Washington, 7 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Disagreements over whether what the Serbs are doing in Kosovo constitutes a genocide have less to do with differences over the facts than with the term itself, both as a political symbol and as a legal concept.
Few people would dissent from the proposition that Serbian actions in Kosovo fall within the commonsensical definition of "genocide" -- the physical destruction or expulsion of members of one ethnic or religious community by representatives of another group.
But in addition to this everyday understanding, the term has had for the last 50 years a specific legal definition, one enshrined in the Genocide Convention of 1948 that requires immediate and massive intervention by all countries to that are signatory to that agreement in order to prevent genocidal actions from continuing.
Because of this requirement, the term itself has been politicized. Many human rights activists use this term to describe relatively small-scale atrocities in the hopes that outside governments will be compelled to act. And many governments seek to avoid it lest they find themselves in a position where they must either act or stand accused of allowing a genocide to go forward.
And that in turn presents a major challenge for policy makers, even those most committed to preventing any genocide from taking place. Speaking at a December 1998 conference to mark the 50th anniversary of the Genocide Convention, the senior U.S. official responsible for war crimes issues noted that it was usually easy to recognize genocides after they take place but often very difficult to do so while they are in progress.
David Scheffer, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for such issues noted that "The U.S. hesitated in 1992 during the worst atrocities in the Bosnian conflict. From 1993 to 1995, we encountered many obstacles to acting decisively in Bosnia. In the meantime, tens of thousands of civilians perished, including at Srebrenica."
Scheffer said the U.S. and other countries intend to do everything possible to prevent and combat genocide in the future, but he argued that there is no single or correct approach to the "complex madness of atrocities." All governments must consider not only the reliability of reports of atrocities but also a variety of other factors as well.
And he warned that genocide, wherever it occurs, is and will remain an international problem, one that the United States is not prepared to combat unilaterally unless American national security or other critical concerns are at stake. To that end, Scheffer urged that the international community must improve its "capability to react multi-nationally and rapidly to these crimes."
Both human rights observers and those who are suffering from such crimes will inevitably see such an argument as a means of avoiding responsibility for doing anything serious to stop a genocide until it is too late to prevent most of the damage.
But as morally problematic as Scheffer's case may strike many, particularly at times like now when mass murder and physical expulsion seem to be the order of the day in Kosovo, the argument he makes not only has a certain logic but is almost inevitable.
Unless governments set a relatively high standard for the information they receive showing that a genocide is in fact taking place, they are likely to find themselves manipulated by those who would seek to drag them into situations that may not have yet reached that critical state. And such interventions might even make conditions worse.
Moreover, even when governments are convinced that a genocide is taking place, there are serious limitations on what they can do. Even the most massive use of force may have the effect of further inflaming the situation, causing the perpetrators of genocide to act even more viciously than they did before. Indeed, many observers have suggested that the Serbs may have behaved even worse since NATO began to bomb.
And finally, no government or set of governments has the almost infinite resources that would be necessary to intervene against genocide and to keep its forces in place for long enough to guarantee that those who began the genocide would never restart it or those who were the victims of genocide might seek revenge.
Genocide is now generally recognized as one of the most serious crimes against humanity. But it also remains a challenge that the international community has not yet found a way to meet. And until that happens, the battle over the use of the term will continue, a battle that reflects both how far humanity has progressed and also how far it has yet to go.