What constitutes genocide?

June 30, 2000
Source: Jerusalem Post (Israel)

By Marilyn Henry

2 volumes by Israel W. Charny, editor.
Santa Barbara, and Oxford, ABC - Clio.
720 pages. $175

Two years ago, delegates from 120 nations, meeting in Rome, voted for a landmark treaty that, if ratified by 60 nations, would create a permanent international court to prosecute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. This month, countries were meeting at the UN to try to hammer out the elements of these crimes.

While there is universal agreement that genocide and war crimes cry out for prosecution, only 12 nations have ratified the Rome treaty. Israel and the US are among the opponents.

Jerusalem, for instance, argues that Arab states have politicized it with an article determining that the settlements constitute "war crimes."

A half-century after the Nuremberg trials, definitions of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity remain a difficulty.

Definitions are among the items brilliantly examined in the new Encyclopedia of Genocide edited by Israel W. Charny, the executive director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem.

This is the first encyclopedia in the field of genocide studies. It is comprehensive, thoughtful and comes with a point of view that life is sacred, and that the study of genocide is not primarily a legal, philosophical or intellectual exercise, but one that is devoted to the preservation of human life.

More than 100 experts have contributed short essays and commentaries on an extraordinary array of issues in genocide - with a special focus on the Shoah and the Armenian genocide. The text is supplemented by primary source documents, maps, photos, tables, press accounts and bibliographies, and provides virtually a total education about genocide in two volumes.

Charny took an ecumenical approach in compiling the encyclopedia. He assembled scholars and experts of diverse, and often, opposing views.

The contributors include Yehuda Bauer, Jacobo Timmerman, Elie Wiesel, Rouben Adalian, Robert Lifton, and Michael Berenbaum. The forewords were written by Simon Wiesenthal and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.

The term "genocide" was first defined by the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944. Genocide refers to the purposeful physical extinction of a defined collective group. But the definition of the act of genocide is both a legal and a political question, and the debate is relentless. There's no consensus on the definition, and the dissent gets prominent exposure in the encyclopedia.

The convention's definition of genocide was a political compromise that excluded the mass killings of the nationals of one's own country by the government. It includes national, ethnic, religious and racial groups, but not social or political groups.

Jack Nusan Porter offers a sophisticated and thoughtful analyses on homosexuality and the Shoah.

The persecution and murder by Germany of homosexuals began in the 1930s.

But there is a controversy about whether there was a "gay genocide." Homosexuals were difficult to detect, and could elude detection and survive.

That is an argument against calling it a genocide. However, there also are strong arguments for calling the detention and murder of gays a genocide. They were stigmatized and dehumanized in ways that allow genocide to occur.

There were efforts to locate and sterilize gays. According to the UN definition, these acts would fall under a category of limiting births, and thus be genocide.

"It is not an easy decision, but overall I personally would adopt a non-genocide label," Porter wrote.

He argues that gays could be the victims of a genocidal mentality and of genocidal acts. But, he says, "As for a planned, systematic genocide, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there was none."

The reviewer is The Jerusalem Post correspondent in New York.