Why we need to keep our eyes open about genocide

Shae Slaughter

It is remarkably easy to distance ourselves from the problems that other people face. When trouble isn’t knocking on our own door, we tend not to notice it at all. Even global issues such as genocide seem to do little to rouse individuals, the government or the country as a whole. Still, genocide is a present and prominent part of the world we live in today, and we can no longer turn a blind eye.

Throughout history, there have been many instances of mass displacement, mass discrimination and even mass murder. For a long time, the human species didn’t really have a name for crimes like these, but during the Holocaust, Raphael Lemkin finally found a term: genocide. According to the United Nations, genocide can be defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” From that definition, we knew what to call it, but we didn’t know what to do about it. We still don’t.

The Holocaust, one of the most egregious mass killings to have ever occurred, is still only one example of many genocides in the last 100 years or so. Different populations in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur have all experienced acts of genocide, too. Right now, the Rohingya of Myanmar are showing the same markers that we’ve seen in the past, and the international community is doing very little to help. 

As a world, we have a bad history of skating around the truth when it comes to the topic of genocide. We can say that a country is performing “acts of genocide,” like we did during the genocide in Rwanda, but we refuse to really come out and call it what it is because labeling it correctly means that we actually have to step in. After all, we agreed to do so when we signed onto the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948.

Still, we’re doing nothing. A recent report from the United Nations mentioned the indecision between “whether or not we consider that the crimes (committed in Myanmar) amount to crimes against humanity or genocide.” Likely, the crimes occurring against the Rohingya in Myanmar are categorically both, and at that point we’re splitting hairs. We know that people are being forcibly relocated, raped and killed. We know that. The longer we attempt to figure out what to call this problem, the more people that will suffer. 

The idea of sovereignty is great, and we shouldn’t intervene in other countries for no reason, but at some point we need to acknowledge that the Rohingya people matter in the same way that Jews, gypsies, Tutsis and Darfurians mattered. No, this problem isn’t currently domestic, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t play a role as passive observers. As German pastor Martin Niemöller once wrote, “They came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”