Panel confronts history and challenges of genocide convention

Author: Kevin Fye


The international community is more focused and sophisticated in its approach to the crime of genocide than at any time since World War II, but serious challenges and ethical dilemmas remain, according to participants in a recent panel convened by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the conversation took place on Monday, December 3 at the Keough School of Global Affairs. Taking part were Ernesto Verdeja, Associate Professor of Political Science and Peace Studies and Klau Center Faculty Fellow, and Alejandra Gonza, Visiting Professor at Notre Dame Law School. The panel was moderated by Klau Center director Jennifer Mason McAward.

Reviewing the landscape of efforts to confront genocide, Verdeja noted the emergence since WWII of significant civil society institutions that focus on monitoring and prevention, while the proliferation of troubling cases in Myanmar, Sudan and South Sudan, Central African Republic, Iraq, and Syria continue to challenge their capacity. The rise globally of nationalistic and chauvinistic ideologies, and a concomitant lack of regard for multilaterism, is a particularly vexing problem for prevention efforts.  “We see a tendency more generally when it comes to prevention work to react too late,” says Verdeja, “to wait until the fire is burning rather than dealing with the tinder before its lit up.”

Describing the case of Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, Gonza explained the challenges faced by victim groups with painful clarity. While the Mayan Indian Ixil community did achieve recognition of their attempted genocide by the Guatemala supreme court, she explained, the country’s constitutional court overturned the conviction five years later. In 2018 conviction was once again achieved but Ríos Montt was dead by that time. The group had recognition, but no one was left to hold accountable.

Panelists also noted that an additional factor challenging notions of justice is the convention’s specification of which groups are recognized. Limited to national, religious, ethnic, or racial identities, such historically-determined categories leave many potential victim groups with little legal recourse. Referring to a new Colombian case before the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, Gonza said it challenges the staus quo and pushes for new definitions. “What happens when a government wants to get rid of political groups, to get rid of the opposition,” Gonza asked. “The challenge is: is the Court going to expand the concept of the groups now that they have the chance to do it, or not? Why is it so important for these groups to say that it’s genocide and not just a crime against humanity? All of those are now questions in need of a response.”

For Verdeja, too, relying on UN definitions to identify genocide creates an inherent problem, since the intention to destroy a particular predefined community only becomes apparent after events begin to unfold. “Intentionality tends to emerge over time,” he says. “It is rare to have a program of genocide where there is a fully formed, pre-existing plan of destruction. I don’t think we should be in the business of trying to prevent genocide. I think we should be in the business of trying to prevent significant human rights violations.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Genocide, and may be viewed in its entirety below.