J. Pharoah Doss: Genocidal intent, uncertainty, and dereliction of duty

Judges take their seats prior to the hearing of Israel’s defense at the International Court of Justice on Jan. 12, 2024. Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Getty Images/File

Last month, Israel defended itself before the International Court of Justice against South Africa’s charges of genocide. South Africa maintained that Israel’s military response to the October 7 Hamas attack, which killed 1,200 people, was directed at all Palestinians in Gaza, not only Hamas terrorists. The level of casualties [in bombings] is so high that no place is secure, even if Israel tells residents to flee before striking.

Israel argued that the term “genocide” was being weaponized against them to condemn their actions in a conflict they did not initiate or desire. The term genocide was established to distinguish and confront a malevolent crime of the most exceptional severity. Charging Israel with genocide would diminish the original meaning of the term and could have far-reaching consequences, as it may lead to the misinterpretation of self-defense as genocidal intent.

The International Court of Justice ordered Israel to take action to prevent genocide. (As Israel has done from the beginning.) However, the ICJ did not issue a call for an immediate ceasefire. (Which would be expected if a genocide were occurring.) One Ugandan judge voted against all of South Africa’s proposed measures against Israel. The Ugandan judge stated that the underlying dispute was political rather than legal and that there was no credible evidence of Israel’s genocidal intent. The ICJ decision was more confounding than clarifying. There appears to be a history of uncertainty surrounding what constitutes genocide.

Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian writer, produced his final and most significant work in 2012. It was a personal account of Biafra and the Nigerian civil war.  In 1967, the Eastern Region of Nigeria, dominated by the Igbo ethnic group, founded the Republic of Biafra and declared independence from Nigeria, because they could no longer cohabit with the Muslim tribes in the north.

Nigeria’s government rejected Biafra’s sovereignty, surrounded it with troops, and then enforced a blockade that restricted all food and medication for more than two and a half years. Starvation and malnutrition claimed the lives of millions of people, most of them women and children. There was a global debate about whether Nigeria’s blockade was an act of genocide.

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly declared genocide illegal. It was defined as activities intended to completely or partially destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. The UN General Assembly also adopted the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which states that the international community has a duty to respond to and prevent genocide wherever it occurs.  It’s worth noting that claims of genocide require proof of the perpetrator’s intent, and political or social groupings do not receive protection.

When Nigeria blockaded Biafra, starvation was not a prohibited weapon of war under international law. The blockade forced Biafra to surrender, and Nigeria recovered control of the territory in 1970.

The Biafra genocide debate ended after a United Kingdom fact-finding mission concluded that the Nigerian government did not coordinate a plot to exterminate all Igbos and that the millions of deaths were caused by political rather than racial persecution. In 1977, the Geneva Conventions were revised to outlaw starvation as a means of warfare and to reform blockade law to protect civilians.

Achebe’s 2012 book contradicted the United Kingdom’s report.

Achebe states that the Biafrans accused the Nigerians of plotting to destroy the Igbo people due to the declaration of a holy jihad against them by Islamic extremists in the Nigerian army. However, the international community dismissed this as a non-threat because Muslims were not the majority in Nigeria’s administration and had a tiny presence in the military.

In 1994, Rwanda’s Hutu ethnic majority planned to exterminate the Tutsi ethnic minority. In just 100 days, the Hutus murdered approximately 800,000 Tutsis. There was no need to establish the Hutus’ genocidal intent because they admitted it. However, the international community chose not to classify the Tutsi massacre as a genocide, which allowed the international community to ignore their duty to respond and prevent the killings.

A decade later, strife in Sudan between ethnic groups claiming “Black/African” descent and ethnic groups claiming “Arab” descent resulted in the Darfur war and the systematic murder of ethnic groups of “Black/African” origin. For the first time in history, the United States used the term genocide to describe the atrocities in Darfur. However, a 2005 UN assessment stated that there was no evidence that the Sudanese government committed genocide but that “crimes against humanity of an ethnic nature” had occurred.

The international community would have been required to intervene if the UN investigation had concluded that genocide was taking place, but once again, the international community avoided their duty to respond and prevent genocide.

At that time, people around the world were confused about how genocides were committed.

And right now, it appears only Hamas and their allies aren’t confused about what actually constitutes genocide.




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