President Joe Biden said for the first time on Tuesday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amounts to genocide, a significant escalation of the president’s rhetoric.
Biden’s comments come just days after Ukraine accused Russian forces of attacking a train station in the eastern town of Kramatorsk, killing more than 50 people, and as images of bodies on the streets of towns near Kyiv continue to draw global condemnation.
Experts have urged caution over using the word “genocide” to describe events in Ukraine, saying that an investigation into alleged human rights abuses must first be carried out.
So what is the significance of the US President escalating the rhetoric?
What exactly did President Biden say?
Biden used the term genocide in a speech at an ethanol plant in Iowa and later stood by the description as he prepared to board Air Force One.
“Yes, I called it genocide because it has become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of being able to be Ukrainian and the evidence is mounting,” Biden told reporters.
He added: “We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me.”
Biden has repeatedly called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal, but Tuesday marked the first time he accused Russia of committing genocide in Ukraine.
“Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide a half a world away,” Biden said at an event in Iowa on fuel prices.
What is Genocide?
Genocide is defined as an act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
The term ‘genocide’ was coined in 1944 by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In creating the term ‘genocide’, Lemkin intended to more clearly define the crime of mass murder of groups of people and to raise awareness of it.
Genocide became a crime in itself following the adoption of the ‘Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’ by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948, as result of the events of the Holocaust. The Convention came into force on 12 January 1951.
Various different acts are defined in the convention as acts of genocide, including:
- Killing members of a group.
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
How significant is the ‘G-word’?
The US government rarely designates atrocities using the term genocide; previous examples include the Chinese campaign against Uyghur Muslims and Myanmar’s persecution of the Muslim minority Rohingya. It does not carry any legal ramifications but does carry significant weight as Biden seeks to rally countries behind a strategy of isolating and punishing Moscow.
“Genocide is a powerful word,” Gregory Stanton, chair of the non-government organization Genocide Watch, told Politico. Using the term, Stanton said, “places upon a nation greater duties” to stop it.
US presidents have historically shied away from using the term “genocide,” a term loaded with political and possibly legal significance.
Proving it could take years
In order to establish genocide, prosecutors must first show that the victims were part of a distinct national, ethnic, racial or religious group. This excludes groups targeted for political beliefs.
Genocide is harder to show than other violations of international humanitarian law, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, because it requires evidence of intent.
“Genocide is a difficult crime to prove. Parties have to bring a lot to the table,” said Melanie O’Brien, president of the international association of genocide scholars. She cited the combined requirement of showing intent, the targeting of a protected group, and crimes like killings or forcibly removing children.
The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine in February. It also has jurisdiction over genocide.
Ukrainian prosecutors, already investigating alleged Russian crimes since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, said they have identified thousands of potential war crimes by Russian forces since Feb. 24 and compiled a list of hundreds of suspects.
Genocide prosecutions in history
The first case to put into practice the convention on genocide was that of Jean Paul Akayesu, the Hutu mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba at the time of the killings. In a landmark ruling, a special international tribunal convicted Akayesu of genocide and crimes against humanity on 2 September 1998.
More than 85 people were subsequently convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, 29 on counts of genocide.
In August 2010, a leaked UN report alleged that Rwandan Hutus, perpetrators of the 1994 genocide, may themselves have been victims of the same crime.
In 2001, Gen Radislav Krstic, a former Bosnian Serb general, became the first person to be convicted of genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Krstic appealed against his conviction, arguing that the 8,000 people killed constituted “too insignificant” a number to be a genocide. In 2004 the ICTY rejected his appeal.
In 2007, the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić, nicknamed the “butcher of Bosnia”, was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
And in 2018, Nuon Chea, 92, and Khieu Samphan, 87, were both sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide and crimes against humanity for their roles in the Khmer Rouge killings.