.
Inevitably, the crime of direct and public incitement involves interpreting words that are susceptible of more than one meaning. The Rwanda Tribunal has convicted people for incitement, but the challenge of interpreting the meaning of specific comments prior to and during the Rwandan genocide is simplified enormously by the fact that genocide actually took place. Similarly, we understand that Nazi talk about a ‘final solution’ meant genocide, but that is because of the deeds that followed the words.
In the case of Ahmadinejad, what are the deeds that help us construe the words? His attackers point to Iran’s alleged efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. Indeed, in yesterday’s speech Romney made the link. It is argued that Iran wants to get nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel and thereby fulfill its genocidal ambitions.
The purported genocidal association between Ahmadinejad’s words and Iran’s nuclear plans is pretty thin. Isn’t it far more plausible that Iran wants nuclear weapons as protection, and deterrence, given that its major strategic and military threats in the region actually have nuclear weapons?
Of course Romney’s charges are also part of his well-known declarations of support for Israel’s threatened military attack on Iran. In that context, the genocide charges look like nothing more than sabre rattling for aggression by Israel. On his recent trip to Israel, Romney endorsed an Israeli military attack on Iran. He also made his bizarre statement about how Jewish culture accounts for Israel’s prosperity, something that many took as an insult to Palestinians and Arabs. I thought the suggestion that Jews are good with money also sounded like old-time anti-Semitism, but his Zionist cheerleaders seem prepared to overlook the point.
What to make of Ahmadinejad’s remarks? The most plausible interpretation is that he posits the destruction of the State of Israel. But that is not at all the same thing as the extermination of the State’s inhabitants. Anyway, the speculative hypothesis of an Iranian nuclear attack aimed at destroying Israel would also kill millions of Palestinians and other Arabs. This hardly makes sense, even for a reckless tyrant like Ahmadinejad.
In Ireland there are many who would like to ‘destroy’ the state of Northern Ireland. They don’t mean exterminating its inhabitants. During the Cold War, there were those who called for the destruction of the Soviet Union, and of Yugoslavia. They were successful, by the way. But obviously that did not mean extermination of the populations of those states. Are those who call for a ‘one-state solution’ - that is, a secular democratic state that may at some point in the near future have a Palestinian majority – endorsing the destruction of Israel? Certainly it would be the end of Israel as we know it.
Ahmadinejad’s comments may lend themselves to varying interpretations, but when read in context they cannot be viewed as incitement to genocide. Confronting the threat of genocide is one of the existential problems of our time. But beware of those who brandish the word cavalierly, especially if they are trying to build support for an illegal military attack on a foreign country, or to stifle political discussion about the future of Israel, or campaigning for the United States Presidency on behalf of the Republican Party.