Why the Emphasis on Genocide Anniversaries?

by Ahmed Farooq with assistance from Zaina Awan

Ahmed Farooq is a graduate of the University of London, Harvard Law School and the University of Cambridge. He is an incoming law clerk at the Kenai Superior Court and the Federal District Court of Massachusetts. Zaina Awan is a history major at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Introduction – Genocide Anniversaries

Described as a site where ‘…scenes from hell [were] written on the darkest pages of human history’, Srebrenica is known to be host to one of the most horrific events to have occurred in Europe, second perhaps only to the calamities of World War II. In the late 20th century, while the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina raged on, Srebrenica—an enclave where thousands of Bosnian Muslims had fled to for shelter—was declared a UN safe zone. A few months down the line, approximately 8000 Muslim men and boys were killed there by Serb forces.

The early days of July 2021 marked the 25th Anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. It was an occasion when individuals from all quadrants of the world expressed solidarity with the survivors of the genocide and the families of those who had fallen victim to the massacre. The Srebrenica genocide is not alone, however, in its day of remembrance. Almost every major man-machinated cataclysm marks a solemn annual occasion for commemoration, be it the Holocaust, the genocides in Rwanda and Armenia, or the killing fields in Cambodia. One may wonder though, why are genocides memorialized in such a manner? Below, I explain this culture through two fundamental reasons.

Genocide in Memory

When the victims of mass atrocities find that their plight is at the risk of minimization or worse, denial, genocide documentation and memorialization become extremely effective counters. 

There are times when genocide victim groups face obstacles in having their struggles recognized. Rather esoterically, the sheer horror of mass atrocities creates in people a desire to either feign ignorance of or to deny atrocities altogether. For example, Professor Lasson, in his article on Holocaust denial, recounted:

Inmates at concentration camps testified that they were frequently taunted by their captors: “And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed; they will say that they are the exaggerations of Allied propaganda and will believe us, who will deny everything, and not you.”

In essence, the devastatingly evil nature of mass atrocities is a potential undoing of genocidal historiography. The incomprehensible scope and gravity of the crime often garners reactions of incredulity—genocides either didn’t take place, or they didn’t transpire on the scale they are professed to. 

The passage of time also naturally constitutes a hindrance to genocide memory. People who were not direct or indirect witnesses to mass atrocities as they occurred are forced to rely on knowledge garnered through the predominant political climate of their generation. And the fact is, genocides are largely topical subjects, so they flutter in and out of the public domain. When in 1971, forces from Pakistan launched a military operation against the Bengali population in the country’s geographically segregated eastern section to suppress independence movements, the atrocities that ensued received intense coverage for about a year, following which global interest in the conflict largely declined. Consequentially, genocide memory became a major part of the political identity of Bangladesh. The world was quick to forget the events of 1971; Bangladesh couldn’t. 

The Ultimate Crime   

The factor that is perhaps the most powerful driving force behind calls of genocide recognition has to do with the nature of the crime of genocide itself. Genocide is the ultimate crime – the crime of crimes – from both a purely legal denomination and at a general level of appreciation. This hierarchical classification influences the actions and demands of victim groups, as we shall discuss below.

Legally, the supremacy of genocide over other international crimes has been averred to be scholars and jurists almost from the very inception of the Genocide Convention.  Lemkin, the scholar responsible for coining the neologism ‘genocide’, himself advocated that “genocide must be treated as the most heinous of all crimes. It is the crime of crimes, one that not only shocks our conscience but affects deeply the best interests of mankind.” Numerous other scholars and international lawyers have echoed the same proposition (Steven R. Ratner and Jason S. Abrams, Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law: Beyond the Nuremberg Legacy, 1997; Yearbook of the International Law Commission 1994, vol. I, 214, para. 21). William Schabas (2009), in Genocide in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes, for example, contends that in the hierarchy of crimes, genocide “belongs at the apex of the pyramid.” Benjamin Whitaker, in the Report on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, referred to genocide as the “ultimate crime.” Furthermore, in Volume I of the 1994 Yearbook of the International Law Commission, genocide was called the “worst of all crimes.” In the same vein, towards the end of the twentieth century, the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and for the former Yugoslavia too, in various judgements, crystallized genocide’s status as a crime greater than all others (Prosecutor v. Akayesu, Case No. ICTR-96-4-T; Prosecutor v. Akayesu, Case No. ICTR-96-4-T; Prosecutor v. Blaskic, Case No. IT-95-14-T).

Even in common parlance, genocide is understood to be the greatest evil that humans can muster. The power of the word has, like no other before it, occupied the minds of not only lawyers and judges, scholars and jurists, but also gripped those of historians, diplomats and heads of states, all the way down to the common citizen. Genocide, in every sense, is a global phenomenon. It is a term unquestionably characterized by a disposition that uniquely transcends the bounds of the law. Despite being a juridical term that only entered our vocabulary relatively recently, it has evolved to wield immense influence, incite fierce emotion, serve as a vessel for closure, a portal for the recognition of group strife, and at times, has proven to be a pretext for murder, inaction, and war (Yearbook of International Law Commission Vol I. 214 41).

So why is the label of a genocide so vital to the recognition of the suffering of mass atrocity victims, and what does it have to do with genocide being the crime of crimes? Genocide is, in itself, a form of recognition for a victim group. In a very real, very practical sense, colouring an egregious mass atrocity by the legal imposition of a political crime—war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide—situates conflicts in a unique historical narrative. It allows for an epilogue, one that rests on the unification of entire peoples based initially on “a moral consensus that the past was evil” and then eventually on political consensus that the past was evil. The ritual structure of a trial separates the past from the present morally, politically, and legally (Michael Humphrey, ‘The Individualising and Universaling Discourse of Law: Victims in Truth Commissions and Trials’ in Victims of International Crimes: An Interdisciplinary Discourse, 2013). It allows for closure and paves the path for growth. 

That, however, is only half the story, because while the legal imposition of any given international crime shares some commonalities with a finding of genocide, the situation isn’t entirely equivalent. Referring to an atrocity as genocide is to allocate to a peoples’ plight the classification of persecution of the absolute extreme—it is, after all, the ultimate crime. With genocide having taken on a life of its own in the popular mind, the recognition of it would be the recognition of the zenith of all suffering. A denial of genocide would be a denial of the tribulations of entire peoples; a finding of anything other than genocide, be it war crimes or crimes against humanity, has the tendency of making victims of almost all massacres feel cheated, as though their travail was not at par with the standard of the ultimate evil. For this reason, victim groups tend to equilibrate on a call for genocide recognition, and take active steps towards memorialization, even if that comes with the exclusion of other international crimes.

Conclusion

The memorialization of genocides is as logical as it is important. Genocide anniversaries serve to reignite rightful anger at the evils of the past while simultaneously offering a method for victims to find a degree of resolution and closure. Their documentative value is considerable as well—annual commemorations of past atrocities keep events that otherwise risk historical degeneration alive in the present political climate. They are reminders of the evil that humans have faced. They are reminders of the evil that humans perpetrated. They are reminders of the evil that humans failed to prevent. 

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