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Genocide As A Concept: Binary Or Analogue?

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) – based in The Hague, in The Netherlands – is being asked by South Africa if the 100-day (so far) slaughter by the Government of Israel in Gaza constitutes a 'genocide'. Thus 'genocide' is presented as a binary concept, in a context where there is no word for a slaughter which falls just short of the lawyers' definition.

The Israeli government is presenting a defence, though it's a defence based on a mix of procedural technicalities and justification; not a defence based on the normal usage of the word 'genocide' as historians have used it. Among other things, Israel resorts to the b-word – 'baseless' – which is standard response language to an allegation which is true in substance but for which the alleger might not have the required standard of proof. And Israel also 'defends' the accusation of genocide by justifying it, even suggesting that the real perpetrators of genocide are Hamas with their deadly assault on Israeli civilians and soldiers situated outside Gaza's border fence on October 7. Justifying an action is different to denying it.

If the ICJ proves unwilling to apply the 'genocide' label to the atrocious slaughter of Gazans – a group of Palestinian people fenced into a diminishing camp, and not even able to leave as refugees – then the ICJ will not have done its job if they are unable to come up with an alternative descriptor.

A sensible solution, it seems to me, is to think of genocide as an analogue concept; not a binary. And one practical way of dealing with analogues is to use the concept of 'levels' or of 'degrees'. Thus a 'murder of the first degree' is worse than a 'murder of the second degree'. And a 'level five storm' is more damaging than a 'level four storm'.

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(Indeed New Zealand faced the Covid19 pandemic a few months after a major and fatal volcanic eruption, on Whakaari White Island. An active volcano, Whakaari was on a 'level two' alert when the sudden eruption happened. Tourists were on the island. Earlier in 2018 it had been on a 'level one' alert, the lowest for an active volcano. Then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern went on to apply that 'level' terminology to Covid19 public health restrictions. Thus, in April 2020, New Zealand went into a 'level four lockdown'.)

I propose five levels of genocide. I have no qualms about calling the gas chamber Holocaust of World War II (WW2) as a level five genocide. But we should note that WW2 contained other genocides; with the murders of Jews in the fenced-in Warsaw Ghetto mainly in 1940 and 1941 as such a genocide, with people dying in the Ghetto from "mass shootings" and "starvation". So too, was the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944; this time the victims were mainly Poles of Slavic ethnicity. The axis-of-resistance in 1944 was international, indeed – according to Wikipedia – it included the South African Air Force. I would argue that the Warsaw Uprising was a level four genocide. Likewise, would I label the ongoing suppression of the 2023 Gaza Uprising.

While I would not object to the Gaza Uprising of 7 October 2023 being labelled a level one genocide, I would always argue that one genocide can never be an excuse for another. (And I would note that the victims of 7 October – who included Thai nationals – died in some part because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hamas – the perpetrator of that Gaza Uprising – did not target Thai people because of their identity. And they targeted Israelis because they were Israeli, not because they were Jewish.)

I would be inclined to categorize the systematic killing of Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) in the 1990s as a level two genocide. The atrocities first committed on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar by the military wing of the Aung San Suu Kyi government – and, by all accounts, continued by the present military administration –might be regarded as level three genocide; at least many Rohingya were able to escape as refugees to Bangladesh. Similarly, the genocides in Darfur, in the west of Sudan. The nineteenth century slow genocide of Tasmania was arguably a 'level four'. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda would be level three or level four.

There can be little doubt that, if there was a formal system of genocide levels, the present 'War on Gaza' would have to be defined as a genocide. The legal arguments would be about the level, not the word.

Nothing excuses genocidal behaviour, whatever the level. Though, in almost all cases, genocides can be understood. One genocide cannot excuse another. Somewhat more difficult to understand is the patronage of genocide, such as that perpetrated by the supposedly 'liberal' United States' government. An emerging trope is that of Genocide Joe (and note these cartoons by Brazilian Carlos Latuff, relayed by Iran's Abna24). Even more difficult to understand is the Democrat Party's promotion of Joe Biden as their 2024 presidential candidate. And the credulous media blindspots. And the liberal descendants of the perpetrators of the Warsaw Uprising just 80 years ago; supporting, at present at governmental level, another mass slaughter.

Genocide is almost certainly much more common in history than most people realise. The problem is that most genocides remain undocumented (or under-documented) by their victims; history is largely written by the conflicts' winners. Clearly Israel would like it to remain that way, to 'win' and to suppress the documentation of genocide.

To leave Gazans as the majority population in Gaza would only lead to the formation of Hamas 2.0. It seems to me that the Israeli government seeks to eradicate Hamas 2.0 by today killing the children of Gaza – those who survive will become Hamas 2.0 – as well as by killing the fighters of Hamas 1.0. (And we should note that the extreme violence in Gaza is an attention-span distraction from the less intense genocide – a slower and possibly bigger genocide – of Palestinians which is taking place on the 'West Bank'.)

Given the absence of other technical words for lower-level genocides, we should understand 'genocide' as an analogue concept; a spectrum that covers a whole range of targeted mass slaughters. The definitional threshold for a 'level one genocide' should be quite low. Whether or not the common-sense 'levels' approach is adopted by the international community, my sense is that – descriptively – the War on Gaza is a higher-level genocide than the successfully prosecuted 1990s' Bosnian genocide. I would compare the War on Gaza with the two Warsaw genocides of World War 2.

Mass slaughter is too important to be downplayed due to the self-enforced use of binary semantics. Genocide cannot be magicked away by well-remunerated lawyers and technically-minded judges.


Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

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