Racist violence is a serious problem. Sometimes it happens on a wide scale. Sometimes thousands are killed and displaced in a war. But not all racist violence is genocide.
“Genocide” is used nowadays to refer to virtually every conflict going on. The word is used as a political tool to bring people together in common cause. Everyone thinks genocide is wrong, right? After the riots in Tibet in 2008 and the crackdown that followed, some called it a genocide. Tamils use it to describe the war in Sri Lanka. Palestinians call Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories genocide. When speaking on Sudan, Nigeria, Chechnya and East Timor, some people throw the word around like a basketball. Strictly speaking, these are not cases of genocide.
I could easily be wrong, though. One reason for such widespread use of the word is its unclear definition. Scholars give various definitions, from systematically massacring an entire group to that given by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group [such as] killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm…; preventing births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” One could be forgiven for thinking almost anything is genocide.
Nonetheless, to overuse a word is to desensitise oneself and take the idea it conveys for granted. Genocide is recognised as a kind of legal trump card called jus cogens: like slavery or crimes against humanity, genocide is illegal under any circumstances. If we start calling too many things genocide, we are exaggerating and might be missing the nuances of the situation that separate it from the deliberate destruction of a whole ethnic group. The word “rape” has acquired a similar role as a basketball word. It is somewhat akin to the boy who cried wolf: cry genocide often enough and people will stop listening.
The executive director of B’Tselem, for instance, agrees. As the leading Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem is one of the most important organisations that inform Israelis of their government’s actions in the Occupied Territories. When Hugo Chavez called Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-9 war on Gaza, a genocide, Jessica Montell wrote that “such demagoguery” is “inaccurately and cynically” tossing words around. B’Tselem was among the first and most vocal to criticise Israel’s handling of the war, for which it may be guilty of war crimes; but war crimes are not genocide. These crimes are serious but “bear no resemblance to genocide or an attempt to exterminate Palestinians.” We “must firmly reject such offensive sloganeering and the trivializing of genuine human rights concerns. Only a careful naming of the reality can fuel genuine efforts to promote justice.”
The alternative, therefore, is to give a more accurate term to say what you mean. What is going on in Darfur may be a genocide, although it may be more like a civil war. (In fact, in trying to convict Sudanese leaders of genocide, the International Criminal Court may lose a case that is nonetheless a clear instance of crimes against humanity.) The war in Sri Lanka is a civil war or an insurgency. In Tibet, it is more like repression. The 2003 war in Iraq was interstate war, occupation, insurgency, sectarian violence, chaos, but if it is genocide, who is committing it? All sides have been killing innocents. Besides, the highest estimates of casualties found 1.4m Iraqis killed since March 2003: a high number, but a small proportion of the 28m people in the country.
Serious words like genocide should be used sparingly in order to preserve their meaning. If we overuse, exaggerate and politicise words, we are bound to lose credibility and supporters.