Ethics, Revised Edition
Genocide and Democide
Definition: Intentional destruction of human groups based upon identifying characteristics that members of the groups are assumed to have
Type of Ethics: Race and ethnicity
Significance: Modern political, social, and religious leaders agree that genocide and democide violate the most basic principles of international human rights.
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish jurist and scholar of international law coined the term genocide during the early 1940's. The term later became a basis of international law, making it possible to try crimes of genocide before the International Criminal Court. In its narrowest sense, genocide is an intentional and systematic attempt to destroy an entire human group, based upon the nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion of the group's members. Since Lemkin's time, the meaning of the term has been expanded to encompass other defining human characteristics, such as sexual orientation or political affiliation. However, not all scholars accept these broader definitions, and legally such expansion is not permitted. To overcome these limitations, Rudolph Rummel coined the term "democide" during the 1990's to serve as a more inclusive label for governmental efforts to perpetrate mass murder. Estimates of the numbers of persons who were victims of genocide and democide during the twentieth century range from 170 to 210 million. These numbers are at least four times greater than the numbers of people killed while fighting wars during the last century.
Although legalistic definitions of genocide are limited to definable groups, the concept includes the destruction of human groups through mass murder as well as the process of limiting procreation. Thus, genocide can be committed through efforts to sterilize a population to prevent the birth of future generations. Early eugenics movements had at their core in the early twentieth century, the elimination of those whose genes were deemed inferior. The Nazis used such policies to begin massive sterilizations of the mentally and physically disabled as well as Jews and Roma/Sinti (Gypsies). The pattern of mass rape as practiced during the atrocities against Bosnians during the 1990's was officially codified as a form of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Definitions of genocide are not based solely on nation-states or governments as perpetrators. Individuals and nongovernmental groups whose actions include the destruction of another group may also be found guilty of genocide.
Mass murders that clearly fit the criteria for genocide include the killing of Armenians by the Young Turks of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the killing of Gypsies by Nazis during World War II, and the killing of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.
While the term democide is broader in terms of target groups, the term is applied only to murders undertaken by governments or quasi-governmental bodies. Thus, a hate group that targets specific individuals for murder would technically not be guilty of democide. However, a government engaged in the same kind of crime would be guilty of democide. On the other hand, the term democide is not applied to the killing of soldiers during wars and the execution of persons lawfully convicted of capital crimes.
The list of mass murders that fit the definition of democide is extensive and includes the mass killing of political dissidents by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and the mass murders committed under the rule of Mao Zedong in China. Many cases of democide are more often described as a genocide. For example, the Cambodian genocide of the mid-1970's fits the definition of democide but is usually referred to as a genocide. The targeted groups in the killing fields of Cambodia consisted largely of groups such as city dwellers and the educated. As that episode had Cambodians killing Cambodians on the basis of characteristics not identified within the narrow definition of genocide, it theoretically should not be identified as genocide but rather as democide. However, the killing of the Vietnamese by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge communists would be considered an instance of genocide.
Reversal of Morality
The ethical issues involved in genocide and democide appear transparent at first glance. Both actions violate the principles underlying the major world religions and are also considered to be violations of international law. Individuals, groups, and nations involved in genocide and democide are considred guilty of violating the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Although no ethical or moral defense for the atrocities of mass murder, genocide, and democide exist, perpetrators of genocide often view their actions as moral and for the greater good. Moreover, few perpetrators of genocide and democide have been held accountable under international law and have thus acted with impunity. This apparent reversal of morality with its accompanying moral relativity raises questions as to how individuals and nations can move from general acceptance of ethical codes against killing to a moral position that justifies atrocity.
Doctors working for Germany's Nazi regime believed that they were engaged in a higher good by sterilizing and later "euthanizing" or killing patients who were regarded as incurable. These included epileptics, schizophrenics, alcoholics, people with mental disabilities, and a host of others were labeled "useless eaters" and killed by starvation, lethal injection, gunshot, or poisonous gas. The regime justified its actions by arguing not only that patients would appreciate being spared future suffering but also that their extermination removed dangerous genetic infections that threatened the well-being of the people of Germany. The Nazi genocide of Jews, Gypsies, and other peoples was regarded as the removal of a tumor from the body of Germany, a Final Solution in dealing with Germany's "problem" groups. Thus, the Nazis and their supporters perceived their genocide as a valiant, courageous, and morally good action.
During World War II, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, killings more than 120,000 men, women, and children. The government rationale for these actions was that such destruction was horrible but necessary to save the lives of the Allied soldiers who would otherwise be needed to invade Japan. While the validity of this rationale has been debated, it represents a case in which the morality of democide may be unclear. If purely military targets in Japan had been selected for destruction, the resulting loss of life would not fit the criteria identified for democide. However, as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilian targets, the loss of life represents a case of democide. If similar bombs had been dropped on major population centers in England or the United States during the war, it most likely would not have been viewed as morally acceptable.
Centuries of genocide against indigenous populations have been justified through self-interest primarily need for land and resources. The indigenous populations in North and South America, Australia, and Africa all experienced varying levels of physical as well as cultural genocide. Little is written about these groups, however, as the colonizers and conquerors have written most of the histories of their conquests.
Nations that commit genocide and democide are generally led by authoritarian rulers in totalitarian governments. Such governments and leaders may also have destructive ideologies and are thus more likely to commit atrocities than are governments of democracies. The rulers responsible for the most destructive genocides and democides are Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Adolf Hitler, who were all totalitarian leaders. Moreover, the members of socities ruled by such governments also tend to exhibit high degrees of conformity as well as obedience to authority. Such people may be willing to kill other people simply because obedience and conformity are considered to be their only appropriate ethical choices. During the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals held after Germany's defeat in World War II, many former Nazi officers tried to justify their crimes by claiming to have merely followed orders. Judges on the Nuremberg tribunal did not accept such defenses, but individual soldiers whose participation in the Holocaust may have been less pivotal were not tried in part because of this justification.
Paths to Genocide and Democide
The practice of genocide and democide often begins slowly within a culture. Pre-genocidal cultures typically have histories of believing that members certain groups or classes within their cultures are superior to members of other groups. During times of relative stability and prosperity such cultural populations may engage in limited prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. However, during times of economic or political crisis, latent hatreds can be revived and used by authoritarian leaders as a means to build solidarity and support within the dominant groups. What begins as prejudice and discrimination over time may evolve into a pattern of deliberate denial of civil rights. Thus, members of a targeted group may find they are denied such rights as employment, citizenship, or the ability to own property. If few objections are publicly voiced, the next step may be a move toward greater loss of fundamental human rights and finally loss of existence. Little outrage was expressed when Jews began losing their rights in Nazi Germany during the 1930's. That fact made it easier for the government to progress from laws prohibiting certain forms of work to loss of citizenship, then ghettoization, and finally deportation and death.
For human beings to move down such a path toward greater violence, a process of moral disengagement and exclusion must occur. It is difficult simply to kill a person whom one has known as an associate or neighbor. Propaganda helps a society advance step by step toward a policy of genocide. Such propaganda includes a vilifying of members of the target group as well as a dehumanization of the group. For example, during Germany's Holocaust, government propaganda denounced Jews as parasites who threatened Germany's well-being and equated Jews with rats and vermin. When human beings begin morally disengaging and finally excluding their neighbors from what is perceived as their moral realm, the process becomes complete. Human beings have less trouble killing people whom they perceive as as not fitting within what they regard as traditional human boundaries, particularly if they regard those people as a threat. In Rwanda, for example, Hutus who killed their Tutsi neighbors during the mid-1990's regarded them not as fellow Rwandans but as dangerous aliens, whom they characaterized as inyenzi (cockroaches). Euphemistic language also assists with this process of moral disengagement and exclusion. Germany's Nazi government did not tell German citizens that it was sending Jews and other people to their deaths in concentration camps; it simply told them that their Jewish neighbors were being "sent east."
Bystanders--whether they be individuals, groups, or nations--can prevent genocide from developing if they raise protests early as a government moves down the path to genocide and democide. This raises serious questions about the ethics of those who stand by passively as a disenfranchised group becomes increasingly targeted for violence and genocide. As violence began in Rwanda, both outside nations and the United Nations distanced themselves from the developing genocide and proclaimed it to be an internal matter that was solely Rwanda's responsibility. For outside nations to label the events in Rwanda as genocide would have necessitated action. This inaction by a passive world that watched the horror unfold helped fuel the deaths of approximately 800,000 Tutsis over the course of one hundred days. By the time the United Nationsl finally sent international peacekeepers into Rwanda, the mass killings ceased.
The longer bystanders wait to act as a a genocide develops, the more difficult intervention becomes. When intervention occurs late, both the outside governments and their citizens must accept moral responsibility for their earlier inactino. Moreover, as time passes, bystanders tend to rationalize that the victims of a genocide deserve their fates in order to maintain their belief in a just and moral world.
The last step on the path of genocide and democide is denial that the mass killing ever occurred. Thus, the final assault on the victims is that their very memory is excised from history. Denial can take many forms. For example, the government of Turkey has firmly denied that it stage a genocide against its Armenian citizens during World War I. Instead, the government portrays the events of that period as an unfortunate effect of deportations of a internally dangerous population. Most modern Turkish citizens who deny the Armenian genocide are not basing their denial on a history of prejudice but rather a history shaped by the Turkish victors. Thus, they are simply repeating what they and their parents have learned of the events during World War I in revisionist history.
Other instances of genocide such as the man-made famine in the Ukraine during the 1930's have been simply written off as unintended and accidental occurrences resulting from distant governmental policies. The deaths of large numbers of Native American groups in what is now the United States has often been dismissed simply as unintentional deaths resulting from disease and failure to adapt to life on reservations. Famine, disease, exposure, and other "natural causes" of death manufactured by governmental policies enable the distancing of responsibility and the denial of genocide. Other forms of denial clearly have at their base an agenda of hate. Holocaust denial is not a new phenomenon and is propagated by many white supremacist groups within the United States and around the world. Such forms of hate-based denial have at their core genocidal intent. Whatever the intent of those who deny specific instances of genocide or democide, whether out of ignorance or hate, such efforts at denial are ethically unjustifiable.
Linda M. WoolfBibliography
Barnett, Victoria. Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000. Examination of moral and ethical issues relating to bystanders during the Holocaust, particularly communities living within Nazi-occupied Europe.
Opotow, Susan, ed. "Moral Exclusion." Journal of Social Issues 46, no. 1 (1990). Special issue of the journal with articles exploring facets of moral exclusion, including the ability to exclude others from one's moral sphere during times of genocide and extreme destructiveness.
Rummel, Rudolph. Death by Government. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1996. Excellent statistical and historical information concerning instance of twentieth century genocides and democide, from the Holocaust to the Soviet gulag state. Evaluates the role of power in the creation of democidal states and cultures.
Staub, Ervin. The Psychology of Good and Evil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Collection of Staub's seminal writings on all facets of genocide, including cultural preconditions, leaders, bystander behavior, rescue and altruistic behavior, and intervention.
Totten, Samuel, William Parsons, and Israel Charny, eds. Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views. New York: Garland, 1997. Articles combining historical facts, scholarly analysis, and accounts of both survivors and witnesses of several genocides, including genocides of indigenous populations. The element of personal testimony enables readers to transcend the numbing effect resulting from the enormity of each genocide.
Bystanders; Ethnic cleansing; Eugenics; Evil, problem of; Genocide, cultural; Genocide, frustration-aggression theory of; Holocaust; International Criminal Court; Lemkin, Raphael; Native American genocide; Nazism; Pogrom; Rwanda genocide; Social Darwinism; United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide; Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
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