In a public statement last week, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims, according to a report from The Atlantic. Earlier this week, the House of Representatives supported his designation with a unanimous 393-0 vote.
While some Americans have been waiting for this obvious move by the U.S. government for over a year, others see this as an insignificant question of mere semantics. In the political sphere, formal use of the word genocide actually carries enormous weight.
Due to the implication of the word, nations can actively chose to ignore the word entirely, thus undermining the aid necessary for victims of genocide. This is why John Kerry’s recognition is so crucial.
The United Nations defines genocide as any of a determined series of violent acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Killing and causing bodily and mental harm are just a few examples. The problem is that the implications of destroying an entire group give the word huge connotations.
It is the war crime above all other war crimes, and when a country acknowledges a genocide, it takes on an added obligation to aid the victims of said genocide. In that sense, it is much easier for a country to ignore the word entirely allowing political leaders can remove themselves from responsibility without the guilt of the word genocide hanging over their heads.
Replacing it with a milder term, such as “tragedy” or “war crime,” facilitates the dismissal if the speaker wishes to avoid political repercussions that come with reactions to such atrocities, leaving room for the speaker to acknowledge the event at his or her convenience.
Take, for example, the Rwandan Genocide, which the Clinton administration failed to acknowledge as such in 1994, according to an article from The Atlantic. The result was American inaction while 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus were murdered over the course of 100 days. It was not until 1998 that Clinton referred to the event as a genocide in a formal apology.
Another case is the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in which up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks. While there is overwhelming evidence that the Turks were systematically wiping out an entire ethnic group, Turkey still refuses to refer to the event as a genocide.
Even the United States does not officially label it as a genocide; according to a Los Angeles Times report, President Barack Obama refused to use the word last year on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide for fear of upsetting relations with Turkey, an American ally.
And this is where the true danger lies. The word genocide has fallen into the trap of political rhetoric, to be used only if it satisfies some political agenda. With this attitude, genocides can be seen as matters of opinion and perspective, which might have occurred 70 years ago when the word was first used, but which now cannot possibly do the word justice.
The United Nations has put far too much care into developing a thorough definition for what constitutes genocide to allow for such loose interpretations. To deny genocide is now to deny a truth — to refuse an entire ethnic or religious group an acknowledgment of the sufferings they experienced.
In an essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” author George Orwell argued that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” In the same way, the language used to refer to these horrible brutalities possess extraordinary power to shape the truth.
An outright refusal to use the word genocide in its proper context changes the weight of an event, independent of the facts involved. As a result, nations like the U.S. gain a free ticket to disregard their responsibility to help others, keeping their most selfish and cowardly interests at heart.
Let’s return focus to ISIS for a moment. In his statement, John Kerry cited some of the group’s actions – slaughtering entire communities, enslaving women and “eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology” – as clear indicators of genocide, according to the United Nations definition.
This marks only the second time that the United States has labelled an ongoing conflict as genocide, which is a huge step. So maybe – just maybe – this speech is a sign that the United States is ready to shoulder the full responsibility of what comes with using the word genocide, but what actions the nation will take now remain to be seen.
Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.