Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, such as: (a) killing members of the group; (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.
The above definition comes from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ratified on 9 December 1948 and enacted into international law on 12 January 1951. 140 countries have ratified or signed onto the agreement, making this the legal and most widely accepted definition of genocide. Traditionally, we view genocide as the brutally violent and systematic execution of an entire group of people based solely on that group’s identity, like the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide. But the term has also been used more leisurely. One group has even gone so far as to say that abortion is modern-day genocide. (Last time I checked, no one wants to exterminate the entire human race).
Today, the Kansas City Star ran a commentary piece by Ben Barber, who argues that the present situation in Somalia is genocide. The crux of his argument is that al-Shabaab is committing genocide against the victims of the famine by preventing their access to food aid and their movement from famine affected areas
The death of every person due to denial of aid and to denial of the right to flee from famine is the equivalent of genocide.
Barber argues that three groups in particular are preventing the international community from admitting that al-Shabaab is committing “acts of genocide”. He blames survivors of genocide because they “fear that the impact of their suffering will be diluted.” Actually, I am most inclined to agree with the genocide victims here. The flippant use of the term genocide does dilute the impact of the term and is disrespectful to those who have actually endured a real genocide.
Secondly, Barber blames the US and other governments for not wanting to intervene per the Convention’s requirements. In the same line, he admits the flaw in this argument – the international community has used the term genocide before without intervention (i.e. Darfur).
Lastly, he argues that “African and Muslim leaders” are worried about being re-branded as “primitive barbarians”. All I can say to this last point is – WTF? How could anyone take this comment seriously?
Barber is simply wrong in his claim that Somalia is experiencing genocide. Let’s take a look at the definition again, this time within the context of Somali famine meets Islamic terrorist group. Here the victim “group” consists of Somalis who are suffering from famine. The accused are members of the organization al-Shabab.
- Al-Shabaab has killed members of the group
- Al-Shabaab has caused serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
- Al-Shabaab has deliberately inflicted conditions that could bring about physical destruction in part
- So far, al-Shabaab has not deliberately imposed measures to prevent births within the group
- So far, al-Shabaab has not forcibly transferred children from the group to another group
Just taking into account this part of the definition, it would appear that Barber’s argument fits within the legal definition of genocide. However, as is much neglected by the careless “boys who cry genocide”, the beginning of the definition is key. There must be a clear intent to destroy in whole or in part a particular group. Genocide is just as much about the act as it is the intent. So far, there is no indication that al-Shabab has the intent to destroy in whole or in part Somalis affected by famine based solely on the fact that they are starving.
If we scream genocide every time one group of people does something inhumane to another group of people – when would we ever stop intervening? What meaning would the term even have anymore? Barber’s commentary would lead us down a dangerous path full of stereotypes, racism (primitive barbarians, really?), and ignorance.
Genocide is the most extreme form of racism or xenophobia. Last time I checked, al-Shabaab’s mission doesn’t include the complete destruction of all famine victims. They don’t have some undying hatred for the starving. Their present actions are based on political/terrorist motives. What they are doing could definitely be seen as a crime against humanity. But their intent is not genocidal. It’s purely political.