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High Crimes

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What’s happening in Libya is extremely frightening. But it is a legal and political mistake to call it “genocide,” as a number of Libyan diplomats have done when tendering their resignation today from an embassy in Sweden.

Legally, shooting protesters constitutes a violation of human rights law: it would rise to the level of a “crime against humanity” only if carried out on a widespread and systematic basis. (This might actually be the case if Saif al-Islam Qaddafi follows through on his promise to kill ‘hundreds of thousands’ if protests do not stop. The definition of crimes against humanity is here in Article 7 of the Rome Statute Treaty Text.)

However this would not in itself be an act of genocide (see Article 6 of the Rome Statute), which would need to include the intent to wipe out some cultural, ethnic, religious or racial group. Though some scholars have argued political groups should also count, what’s being threatened here is mass violence against individuals, not groups per se.

This is not just hair-splitting. The distinction matters because there are international laws in place requiring governments not to stand by while another commits genocide. So accusations of genocide by one state are prone to trigger discussions about whether intervention is justified. This discussion, in cases where the word is used prematurely, often lead to a perception that what’s happening in Libya – or Sudan, or Burma – isn’t really “genocide” and therefore not so bad.

Well, crimes against humanity – mass murder, enslavements, rape, torture, imprisonment, apartheid – are plenty bad. And you don’t need to call these acts “genocide” in order to say so. Doing so only misdirects attention and hands dictators easy excuses.

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