The Problem of Defining Genocide

St├ęphanie Giry has an article in the New York Review of Books, The Genocide That Wasn’t, discussing the application of the term genocide to the case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Giry outlines the problem that occurs when the generally accepted definition of a term clashes with the legal one and points out that genocide has become the ultimate crime in the eyes of the world public.

In this case, the Cambodian people, and most others around the world, consider what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian people as genocide. But because the actions of the Khmer Rouge were not directed against an ethnic or national minority, the crime doesn’t fit the legal definition of genocide. Instead, the Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted of crimes against humanity, which is perceived as a lesser crime. (Even though the penalty is the same, life in prison.)

Analogous cases where popular definitions of terms conflict with technical ones are common, but the moral stakes here make this case a special one.

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