For victims in Ukraine, saying ‘genocide’ does matter

Men wearing protective gear exhume the bodies of civilians killed during the Russian occupation in Bucha
Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

With respect, dismissal of President Biden’s use of the word “genocide” to label atrocities in Ukraine — also used by prime ministers in Canada, Spain and Poland and parliamentarians in Latvia and Estonia — is wrong. Saying that word does matter.

While it may not rattle Russia, it matters for victims of atrocity in Ukraine. And, contrary to French President Emmanuel Macron’s view, it matters for peace.

Granted, Biden may have leapt ahead of clearly demonstrated facts in declaring there is actual commission of genocide. However imprecise, Biden’s rhetoric is timely for resisting the threat of imminent genocide and for drawing attention to the gravity of what Ukraine’s people are suffering. When the leader of a powerful country speaks up before that particular hell manifests, it augments urgent global action needed to prevent genocide — an international legal obligation.

Biden’s statement has resulted in an influx of weapons and aid for the Ukrainian military on the ground. Indeed, following Biden’s statement, over 40 NATO countries and allies pledged to “move heaven and earth” to meet Ukraine’s rapidly-changing needs for defending itself. The U.S. pledged $465 million in new military aid and Germany announced it will send special tanks for air defense in a major policy reversal on supplying heavy weaponry to Ukraine.

In just two months since Russia invaded Ukraine, genocidal rhetoric from prominent government officials in Russian state-run press has escalated, calling for “de-Nazification” as de-Ukrainization, liquidation of Ukrainian leadership, and concentration camps for re-education of Ukrainians. Beyond the words, damage to 110 cultural sites has been verified by UNESCO;  destruction of books in Ukrainian or about Ukrainian history by Russian soldiers has been reported, and atrocities against Ukrainian civilians in Bucha and elsewhere follows a pattern including: thousands tortured, assassinated and buried in mass graves; reports of deportations of hundreds of thousands to Russia; widespread rapes, including public gang raping of women and girls “to prevent them from having Ukrainian children”; and alleged forcible transfer and adoption of over 120,000 Ukrainian children in Russia. According to UNHCR, over half of Ukraine’s prewar population of 44 million has been uprooted, with over 5 million forced out of Ukraine as refugees and 8.3 million projected by the end of the year. In response, Russia continues to deny any evidence of atrocities as “fake,” and Putin publicly honored the Russian Army’s 64th Motor Rifle Brigade closely linked to atrocities in Bucha.

This all suggests mounting evidence of specific genocidal intent to destroy Ukrainians as a national group. Indeed, Putin has made clear that his goal is to end Ukrainian statehood. Further, Russia’s present territorial goals to conquer Mariupol and establish a land bridge between Crimea and Russia in the south of Ukraine, while solidifying control over Donbas in eastern Ukraine in a war they “cannot afford to lose,” are reminiscent of conflict in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. There, as found by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, genocide was perpetrated in the military campaign to take strategic Srebrenica in Bosnia to establish a republic aligned with Serbia.

While genocidal intent will ultimately be for the lawyers to decide, countries have an obligation not only to respond to genocide and prosecute after the fact, but also to take action before genocide happens — evident in the very title of the 1948 Convention on the Preventionand Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Steps already taken to prevent genocide in Ukraine, in addition to ramped-up military aid for local forces defending against a military instructed to eliminate them and their families as Nazis, include: robust multilateral sanctions and freezing of Russian assets; support for national and international criminal investigations into atrocities that may result in proof of genocidal attempt or conspiracy punishable under the Genocide Convention; increased humanitarian aid; negotiations for safe evacuation of trapped civilians through humanitarian corridors; and plans for compensation mechanisms to rebuild and repair the widespread damage done to the nation of Ukraine and its people.

Such action must continue — and more must urgently be done, including weaning Europe off of Russia’s oil and gas.

World leaders across the globe that have hesitated — including in France, Germany, and Australia — must join UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU officials calling out the threat of genocide in Ukraine. Not only do such words increase the pressure to prevent the threat, they also alert the people of Ukraine that we see the horror they are suffering for what it is, and we are appalled. This itself is a form of justice and it seriously matters — it’s the very least we can do.  

Hannah R. Garry of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law is a scholar and professor of international criminal law and is on the faculty advisory committee of the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research originally established by Stephen Spielberg to archive testimony of survivors of genocide. She has practiced in cases involving war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for nearly 20 years, including before the International Criminal Court, the Yugoslav Tribunal, the Rwanda Tribunal, and the Cambodia Tribunal. She is currently a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Oslo.

Tags Biden Biden foreign policy Boris Johnson countering Putin countering Russia Emmanuel Macron Genocide International relations Joe Biden military aid to Ukraine Putin Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian war crimes Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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