BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Facing a congressional deadline and escalating criticism that the US government hasn't done enough to combat the rise of ISIS, also known as daesh, Secretary of State John Kerry walked to the podium last week and dropped the g-word.
SECRETARY OF STATE KERRY: My purpose in appearing before you today is to assert that in my judgment daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.
BOB GARFIELD: And the media seemed to say in unanimity, about time!
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Next, Secretary of State John Kerry finally admits that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians and others.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Secretary of State John Kerry finally used the term, after pressure from Congress.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Why did it take the White House, via the State Department, so long to label this?
WOMAN: That’s a question I can't answer. I, I think it's been something that’s been mystifying to people.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now what? Does it actually mean anything? Rebecca Hamilton, a former Sudan and South Sudan correspondent for the Washington Post, calls this conundrum the "g-word paradox." Rebecca, welcome to On the Media.
REBECCA HAMILTON: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Before we get to the implications of Kerry’s declaration, let's talk about how hard it historically has been for the US government to pronounce the “g-word.” Here is then State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley back in 1994, trying very hard not to say that word in the midst of the Rwanda genocide.
[1994 DEMOCRACY NOW! CLIP]:
CHRISTINE SHELLEY: Hence, we, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.
ALAN ELSNER: How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?
CHRISTINE SHELLEY: Alan, that’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer.
ALAN ELSNER: Is it true that the — that you have specific guidance not use the word "genocide" in isolation, but always to preface it with this, with this word, "acts of"?
CHRISTINE SHELLEY: I have guidance, which, which - to which I —which I try to use as, as best as I can. I’m not — I, I have —there are, are formulations that we are using…
BOB GARFIELD: The “genocide jig” that presser has been called.
REBECCA HAMILTON: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: Why is it so hard?
REBECCA HAMILTON: Well, in that case, she was indeed following official guidance. Government lawyers had warned not to use the word “genocide” for fear that doing so might commit the US government to actually, quote, unquote, “do something.” And they were referring, of course, to part of the UN Convention on Genocide, Article 1 of which requires states like the US that have signed up to it to prevent or punish genocide if it happens.
And so, it was extremely difficult for her because she was desperately [LAUGHS] trying to hold this press conference where it was very clear that genocide was, in fact, happening in Rwanda, without uttering the “g-word.” Subsequently, that legal advice has changed.
BOB GARFIELD: So that we are signatories; we are not obliged to intervene, even if we officially declare genocide is taking place.
REBECCA HAMILTON: That's the current legal position of the government. And this is subject to some debate within international legal circles. If you pass out the words of, you know, “obligated to prevent or punish,” different governments take different views on exactly what that obligation means. But at least domestically it's very clear at the moment that the US government doesn't consider that there are any legal consequences, as opposed to political or moral, following from a determination of genocide.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, irrespective of the legal interpretation of America's duty de jour, the fact is that from its beginnings 70 years ago the term “genocide” has been fraught.
REBECCA HAMILTON: Right from its inception. It was a term that was created by a Polish Jewish lawyer by the name of Raphael Lemkin, who ended up leaving 49 members of his family in the Nazi concentration camps, who as a teenager was obsessed with the impunity for the Armenian genocide. He didn't understand how is it that the killing a million people is less a crime than the killing of a single individual? We have a name for that crime. We have the name of murder. But at the time there was no name. He heard Winston Churchill saying, in, in reference to the Nazi crimes, that we’re in the presence of a crime with no name, and that really struck him.
And so, you can see in his journal entries he's writing scribbles of trying out different words that could signify the worst kind of crime imaginable. And he ended up deciding on “genocide,” which was “geno” from the Greek word meaning group and “cide” from the Latin word meaning killing. And he went off into the world convinced, as us lawyers so often are, of the importance of words and that if finally this crime just had a name, then people could respond to it with the seriousness that was required.
BOB GARFIELD: What he also did was create a new legalism –
REBECCA HAMILTON: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - that has in varying degrees confounded policymakers and governments ever since. There is no playbook for how and when to invoke the word. What is it that is so confounding?
REBECCA HAMILTON: Even when we’re at a place where US government lawyers are saying, look, there's no legal consequences if you do this, government officials are perfectly well aware that in the broader public it does matter to people whether a situation is genocide or not.
One of the really interesting things coming out of the Darfur determination of genocide, which Secretary of State Colin Powell made in September of 2004, he believed at the time – and I interviewed him a few years later - that by him saying the word he would catalyze the governments of the world, including his own government, to effective action. That is not, in fact, what happened. But what it did do was catalyze this incredible response in the United States that became the Save Darfur movement. And for the next five years, Powell and everybody else in the Bush administration had these thousands of citizen advocates on their back because the situation had been called “genocide.”
What we've seen over time is a narrative developing around the US failed response to genocide, which really shamed American policymakers. Because of that narrative, there’s a framework that’s there for the taking in the media coverage, and we think to Christine Shelley doing the genocide jig and President Clinton's embarrassment.
[CLIP/ADDRESS TO GENOCIDE SURVIVORS IN KIGALI, RWANDA]:
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.
REBECCA HAMILTON: All of that comes into play with the use of the word “genocide.” And so, that can be useful for a situation that doesn't have already as much coverage as ISIS, but it also does something that can be a little pernicious. There’s a sense that once something has the label “genocide” we know everything that we need to know about it.
So rather than figuring out the really messy history and regional context that is happening in the rest of Sudan or the Horn of Africa, for example, with Darfur, we can just draw this nice linear line from, let’s start with ISIS today, back to Darfur, to Rwanda, Srebrenica, the Holocaust. So there’s a decontextualizing function, in fact, that the word “genocide” now brings to media coverage.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t want to be too reductive about all of this, but if I were an Iraqi Yazidi woman, am I today any less under threat of being made a sexual slave by ISIS than I was a few days ago?
REBECCA HAMILTON: No. That, however, is not a reason to say that it doesn't matter that the Secretary of State has called what is happening “genocide.” It brings clarity to the policy process, which hopefully leads to better policies down the track. It focuses minds and resources. And, at the end of the day, there is just a correctness about labeling something for what it is. And that stands through time and it's obviously not nearly enough, but it is something.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Rebecca, thank you so much.
REBECCA HAMILTON: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Rebecca Hamilton is the deputy director of the Robert L Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU’s School of Law and author of, Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide.