Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Expanding Genocide’s Definition at LASA

Only seeing Rio from the bus so far: Latin American Studies Association meetings, Rio de Janiero, Brazil......
Parsing Political Violence
There is more reason every day to study the paroxysms of violence that shook Chile, Argentina, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Latin American countries in the late 20th century. Knowing in depth what happened can mean they may never happen again. But examination also determines whether they fall into the category of genocide, what journalist and academic Samantha Power calls, “The Problem from Hell.”

The problem defining genocide comes first. Panelists discussing Institutional Memory -- that of political parties, the military, etc -- ended up grappling with what genocide is, and which killing events might fall into it, for much of their lively session. In particular: should the definition of victims be expanded to include members of a political affiliation?

It’s well known that genocide includes targeted killing of individuals because they belong to a particular group -- religious, racial, ethnic, national. What is less well known, as Pablo Policzer of the University of Calgary, pointed out, is that the first several drafts of the 1946 U.N. Genocide Convention included the political category, making it a crime of genocide to kill someone for his affiliation with a particular political group. Only at the last moment, because the Soviet Union and Iran threatened not to sign the convention if that group were left in, was it removed.

Some panelists said only the most numerically massive and egregious killings ought to be included in genocide's definition, like the WWII Holocaust, Cambodia, or the slaughter of Armenians; others stood for the original, wider definition including political groups, which might bring in Chile, for instance.

Against the wider definition is the argument that political affiliation is a choice one makes, less basic to identity than one’s ethnicity or religion. The counterargument is that a person’s choice of political affiliation is far more fundamental to who one is than even the other protected categories: Ethnic identities may be constructed; religious affiliation may be changed. By political affiliation we are not talking here about U.S. citizens choosing between the parties of Democrats and Republicans, who have more in common than they do separating them; instead we are talking about political world views, dictated by a person's birth or experience to become as intrinsically part of his being as his blood type.

Any of the already recognized categories of victims of genocide include identities that are not necessarily objective, but can be created or defined by the perpetrators of the genocide themselves. That is true too of political grouping -- consider the Guatemalan military policy of eliminating entire indigenous villages because of its belief the Maya were natural “allies” of insurgents. It was the military’s own definition of who the enemy was, its assumption of alliance with a political group, without regard to the stand of individuals.

Beyond scholars, lawyers and judges are wrestling with definitions of crimes against humanity and genocide to an increasing degree each year. Defining genocide is not an exercise like determining the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin. It has real world consequences for justice: crime juridically defined as genocide becomes a crime against humanity, which makes perpetrators liable under international law.

At least one panelist was convinced by colleagues’ arguments at LASA, he said, so that by the session’s end he said he believed the political affiliation category ought to be included when considering the crime of genocide.