Is genocide still possible in the 21st century?

Essay submitted for the International Essay Contest after Raphael Lemkin “Genocide – dark mark of humanity”, organized in autumn 2014 by the Society Initiatives Institute.

In January 2015, the world will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz extermination camp. Though not being the first – nor the last – genocide in human history, the Shoah, with its unique combination of destructive ideology and industrial means that led to the annihilation of millions of individuals within a few years, has sadly become its most popular expression and Auschwitz, its most famous symbol.

It has therefore had a large influence on how the notion of genocide was legally defined, most notably by Polish lawyer Rafał Lemkin in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.

The emotional weight carried by the word “genocide”, very often associated in people’s minds with images of deportation trains and gas chambers, has become so important that since the notion has entered into use, it has been considered as a label to get in a morbid competition for memory and recognition, alongside death tolls and atrocious sufferings. Attempts to name genocide any kind of large-scale massacre have sometimes been pursued at the expense of reconciliation processes or material reparation of victims’ losses, as if the symbolic and moral “victory” brought by the acknowledgement of the genocidal character of a crime could justify the sacrifice of all present and future interests.

Paradoxically thus, while the creation of the concept of genocide was aiming both at “preventing” and “punishing” this type of crime, it seems that less attention and efforts have been dedicated to the former, even if common sense would suggest it is as much, if not more, important to act before the considered group is actually destroyed. Of course, one cannot ignore progress that has been made during the past forty years, first with the notion of “right of intervention” and later on with the “responsibility to protect” (R2P). However, these instruments are far from being universally accepted by the international community, especially outside the Western world where state sovereignty is usually given preeminence over human rights.

Then on the one hand, it appears at this stage that the notion of genocide has found its primary function in blaming past crimes and that mechanisms enabling prevention of future massacres remain very unsure and dependent on political circumstances. On the other, one might wonder whether parallel social evolutions that have affected our world since the middle of the 20th century have had an impact on the likelihood of a genocide – in its current legal definition – to occur.

On the technological side, the means to commit mass murder have never been so advanced with the development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, global expansion of information and communication technologies, including cellphones, Internet, satellites and big data storage and processing capabilities, have made it relatively easy to target particular individuals or groups of people. One shall observe however that so far, none of these innovations has been used in a very large-scale genocidal undertaking.

Indeed, while industrial and technological resources have improved since 1945, ideologies that led to the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century took a different road. Fascism was first defeated with the Allies’ victory over Axis forces and fifty years later, another version of totalitarianism, Soviet-style communism, would implode from its own internal contradictions – though already after Stalin’s death in 1953, it ceased in principle to be a regime of terror involved in genocidal actions.

The failure of these systems to pass the test of time and the moral discredit that hit their intellectual foundations have probably warded off for decades the possibility to base a genocidal campaign on pure grounds of race or social class. True enough, nations or religions have retained a certain ability to mobilize masses around sometimes dubious grand designs, as shown by the conflicts having struck the Balkans or Rwanda in the 1990s. However, one may think they could actually be the last examples of such operations.

From the perspective of deeper history, the 19th and 20th centuries have seen the awakening of masses, gathering around modern ideologies like nationalism or socialism with their respective variants. Since the end of the Second World War, and even more after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, liberal individualism seems to have won the battle of ideas, up to the point that intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama would speak about the “end of history”. Though it does not mean, as his critiques wrongfully understood, that there is no other interpretative paradigm of the world on the marketplace, it is hard to deny that this one has become the main horizon for the vast majority of people all around the globe.

In consequence, identities are turning more and more “liquid” (Zygmunt Bauman) and “à la carte”, both under the collective pressure to be master of one’s own life and social acceleration (Harmut Rosa), which makes life trajectories less and less rectilinear. It follows that national or religious groups are also losing their structural character, since autonomous individuals feel empowered to choose their nationality or their faith and to change several times during their existences.

How, in this case, to formulate a project of eliminating a nation or an ethnic group? If such an oblivion is to happen – and here probabilities are no less than before –, it will rather result from people’s own “desertion” of their prime identity than from the conscious will of a political authority. A silent destruction against which Rafał Lemkin’s work is unfortunately very likely to be even more powerless.