Mass murder perpetrated by agents of the state is as old as recorded human history, but the concept of genocide is relatively recent. The word genocide was coined in 1944 by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe systematic murder of an ethnic, racial or religious group like the murder of Armenians by Turks during World War I or the murder of Jews by Germans during World War II. Genocide is about the worst crime that a state can commit, so it is not surprising that the exact definition of genocide has been a matter of sharp controversy. Each state wants to define genocide in a way that excludes its own crimes but includes the misdeeds of its enemies.
One controversy is whether genocide includes efforts to destroy a group by disrupting its culture, economy, language, social structure and/or reproductive capacity without actually murdering its members. The weight of current opinion is that genocide requires methodical murder, not simply annihilation of a group by nonlethal means. The term ethnocide is sometimes used to describe the latter (entirely abominable) practice.
A second controversy concerns the role of intentionality in the definition of genocide. For example, the U.S. government acknowledges that at least 70 percent of the indigenous population perished during the westward expansion of white America. However, Washington denies that this human holocaust constitutes genocide because most of the dying resulted from disease and was not entirely intentional. Similarly, Russian leaders admit that a 1932-33 famine was caused by the confiscation of grain by Soviet authorities, and that this famine (called the Holodomor) killed 3 million to 5 million Ukrainians. Yet the Russians deny that this disaster constituted genocide because the intent of the confiscation policy was not to kill Ukrainians and it also killed many ethnic Russians.
A third controversy focuses on whether political groups should be considered potential victims of genocide. The Indonesian army and its associates killed as many as a million Indonesian Communists and leftists in a massive purge during 1965-66. Since the victims were defined mainly by politics, the Indonesian government under Suharto (and its U.S. backers) fervently denied that these killings were genocide. Likewise, U.S. military efforts to "rescue" Vietnam from Communism led to the death of about 3 million Vietnamese, but precious few American politicians consider these attacks to be genocide. After all, the fatalities happened during wartime and the enemy was an organized political movement.
Many political processes are morally atrocious but not fully genocidal. For example, Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people has resulted in thousands of deaths and enormous suffering, but the strategic intent of Zionist policy (at least so far) has been destroying the Palestinian nation rather than murdering the Palestinian people. This persecution constitutes ethnocide rather than genocide. The Zionist political objective is clearly (if inadvertently) indicated by former Prime Minister Golda Meir's famous statement that "there was no such thing as the Palestinian people."
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.