What’s Wrong With Genocide

What’s Wrong With Genocide April 16, 2008

Apart from the mass murder, that is. Or, to put it another way, if a government slaughters millions of its own citizens, does it really matter why they do so? The question is occasioned by a recent Jonah Goldberg column on the controversy over whether the Ukrainian famines of the 1930s (engineered by Stalin) ought to be considered genocide:

Last week, Russia’s lower house of parliament passed a resolution insisting that Josef Stalin’s man-made 1932-33 famine — called the Holodomor in Ukrainian — wasn’t genocide.

Not even the Russians dispute that the Soviet government deliberately starved millions. But the Russian resolution indignantly states: “There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines.” It notes that victims included “different peoples and nationalities living largely in agricultural areas of the country.”

Translation: We didn’t kill millions of farmers because they were Ukrainians; we killed millions of Ukrainians because they were farmers.

And that’s all it takes to be acquitted of genocide.

The United Nations defines genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Left out of this definition are “modern” political labels for people: the poor, religious people, the middle class, etc.

It’s worse than that, actually. Under the UN Convention, genocide includes not only killing members of a group, but also: “(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” So while murdering millions of one’s political enemies would not count as genocide under this definition, removing the children of cult members from their parents (in the hopes of ending the cult) would be.

The problem with genocide is not that it kills groups but that it kills people. Preserving a given cultural, religious, or ethnic group may be valuable in itself (though, as in the case of the cult group, this is not always the case). And since efforts to eliminate a given group generally must involve committing injustices against individuals, it is easy to see why it would almost always be wrong. But what makes it wrong, chiefly, is the injustice to individuals, and it would be just as wrong if those injustices were committed for some other motive.

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