Washington D.C.- “This is genocide.”
This is how Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described atrocities committed in Bucha and other areas near kyiv, where mass graves and apparent executions of civilians were discovered after Russian troops withdrew from the region.
Images of corpses lined up in the streets and bodies stuffed into plastic bags. in Bucha they have shaken the world, raising calls for credible investigations and accountability. But the explosive charge of “genocide” against Russia has proven controversial.
Legal experts say it’s too soon to determine if genocide has occurred in Ukrainehighlighting that while the term is politically damning, other human rights violations are also serious and should not be ignored.
“In public discourse, there is a tendency to treat genocide as the worst of all crimes,” said Ernesto Verdeja, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “It has a kind of political and moral resonance that other types of very serious violations may not have, such as crimes against humanity or war crimes.
“That is problematic and unfortunate because, in fact, under international law, genocide, war crimes and the crimes against humanity are extremely serious.”
What constitutes ‘genocide’?
The UN Genocide Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”, including killings and measures to prevent births.
“The easiest way to think of it is that genocide is group-directed violence. It’s not just about killing a lot of people; it is about the intention to destroy that group of people,” Verdeja told Al Jazeera.
Zelenskyy is not the only world leader bringing the charge of genocide against Russia.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that the atrocities in Bucha “do not look much like genocide”, while his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki said“The crimes that Russia has committed against about 300 inhabitants of Bucha and other cities outside of kyiv should be called acts of genocide and treated as such.”
“We will do everything possible to ensure that those who have perpetrated these war crimes do not go unpunished and are therefore brought to justice… to deal with these alleged cases of [crimes against] humanity, war crimes and why not say it also, genocide”, the President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez Also he said this week.
But US officials have been more cautious in using the word.
Asked if the Bucha killings amount to genocide, US President Joe Biden told reporters on Monday: “No, I think it’s a war crime.” His top aide, Jake Sullivan, later said the administration is monitoring the situation but has not seen a “level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people that rises to the level of genocide.”
International law experts said that because “genocide” is a well-defined legal term, evidence must first be gathered and examined to determine whether it occurred.
“I think it’s worth investigating. It would certainly be a serious mistake to ignore the fact that many victims so far have clearly been civilians, possibly targeted because they are Ukrainian; that is a national origin, a condition that fits the partial definition of genocide,” he said. John Mendezformer UN special adviser for the prevention of genocide.
“But the fact that civilians are killed is not necessarily genocide,” he told Al Jazeera.
‘Planning acts of genocide’
Mendez, currently a professor of human rights law at American University in Washington, DC, backed the Biden administration’s commitment to help investigate atrocities without making a premature determination.
“It is very important not to presume the genocide because then it becomes a political game: ‘You are the genocide and we are the good guys,’” he said.
Mendez also pointed out that prior to the Russian invasion, President Vladimir Putin made unfounded accusations that the Ukrainian government was carrying out a genocide against the Russian-speaking population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east of the country.
“Unfortunately, sometimes we use the word ‘genocide’ too quickly,” Mendez said. “For example, Putin himself has used the word ‘genocide’ against Ukrainians when there is literally no evidence. That [was] just a political ploy to call it that, just to delegitimize the enemy.”
In a February 26 complaint to the International Court of Justice, a UN institution that settles disputes between states, kyiv rejected Moscow’s accusations and said Russia was planning genocide in Ukraine.
“Russia has turned the Genocide Convention on its head, making a false claim of genocide as a basis for actions on its part that constitute gross violations of the human rights of millions of people across Ukraine,” the document says. “Russia’s lie is even more offensive and ironic, because it seems that Russia is planning acts of genocide in Ukraine.”
But while the US has so far avoided using the “genocide” label to describe the situation in Ukraine, it has applied it in other contexts.
Last month, the State Department formally determined that the Myanmar military committed genocide against the Rohingya minority in a campaign that began in 2017 and included the “razing of villages, murder, rape, torture and other horrific abuses.” Before that, in the last days of the Trump administration in early 2021, the US. accused china of committing genocide against Muslim Uyghurs in the western Xinjiang region of the country.
On Ukraine, the State Department said last month which had determined that some members of the Russian military had committed “war crimes” during the conflict, while senior administration officials, including Biden, accused Putin of being a “war criminal“.
Sullivan told reporters Monday that Washington continues to closely monitor the situation and supports efforts to investigate possible violations. “It’s not just that we sit down and debate the terms and then ultimately decide to apply a term based on static circumstances,” he said. “We watch how things develop. We gather evidence. We continue to develop facts.”
For its part, Russia has denied targeting civilians in Ukraine, suggesting that some of the images sparking international outrage from Bucha are fake. The Kremlin has also called the allegations of executions in Bucha a “forgery” intended to discredit the country’s armed forces.
But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called reports of Russian atrocities “more than credible.”
“What we have seen in Bucha is not the random act of a rebel unit. It’s a deliberate campaign to kill, torture, rape, commit atrocities,” Blinken said Tuesday.
‘Investigate, Judge, Punish’
Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court (ICC) the prosecutor has launched an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine. The UN Human Rights Council also announced last month a commission of inquiry to investigate the abuses.
war crimes are violations of international law that occur during times of conflict, including attacks on civilians and mistreatment of prisoners, while crimes against humanity, characterized as widespread or planned abuses of the human rights of civilians, can occur in times of conflict. conflict or in times of relative peace.
“You tend to see war crimes and crimes against humanity at the same time, some practical overlap there,” Verdeja said. He added that it is important to classify such abuses. “From a legal perspective, it matters because it is important to understand the nature of the rape and the crime that is occurring,” he told Al Jazeera.
For his part, Méndez, the professor, said the debate over whether the atrocities constitute genocide should not distract from the broader push for international justice. He said that war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, which fall under the ICC’s mandate, are all serious.
“These are different but very serious violations of international law,” Méndez told Al Jazeera. “And all three require the international community to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators.”