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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.