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The politics of calling the Russia-Ukraine war a genocide

Relatives and friends attend a funeral ceremony for four of the Ukrainian military servicemen, who were killed during an airstrike in a military base in Yarokiv, in a church in Lviv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. At least 35 people were killed and many wounded in Sunday's Russian missile strike on a military training base near Ukraine's western border with NATO member Poland. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Relatives and friends attend a funeral ceremony for four of the Ukrainian military servicemen, who were killed during an airstrike in a military base in Yarokiv, in a church in Lviv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 15, 2022. At least 35 people were killed and many wounded in Sunday's Russian missile strike on a military training base near Ukraine's western border with NATO member Poland. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Last Tuesday, President Joe Biden declared genocide was taking place in Ukraine.

“I called it genocide because it’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being able to be a Ukrainian,” the president said.

But is Biden right?

“It can be really hard to figure out if violence is genocidal, especially in the context of active conflict,” professor Kate Cronin-Furman says. “A lot of people have been really hesitant to try and analyze this because of what’s known as the ‘fog of war.'”

There is a strict strict legal definition of what qualifies as genocide.

“The key definitional thing is the specific intent and that’s what sets it apart from other mass atrocities.”

Today, On Point: The politics of calling the Russian invasion of Ukraine a genocide, what it takes to prove it, and why it matters.


Kate Cronin-Furman, associate professor of human rights at the University College London. (@kcroninfurman)

Eugene Finkel, associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University. Author of Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust. (@eugene_finkel)

Also Featured

Peter Balakian, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor of the humanities at Colgate University. Author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response.

Interview Highlights

Is a genocide happening in Ukraine?

Eugene Finkel: “Genocide is definitely a legal term, but it’s also a political term. It’s a moral term and it’s an analytical term. And I’m not a lawyer. I’m a scholar of the Holocaust and genocide. More broadly, I am also a scholar of Eastern Europe, specifically Russia and Ukraine. And when we wrote this Op-Ed, I used both my knowledge of genocide and what it is and also my knowledge of Eastern Europe, how it works, how Russia works, and also evidence that we’re seeing on the ground.

“Now, more specifically, why I think that what we see does feed the definition of genocide is because the definition is very simple. The definition is acts committed with the intent to destroy national, ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part as such. And I think what we see in Ukraine is that the targeting of civilians is not random. There is a very clear pattern that we do see. Yes, there are many people who are being killed in what we can call indiscriminate violence.

“Someone who is not shelling or someone who did not stop at the checkpoint. The Russian soldiers wanted to loot their house and kill them. But there’s also quite a lot of evidence that people are targeted quite deliberately. People and especially people who are associated with Ukrainian national identity and the Ukrainian state. So teachers, state officials, those who explicitly self-identify as Ukrainians, veterans of the Ukrainian military. So that for me was one part of the evidence, and it came from different places. It wasn’t just an isolated massacre.

“And second, I think I have a clear information about the intent. Because it’s all over Russian media and it’s all over the things that Russian state officials are saying. It didn’t start this way. At the beginning, they were talking about Ukraine being an artificial state and talking about regime change. And this, I’m pretty sure what they wanted to achieve when they invaded Ukraine.

“But once they encountered pretty stiff Ukrainian resistance, we saw rhetoric shifting in Russia. Not only in the state media, but also by state officials like former President Medvedev, who is now the vice chairman of the Russian Security Council, to the notification that the official goal of the Russian campaign in the media ecosphere, the notification being ‘De-Ukrainization.’

“And it’s pretty actionable to the extent that, you know, national elites should be liquidated. People, I mean, the general population should be punished. They should suffer ideological repression. They should be re-educated. We also see evidence of curriculum being switched from Ukrainian to Russian or separatist burning books. So here we do see this clear intent to destroy Ukrainians as a national group.”

On a definition of genocide

Kate Cronin-Furman: “Eugene has given the convention definition, which is it hinges on this intent to destroy an identity group. And that can mean mass killing, which I think is what most people think of when they hear the word genocide. And often we do see genocidal intent manifest in mass killing. It can also mean the infliction of severe physical or mental trauma.

“Importantly, for what we are seeing in Ukraine, it can mean measures to prevent births within the group, and it can mean forcible transfer of children away from the group. So any of these acts with that intent to destroy can equal genocide. … When we try to figure out if mass atrocities are genocidal, we are looking for that intent to destroy.”

On why genocide is harder to prove in court

Kate Cronin-Furman: “It makes genocide much, much harder to prove in court than, say, war crimes or crimes against humanity. So sometimes it’s not that difficult. Right? So in the case of the Holocaust, there was loads of documentary evidence showing that the extermination of the Jews was both German state policy and the specific intent of any number of Nazi officials. But usually, we don’t have that kind of smoking gun evidence that we would want, and then courts have to infer from context.

“So in the case of Rwanda, for instance, the International Criminal Tribunal inferred from the scale and the systematicity with which Tutsis were being targeted, that this was an extermination plan. And that was backed up by testimony that perpetrators had said things like they needed to wipe out Tutsis so that future generations of Hutu children would never know what a Tutsi looked like.”

How does a government declare something a genocide?

Kate Cronin-Furman: “This is something that the U.S. has done. The U.S. government has done a handful of times in the last 20 or 30 years, which is to officially label acts genocide. It’s worth noting here that there is no official policy that undermines … underlies this, and there’s also no formal process. So it’s a little bit opaque what exactly this means and why the U.S. does it. But we have seen it previously with regard to Bosnia, with regard to Rwanda, with regard to the attacks on Kurds in Iraq, Darfur, ISIS attacks on the Yazidi and most recently with the Biden administration, the Genocide against the Uyghurs and against the Rohingya.”

In the last century, there have been three cases that have met the international courts threshold of genocide. Can you talk about those situations?

Kate Cronin-Furman: “We’ve had a number of instances in which international courts have found people guilty of genocide. And, you know, just to say, once upon a time, I was a lawyer. So I do kind of have this residual technical approach, which is that genocide is a crime to be proved in a court of law. So we’ve seen individuals held responsible for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia.

“We’ve seen it at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. We’ve also seen the ICJ concur that genocide was committed in the case of Srebrenica. And we have, I actually can’t remember whether we have a ruling yet, but we have had discussion of genocide in the case of Cambodia by the extraordinary chambers in the courts of Cambodia.”

On how Ukraine can seek justice and Western nations can hold Russia accountable

Kate Cronin-Furman: “I think something that is interesting about this particular case and is, you know, different from most of the other contexts that I’m familiar with and most of the other genocides that we’ve talked about today, is that Ukraine is a state. Right? Ukrainians are not a marginalized minority within Russia. They are their own country with their own justice system.

“So as these crimes have been committed, Ukrainian prosecutors and investigators have been taking testimony, gathering forensic evidence and starting to build case files. So I think we are very likely to see prosecutions of people implicated in these crimes within the Ukrainian justice system. Additionally, a month ago or so, about 40 countries referred the situation to the International Criminal Court. So the International Criminal Court is also engaged in a process of investigation and preparing to issue charges.

“So, you know, while obviously the prospect of seeing Putin himself in the dock is not particularly likely. I think we should expect to see any number of members of the Ukrainian military, you know, mid-level, even higher level commanders, given that we’ve got a lot of generals on the field, in the courtroom facing accountability for these crimes.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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