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Can Persistent Racism be a Prelude to Genocide?
by Rene Wadlow
2013-12-09 10:21:38
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Can Persistent Racism be a Prelude to Genocide ?
An interrogation to Mark the Anniversary of the Genocide Convention

9 December is the anniversary of the 1948 Convention on Genocide, signed at the UN General Assembly held in 1948 in Paris.  The Genocide Convention was signed the day before the proclamation on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The two texts were much influenced by the Second World War.  The crimes of Nazi Germany were uppermost in the minds of those who drafted the Convention in order to deal with a new aspect of international law and the laws of war.

ukrain01_400The protection of civilians from deliberate mass murder was already in The Hague and Geneva Conventions of international humanitarian law.  However, genocide is different from mass murder.  Genocide is the most extreme consequences of racial discrimination and ethnic hatred.  Genocide  has as its aim the destruction, wholly or in part, of national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such. The term was proposed by the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, drawing on the Greek genos (people or tribe) and the Latin cide (to kill) (1)

Mass deaths are not genocide.  The largest number of deaths since the end of the Second World War was the failure of Chinese agricultural policies between 1958 and 1962 with over 20 million deaths, but the aim was not to destroy the Chinese as a people.  Likewise, the destructive famine in Ukraine 1932-1933 with its seven million dead had a political motivation to reduce opposition but not to destroy the Ukranians as a people.  The US-led war in Vietnam killed some two million Vietnamese, but the aim was not to destroy the Vietnamese as a people.

Genocide in the sense of a desire to eliminate a people has nearly always a metaphysical aspect as well as deep-seated racism.  This was clear in the Nazi desire to eliminate Jews, first by forced emigration from Europe and, when emigration was not possible, by physical destruction.

We see a desire to destroy totally certain tribes in the Darfur conflict in Sudan that did not exist in the much longer and more deadly North-South Sudan Civil War (1956-1972, 1982-2005). Darfur tribes are usually defined by “blood lines” — marriage and thus procreation is limited to a certain population, either within the tribe or with certain other groups with which marriage relations have been created over a period of time.  Thus children born of rape — considered ‘Janjaweed babies ‘— after the government-sponsored Janjaweed militias— are left to die or are abandoned.  The raped women are often banished or ostracized.  By attacking both the aged, holders of traditional knowledge, and the young of child-bearing age, the aim of the destruction of the continuity of a tribal group is clear.

We find the same pattern in some of the fighting in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo where not only are women raped but their sexual organs are destroyed so that they will not be able to reproduce.

Article VIII of the Genocide Conventions provides that “Any Contracting Party may call upon the Competent Organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the UN as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III”. Unfortunately no State has ever done so.

Thus we need to look more closely at the ways in which deep-set racism and constant and repeated accusations against a religious, ethnic or social category can be a prelude to genocide.



(1) Raphael Lemkin.Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, 1944)

(2) For good overviews see:

Walliman and Dobkowski (Eds) Genocide and the Modern Age (New  York: Greenwood Press, 1987)

F. Chalk, K. Jonassohn. The History and Sociology of Genocide (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990)

G.J. Andreopoulos (Ed) Genocide Conceptual andHistorical Dimensions Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994)

Samantha Power A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002)

John Tirman The Death of Others (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens


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