Conflating war crimes with genocide is counterproductive — for Ukraine and beyond

FILE – Firefighters extinguish a building of Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) after a rocket attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Ukraine, March 2, 2022. President Joe Biden has called Russia’s war on Ukraine a genocide and accused Vladimir Putin of committing war crimes. But his administration has for weeks grappled with how much intelligence it’s willing to give Ukrainian forces trying to stop Putin. (AP Photo/Andrew Marienko, File)

The atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine are horrific, but they do not (yet) constitute genocide. President Biden’s intentional use of the term to describe Russia’s war in Ukraine is questionable at best and counterproductive at worst, not only for Ukraine but for other conflicts in which the label is indeed warranted.

Biden qualified his comment by stating that international lawyers would determine whether the situation in Ukraine constitutes genocide, and it is only right that any war crimes investigation examine potential evidence-based claims of genocidal acts. But in the meantime, Biden’s words carry immense weight for how Americans and the world view the conflict in Ukraine, as well as how we employ terms such as genocide.

This is not the first use of escalatory language from Biden in recent weeks. He dubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” in mid-March and seemingly suggested regime change shortly after by declaring that Putin “cannot remain in power.” While the administration, and indeed much of the world, soon embraced the former comment, Biden attributed the latter to “moral outrage” rather than a U.S. policy proscription. The term “genocide,” however, has serious implications – morally, legally and politically – and should not be used lightly. 

The term genocide is specific in international law, defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” The “intent to destroy” a particular group is largely what differentiates genocide from “crimes against humanity,” which include “widespread or systematic” acts perpetrated against a civilian population, including murder, torture, sexual violence or forcible transfer. Genocide and crimes against humanity both differ from war crimes, which include violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) or “rules of war,” specifically those codified in the Geneva Conventions, including the direct targeting of civilian populations. 

Ongoing investigations in Ukraine are likely to show ample evidence of war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity, and it is right that perpetrators of such crimes be brought to justice. But claims of genocide are much harder to prove or pursue, especially when claims of “intent to destroy” are murky at best.

It is true that Putin has denied the legitimacy of Ukraine’s statehood. But the war, however horrific and condemnable, has essentially been one of aggression, seeking to seize territory and forcibly expand Russian influence and control, rather than to exterminate an entire group of people. The attacks on civilians and grotesque atrocities committed in this venture are deplorable but as of yet do not reflect genocidal intent. 

Using the genocide label liberally, while well intentioned, can have unintended consequences. First and foremost, the Genocide Convention obliges states to act to “prevent or punish”  the crime of genocide. This obligation to act is one reason that states, including the U.S., have historically avoided the “g-word.” However, that provision has been rendered somewhat moot in recent years as the U.S. and other states have called out genocide in countries including Sudan, Myanmar and China without committing to action. Nevertheless, in a situation like Ukraine, it may further calls for direct U.S. or NATO intervention in the war, which the Biden administration and allies have (rightly) been attempting to avoid.

Second, the genocide label has political implications that may undermine future attempts at diplomacy. It should be noted that the current breakdown in negotiations is due to Putin’s own decision that the talks are at a dead-end, combined with his ongoing pummeling of civilian areas. But if the parties do finally return to the negotiating table, the “genocidaire” label will make any compromises that much more difficult. It is well past the time for providing Putin with comfortable, face-saving measures. But we also don’t need to undercut future diplomatic processes with inaccurate terms that play into Putin’s own propaganda.

Third, the allegation of genocide risks overshadowing other serious war crimes. All of the alleged crimes in Ukraine – targeting civilians, killings, torture, sexual violence – are egregious and worthy of thorough investigation and justice. While investigations are not necessarily either/or, we should be cautious of high-profile efforts to “prove” genocide, distracting from the documentation or prosecution of war crimes (and possibly crimes against humanity) of which there is likely to be ample evidence. 

Finally, conflating genocide with any war crime or atrocity undermines the specific salience of the term in conflicts where it is actually taking place. However well intentioned, over-use of the term genocide for any action we find abhorrent risks creating a “crying wolf” effect — making it harder for us to recognize when there actually is an intent to destroy.

Biden, like much of the world, is right to feel moral outrage in response to the war in Ukraine. But it is precisely in such moments that we need our leaders to be accurate with their words and pragmatic with their actions. Putin’s war crimes are condemnable for what they are. Conflating them with genocide will only make “prevention and punishment” that much harder for Ukrainians and other victims of mass atrocities.

Julie Norman (@DrJulieNorman2) is a lecturer in politics and international relations and co-director of the Centre on US Politics (@CUSP_ucl) at University College London.

Tags Biden Genocide Joe Biden NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin War crimes during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

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