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Speaking of genocide, Biden escalates the war of words over Ukraine

President Biden speaks to reporters prior to boarding Air Force One at Des Moines International Airport in Des Moines, Iowa, on April 12.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden speaks to reporters prior to boarding Air Force One at Des Moines International Airport in Des Moines, Iowa, on April 12.

Cities are being bombed, warships sunk and tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed. And as the real struggle in Ukraine continues to intensify, so does the accompanying war of words.

This past week, President Biden again ratcheted up his rhetoric when he told an audience in Iowa President Vladimir Putin was "a dictator [who] commits genocide."

In remarks made after Putin's armed forces invaded Ukraine in February, Biden had called the atrocities reported from that country "war crimes." He had called Putin a "war criminal" who said he needed to be removed from power. (The White House subsequently walked back the latter comment.) Nonetheless, his use of the word genocide detonated in the media and spread shock waves through the international community.

Many observers have suggested that if Ukraine is right about the systematic murder of its civilians, these acts fit the definition of "war crimes" or "crimes against humanity" as understood by international courts for generations. Deliberate targeting of civilians is definitionally a war crime.

But Biden went further: "Yes, I called it genocide. It has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being – being able to be Ukrainian."

Each presidential turn of the rhetorical ratchet in recent weeks has made news, catching NATO allies off guard and prompting "clarification" from the White House. Yet each has also set a tone for much of the war debate that followed.

It should also be noted that in each instance of provocative language Biden has been essentially been following the lead of his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Ukrainian president has also personalized the struggle, calling Putin out for war crimes and labeling the killing of civilians in Ukraine as genocide.

Most recently, Zelenskyy has called on the U.S. to add Russia to its list of "state sponsors of terrorism," which now includes the regimes in Syria, Iran, Cuba and North Korea.

That list, too, is often misunderstood and subject to interpretation, but it was begun in 1979 and used by subsequent presidents in both parties to justify various acts against several countries – including Iraq, Sudan, Libya and South Yemen.

Appropriating Putin's own language

There is a degree of irony in the use of the word "genocide" at this stage of the war because it figured so prominently in Putin's own rhetoric prior to the invasion. In February, Putin accused Ukrainian forces of killing Russian-speaking separatists in the eastern part of the country (known as the Donbas for its geographic role as the basin of the Don River).

"What is happening in the Donbas today is genocide," Putin told his country on Feb. 15. Thereafter, a chorus of other Russian voices in government and the media took up the theme. Russia even complained to the United Nations Security Council that Ukraine was "exterminating the civilian population" in the Donbas.

Putin provided no evidence for this claim at the time and has not since. But the accusation has been part of the Russian media campaign against the government in Kyiv since a popular uprising deposeda pro-Putin autocrat there in 2014. It is often invoked in discussions of Russian ethnicity and the importance of protecting culturally Russian people wherever they may live.

Still, the sudden prominence of the genocide term this past winter seemed a warning that Putin was about to make a move. And indeed, a little more than a week later, Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine — not only in the Donbas but on the highway to Kyiv.

The latter thrust was stymied well shy of its objectives by the now-famous resistance of the Ukrainian armed forces and armed civilians. But as the Russians retreated they left evidence of a massacre, widely documented by Western journalists, that included women and children and men who had been bound.

Cities and towns in Ukraine had already been pounded by Russian bombs and missiles fired indiscriminately at densely populated areas. But it was the emergence of atrocities in towns such as Bucha that caught the world's attention, spawned a fresh round of international sanctions and prompted renewed talk of war crimes and genocide.

What it means

Genocide was a term first used in the 1940s, describing the Holocaust — Nazi Germany's effort to eradicate all the Jews in Europe and elsewhere (along with other categories of people deemed undesirable). The United Nations Genocide Convention in 1948 characterized several "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious people." Others have used somewhat broader categories or groupings.

Whatever differences of interpretation there may be, genocide connotes the most egregious offense imaginable in law or morality. Given the monstrous model of the Holocaust, most scholars, jurists and international leaders have preferred to use the term genocide judiciously.

"We're going to learn more and more about the devastation," Biden said. "And we'll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies. But it sure seems that way to me."

In the past, such determinations have taken time. There is a formal process by which the U.S. Department of State grants "recognition" of a genocide that has taken place or is taking place in some part of the world. The word recognition conveys a sense that these events are often disputed or covered up, or that they have not been widely acknowledged.

The idea that the U.S. government would make a judgment on such events is profoundly political, both in contemporary and historical terms. Since coming to office, the Biden administration has made two such recognitions – one for a genocide more than a century ago and one happening right now.

Rohingya and Armenians

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made reference to this process and the situation in Ukraine when he spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., on March 22. Blinken was there to announce the completion of the recognition process with regard to Myanmar, also called Burma.

"Beyond the Holocaust, the United States has concluded that genocide was committed seven times," said Blinken. "Today marks the eighth, as I have determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya."

The Rohingya are Muslims who had lived in Burma and often been persecuted before elements of the military began trying to eliminate them entirely in 2016. Thousands have been killed and more than a million have fled the country, many to neighboring Bangladesh where they live as refugees.

But in the same speech, Blinken talked about the "unprovoked, brutal war" Russia was waging against Ukraine and "innocent men, women and children."

He noted that some of the deaths had taken place in the Kyiv area on a site known as Babyn Yar, where more than 33,000 Jews were killed by Nazis in just two days in 1941.

The case of the Rohingya was considered through the years of the Trump administration but no final decision was made. However, on his last day in office, Trump's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did announce the recognition of genocide in another long-running and similar situation. This involved China and the systematic abuse and relocation of its Muslim Uyghurs, the largest ethnic minority group in the western Xinjiang province.

Pompeo's last-minute recognition regarding the Uyghurs was the sixth such genocide recognition made by the U.S. State Department. The seventh was added not long after, in March 2021, when a newly inaugurated President Biden ended a century-long argument about the treatment of the Armenian people by Turkey, then still known as the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16.

Although many different governments have held power in Turkey since, all have strenuously objected to calling the deaths of more than a million Armenians a genocide. Millions of dollars were spent over the years on American lobbyists, including some former members of Congress, to argue against such a recognition. largely because it was presumably damaging to U.S.-Turkish relations.

Many other mass killings throughout history have not been formally recognized by the U.S. for a variety of reasons. Some of these have been prosecuted by international courts, sometimes with U.S. support. One example is the untold loss of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot in the 1970s.

The other five genocides that have received official recognition by the U.S. since the formal process began in 1989 are noted here in the order of their official recognition.

Bosnia (1993) based on the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica by Serbian soldiers and militia. The killings were part of a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" conducted under Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and carried out largely by his army's commander Ratko Mladic.

Rwanda (1994) This recognition was based on events in a civil war that had lasted for several years. In an organized campaign lasting several months, the dominant Hutu in this central African country sought to wipe out or drive out the minority ethnic Tutsi, as well as some of their own people who tried to defend the Tutsi and a third ethnic group called the Twa. More than half a million Tutsi are believed to have been killed.

Iraq (1995) The recognition came well after Ba'athist Party strongman Saddam Hussein's campaign against Iraqi Kurds began in the previous decade and lasted into the new century. Saddam at one point used poison gas against a Kurdish city named Halabjain northern Iraq. Captured after the Second Persian Gulf War, he was executed in 2006while still on trial for earlier crimes against the Kurds.

Darfur (2004) A civil war in the western parts of Sudan pitted two rebel groups against the government in Khartoum. The government armed militias, including the Janjaweed, to counter the rebellion. The United Nations estimated this resulted in the deaths of at least 200,000 and the displacement of more than two million. The leader of Janjaweed went on trial before the International Court in the Hague this spring.

ISIS occupied territories (2016-2017) Yazidi, Kurds and some Christians who lived in parts of Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya held by the Islamic State in the second decade of this century were the victims of systematic attacksand efforts to eliminate them.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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