Notes on the concept of genocide


Remembrance Day has come and gone. I spent it in an Armory, listening to my parents’ choir, singing a rendition of Flander’s Fields and Handel and so on. All the hits, basically.

Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” (2002) is a history of the concept of genocide. She argues that the American government’s default attitude to genocide is ambivalence.* Even if you disagree with her assessment of American foreign policy, it is also a lucid and useful volume just for the sake of understanding the imperfect legacy of the idea.

In international law, genocide is any act which involves (a) use of at least some atrocious means, (b) against protected groups as such, with (c) the intent to eliminate at least part of those groups. The atrocities in question include: killing, serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately undermining conditions of life (e.g., ghettoization), forced sterilization, and forcible transfer of children. The protected groups are “national, ethnical, racial, or religious”, and to target these groups ‘as such’ is to treat their destruction as a worthy end in itself and not just a means to a further end. Notably, this definition applies even when the aggressor is the ruler or sovereign over the targeted peoples, and it applies during wartime.

In this conceptual space the Holocaust of the Second World War is the prototype of genocide, since that episode involved all of the atrocious means (killing, torture, sterilization, etc.) and was perpetrated against the protected groups as such. During the course of Power’s recounting, we learn of other definite exemplars of genocide in the 20th century — the Armenian genocide by the Turks, the Khmer Rouge’s assault on urban centers in Cambodia, Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia, the Tutsis in Rwanda, and so on.

Though Power does not discuss this, it is noteworthy that the Canadian residential schools program was genocide. During that decades-long institutional crime against humanity, persons of Indigenous descent were sterilized and their children were forcibly relocated, notably during the period known as the “Sixties Scoop“. It has been alleged that episodes related to this event occurred up to 2017. To be sure, it is not be a prototype in the region of conceptual space of “genocide”, but it is a definite case.


For some Canadians this may be too much to take in. Nobody wants to be complicit in genocide, so denial of the facts is one strategy. However, there might be some problems with our grasp of the concept itself, which are getting in the way of getting accepted. That is, there might be features of the definition that hard to deploy in cognition, because our usage fails to meet the virtues of a well-behaved categorization.

So, for instance. Some time ago, Paul Boghossian suggested that the concept of genocide was irremediably defective. His arguments are reasonable. But is he right to suggest that the concept of genocide is especially hard to parse?

I must confess that not all of his arguments struck me as decisive. (1) So, for instance, the law requires actions that are intended to eliminate at least part of a protected group, and this “in part” clause is vague to the point of ambiguity. Boghossian argues that this is a major defect. But: for one thing, as many philosophers of law will tell you, that is one of the ambiguities that is strategic to lawmaking, as it affords a legal culture the opportunity to deliberate on the moral, political, and common-sense features of a non-obvious question in the mereology of social ontology. (2) For another thing, he argues that genocide is meant to be a distinctive injustice as a matter of analytical fact. But we can reasonably question whether genocide is distinctively worse than cases of mass killings without being incoherent, which (for classical conceptual analysts) should be sufficient reason to dismiss the need to establish that genocide is a distinct moral wrong. I think it is enough to establish that it is a wrong somewhere at the top of the heap of moral wrongs.

That said, many of Boghossian’s points are worth consideration. He identified several cases that are ostensibly excluded, but which ought to be included:

  • Stalin’s dekulakization was directed towards an economic class of ostensibly well-off peasants, the Kulaks, that resulted in millions of deaths by way of forced redistribution of essential goods necessary for life (a). This apparently does not count as genocide because “economic class” is not a protected group, (b). (For the sake of completeness, we might also include questions about whether or not it is targeting “as such”, as opposed to instrumentally targeting for the sake of collectivization.)
  • He wonders whether or not the intention of exterminating part of a gender would count. (e.g., we might cite sex selection and infanticide in the developing world.)

He also considered some cases that ought to be excluded, but are mistakenly included:

  • Egregious wartime episodes like the firebombing of Dresden or the bombing of Nagasaki, targeted nationalities as such, using atrocious means. But (Boghossian suggests) this is an awkward fit, since the episodes occurred during wartime. For him, these are not obvious cases of genocide, since it is at least plausible to say that they were targeted as a means to an end, the end being to end the war.

Ordinarily, this would be the place where I would argue for one or another categorization of the concept of genocide, such that these apparent exceptions are finessed into a rendering of a coherent whole, either decisively rejected as cases of genocide or decisively included.

But I will not do that. What I would prefer to do is examine the concept of genocide as a perspicuous region in conceptual space, following the methods in the previous post. Perhaps that will have to wait for a different installment.


*Her thesis has to be slightly complicated once you factor in G.W. Bush’s neo-conservative moralism when he argued in favor of the second invasion of Iraq in 2002 — but only slightly. History shows that that policy decision was driven by other factors — as I experience flashbacks to Condeleeza Rice’s “smoking gun mushroom cloud”, Colin Powell’s credibility-deflating testimony before the UN, and the bewilderment of the intelligence community reflected in the Downing Street Memo, and John Bolton’s ongoing impulse-control problems. Still, even if you grant that neo-conservatism certainly sold itself as a moralistic doctrine, it appears as a historical blip. And there is probably no surer evidence of this fact than Samantha Power herself was ousted from her position as representative to the UN during the crypto-isolationistic Trump administration.

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