The U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of genocide defines genocide as:
“any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious as such: killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to 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”.
The intent of the 1948 convention was to prevent the world from experiencing another horrific wide scale atrocity like the Holocaust by exposing genocide as the most severe crime against humanity publishable by law upheld by the international community. While there is agreement on positive intent within the international community, the definition of genocide and who is protected has come under scrutiny over the years.
The U.N. Convention on Genocide identifies the four following groups as protected: national, ethnic, racial, or religious. Several significant groups such as political, socioeconomic, and gender specific have been left of of the U.N.’s definition, and by extension it’s protection. Consider historical crimes against humanity led by world leaders such as Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and most recently examples such as Syrai’s Bashar al-Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. To silence the threat of any perceived threat of those who contested these leaders political agendas, each have been responsible for extreme violence and wide scale murder of thousands of people utilizing methods including executions, bombings, forced labor camps, starvation, incarceration, cutting off resources, etc. Most victims have been referred to “collateral damage or casualties of war”, while many were targeted specifically for their political beliefs. It is also important to note that many of these victims were of low socioeconomic status, often living in poverty with little to no resources. These examples do not capture genocide it it’s traditional definition, but the intent appears the same: killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
This also brings up the concern of cultural relativism vs. ethnocentrism. Cultural relativism is the view that no culture is superior to any other culture when comparing systems of morality, law, politics, etc. It’s the philosophical notion that all cultural believes are equally valid, and that truth itself is relative depending on the cultural environment. Ethnocentrism is the tendency to look at the world primarily from the perspective of your own ethnic culture. (Boundless)
“Anthropologists historically have opposed the universalist claims and many particulars of this UN framework for two reasons. On empirical grounds, they reject individual rights as self-evident universals. The 1947 American Anthro- biological Association “Statement on Human Rights” emphasizes that “standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive” and many African and Asian anthropologists reject the concept of “individual rights” as ethnocentrically Western” (Messer)
The idea that the U.N. convention’s regarding human rights and genocide are conceptionally ethnocentrically Western, presents the argument that the idea of cultural relativism was not taken in to consideration and therefore does not efficiently protect every individual human being. Debate regarding definition and hierarchy of one’s civil liberties, political, social, and economic rights has been a frequent criticism of the U.N. Convention on Genocide.
As stated before language and inconsistencies in cultural relativism have called for criticism of the U.N. Convention on Genocide. Another piece of language in the convention that has come under scrutiny has been the wording of “in whole or in part”. The wording alone is incredibly vague and open for interpretation. Take for example China’s rule on one birth rule. This appears to meet the criteria: 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. Over 1.5 million Armenian’s died at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, yet it is still not recognized as genocide. And during WWII the United States was responsible for the mistreatment (and sometimes deaths) of Asian American’s being forced in to internment camps throughout our country, would that not also meet the criteria for a genocide? It appears that the openness of the definition of genocide has also led to criticism of how the convention can be legally embraced and enforced throughout the international community.
Messer, E. (2013, June 26). Pluralist Approach To Human Rights. Journal of Anthropological Research, 53(3), 293-317. Retrieved July 15, 2016, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3630956?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents