Genocide in Ukraine: what are the roots of the debate?

In Ukraine, genocide is once again in the news. As in nearly every recent humanitarian crisis, in which there has been large-scale violence against civilians, the question arises: is this genocide? Trying to settle the debate definitively is a fool’s errand, argues the author. Genocide is a contested and multivalent concept. The solution is not to jettison the term, but rather to expect discrepant usage and to be as clear as possible in how we employ the « g » word.

Two women (one holding a cross) in a cemetery in Bucha, Ukraine.
Relatives of Mykhailo Romaniuk, 58, who was shot dead while cycling on 6 March, at his burial in a cemetery in Bucha, Ukraine, which suffered many victims of the war with Russia. "These are war crimes and it will be recognized by the world as genocide," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a visit to Bucha, on 4 April. © Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP
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Is what is happening in Ukraine genocide? That has been a burning question in this crisis, as it has been in other recent humanitarian crises in Darfur, Syria, Myanmar, China and with the crises in the 1990s, especially in Rwanda. President Vladimir Putin of Russia invoked the term to justify the invasion of Ukraine, claiming to “de-Nazify” the country. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, countered by accusing Russian forces of genocide, and Ukraine brought a genocide case to the International Court of Justice. That Russia has committed genocide has become integral to official Ukrainian rhetoric about the war. Many of Ukraine’s supporters and Russia’s enemies, including President Joe Biden of the USA, have adopted the same language.

The script is a familiar one. From Darfur to Myanmar, the question consistently arises, and the debate routinely prompts news organizations to run multiple stories around the question.

What can we learn about this turn of events? What is genocide? What is the significance of the term? What is the point of debating the “g-word”?

Decentering Genocide

Academics have responded in two main ways. The most common view, especially among legal experts, is to downplay the focus on genocide. There are several arguments here. One is normative. There is no legal hierarchy positioning genocide above other forms of mass atrocity, such as crimes against humanity. Yes, there is the Genocide Convention and not yet a special convention prohibiting crimes against humanity. But the Rome Statute delineates genocide alongside crimes against humanity and war crimes, without ranking.

Another argument is practical. Genocide is difficult to prove in real time. Genocide requires establishing the “special intent,” to destroy protected groups, in whole or in part. Documenting that intent can take place by studying the perpetrators’ pattern of action and from statements and other forms of communication. Still, the legal standard is a high bar and hard to establish during crises.

A third argument is more philosophical, building on long-standing criticism in the academic community studying genocide. By this argument, genocide is a problematic concept, one that is both ambiguous and that inherently privileges groups. If one returns to the coining of the term, by Raphael Lemkin, one finds a clear focus on groups and the inherent significance of groups. This focus on groups reinforces essentialist ideas about group identity, including nationalism, and reflects outdated views of the social construction of groups.

The second main response, which is less common among experts but still nonetheless prevalent, is to argue that the war in Ukraine is genocide. Here the argument is that the Russian authorities seem intent on destroying the Ukrainian people. In his public comments, Putin indicates he does not consider Ukraine to be an empirical construct, and some pro-government Russian media outlets have published editorials suggesting that the whole Ukrainian population has been brainwashed, possibly implying they need to be eliminated.

Those who voice this argument also point out that the Genocide Convention, with its five constitutive acts and its specification of the intent to destroy groups in whole or in part, differs from popular understandings of genocide as group elimination. Russia’s actions can be construed as genocide.

Genocide conveys absolute horror and unmitigated empathy

There is merit to each of these arguments, but in the end, I don’t think we can either expect a different outcome or try to settle the debate. Genocide is both a multivalent concept and a contested one.

By multivalent, I mean that genocide inevitably embodies different principles—moral, political, legal, and academic. Genocide is an inherently normative concept. For many in the public domain, genocide connotes the worst that humans do to each other, and genocide is strongly associated with a great historical evil, the Holocaust. Genocide conveys absolute horror and unmitigated empathy. Genocide is a term that justifies extraordinary measures to combat it. As such, we should expect politicians and others to invoke genocide to suggest that their enemies are evil. Experts can insist that genocide is a strictly legal term or an academic one specifying a type of violence, but I suspect those protests will be futile. The normative and political dimensions remain, and the term will continue to be invoked as long as it paints opponents in their worst possible light and invites support for one’s own.

Why a legally correct, technical reading can be problematic

By the same token, insisting on a legally correct, technical reading of the term also strikes me as problematic. Yes, in an eventual and hypothetical courtroom, the language of the Genocide Convention and precedence from prior jurisprudence will guide the adjudication of whether crimes committed are “genocide.” But we also have to recognize serious problems in the language of the Convention, and much of the public discussion is not about narrowly legal understandings of the term.

The language of the Genocide Convention reflects diplomatic compromise from the late 1940s. The Convention does not include political groups as a protected category. Nor does it include gender, sexuality, or class groups. The Convention is thus narrow in which groups are considered victims of genocide (in addition to the bigger question as to what exactly is a racial, ethnical, religious, or national group, which are the protected categories). But the Convention is also quite broad: the five constitutive acts of genocide do not require murder. The acts include causing serious mental harm, the forcible transfer of children, and the interdiction of reproduction. Hence the technical legal concept of genocide in the Convention is quite different from the common understanding, which shapes the normative and political usage of the term.

Disagreements are baked into the concept of genocide

There are ways to work around these problems. Many, including myself, have sought to establish stronger conceptual foundations for the term. I still maintain genocide is an empirical category, in addition to a normative, political, and legal one. Genocide is about the deliberate destruction of groups, as perpetrators construe those groups. Organized efforts to destroy groups is a real phenomenon, and genocide is the term we have to describe that phenomenon. The term is thus relevant, valid, and needed.

But that is not my main point. The main point is that debate and disagreement are baked into the concept of genocide. Genocide is and will remain a multivalent concept that different actors will invoke with different principles in mind. Genocide will continue to be associated with evil and the Holocaust, and rightly so. But genocide is also a legal term defined by language of the Convention. We should not expect one understanding or principle to replace the other.

We should also accept that even if we insist on an understanding of the etymological origins, as the deliberate destruction of groups, that even those constitutive concepts are ambiguous. What does it mean to destroy a group? Are we privileging groups over individuals? Who must bear the intent to destroy groups to establish genocide?

These are not simple questions to answer. Jettisoning the concept of genocide because the concept is ambiguous, contested, and multivalent does not make sense to me. Rather, if we are asked, we can help to shed light on these dimensions of what remains a powerful and resonant word in our lexicon to describe terrible mass atrocities that continue to be perpetrated in our world.


Scott Straus is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley (USA). He has written widely on the subject of genocide, including Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership and Genocide in Modern Africa (2015), Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention (2016) and The Order of Genocide (2006).

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