Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Genocide and the United States Election

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.


federico.sperotto said...

An excellent post!

Keren Michaeli said...

I agree with Prof. Schabas' wise observation as to the motives behind statements such as that of Romney. Indeed, as an Israeli myself, I believe they are aimed at preparing the ground for a military attack against Iran, which - under current circumstances - would be manifestly illegal (although I am not convinced it would amount to aggression as defined in the suggested amendment to the Rome Statute).
I would like to note, though, that I am not persuaded by the distinction made by Prof Schabas between calling for the destruction of the 'state of Israel' and calling for the destruction of its 'population'. Granted, Ahmadinejad is not referring to the Palestinian population of Israel but, then again, nobody reads his statement to that effect. Coupled with prior statements against 'Zionists' (which refer to Jews) - his intention is widely understood as calling on the destruction of the Jewish population of Israel. The fact that his motive in aspiring for their destruction might not be based on their religion or ethnicity per se - according to the ICTY - has no bearing on their targeting as a national group as such.
I do agree that in the current circumstances Ahmadinejad’s statement does not amount to incitement to genocide - but on different grounds, specifically his material inability to duly influence those that are in a position to attempt genocide.

ilan_fuchs said...

Your argument is very weak. How do you destroy a country without destroying its people? and what better way to do that than nuclear weapons?

by painting your politics as "international law" you are becoming the reason for the weakness of international law.

José M. López Sierra said...

Should criminals be in charge of correcting the wrong they inflicted?

Puerto Ricans vote in elections every 4 years at an 80% level of participation. Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States (US) government for the past 116 years. If the US government has the final say in what happens in Puerto Rico, what is the purpose of these elections? The purpose is to fool the world that Puerto Rico is a democracy.

The United Nations (UN) declared colonialism a crime against humanity in 1960. The UN has asked the US government 33 times to decolonize Puerto Rico immediately. The US government has refused. It says that Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States is none of the UN’s business. The US says that it is a domestic affair.

To appear that the US government wants to decolonize Puerto Rico, it promotes the use of plebiscites to determine what Puerto Ricans want. Doesn’t that sounds innocent and democratic? So what’s the problem?

To begin with, the international community already rendered its verdict and determined that colonialism is illegal. So to have a political status option in a plebiscite that favors maintaining Puerto Rico a colony of the United States is not permitted. To have a political status option of Puerto Rico becoming a state of the United States is also not permitted under international law. The problem goes back to the beginning of this article. In order to have free elections, the country must be free. So before these elections and plebiscite could be valid, Puerto Rico would have to first be an independent nation.

What people must realize is that Puerto Rico is a colony of the US because the US government wants it that way. That is why it has used terrorism to keep it that way. That is why it refuses to release the Puerto Rican political prisoner of 33 years Oscar López Rivera. That is also why it is ridiculous to believe that decolonization is a US internal matter in which the UN has no jurisdiction over. If we allow the US government to decolonize Puerto Rico, she will remain a colony of the United States forever!

José M López Sierra