Victims of genocides must be given a voice


The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 while he was studying the mass murder of Armenians at the turn of the century. He was alarmed that there was no international legal basis to hold the Ottoman perpetrators accountable for various crimes against humanity. His analysis became the basis for the Geneva Conventions — a set of international law protocols that frame the judicial mechanism to study, determine and respond to genocide. The four protocols were also ratified as a consensus mechanism for “never again,” a call to action for preventing genocide.

But the world of today is a very different place to 1944. And even though we have seen additional protocols proposed, but not all ratified since, the Geneva Conventions remain the only lens through which the processes of justice and accountability start and finish in a court of law. The Geneva Conventions are based on a global understanding and imagination of genocide as scenes of immediate killings, mass displacement and extremely visible suffering. But what about the genocides and crimes against humanity that are suffocatingly slow, long-term in strategic policy and almost invisible?

Shockingly, since these conventions were first inked, the world has seen a growing number of genocides that have been fueled by innovative military and militant strategies, perverted appropriation of religious texts, legitimized occupation and colonialism, and uncontested subjugation creatively birthed by principles of inhumanity. International law, as it currently stands, offers insufficient means and innovation to uphold and preserve humanity. Instead, courts of law place survivors of genocide on the defensive to make their case. And that is only if survivors even get to see their day in court.

In its definition, now almost 80 years old, the Geneva Conventions imagine a world ordered by states and governments. But in our world today, the perpetrators are no longer only states, they are policies defined by political dynasties, nonstate armed groups, global corporations and, painfully, stakeholders who are committed to a policy of inaction. Accountability requires a new world order, one where every citizen has a responsibility to call for recognition, justice and accountability, humanitarian and peace commitments, and assured prevention. The media needs to assume a new role as a deep listener and deep amplifier as well.

When was the last time we witnessed an Arab government making a significant call to action against genocide? While several members of the international community have called out genocide against the Rohingya, the Uighurs and, most recently, the Ukrainians, the Arab world has not shared one voice. We have not seen collective consensus in the international community on the crimes of genocide against the Palestinians, Syrians and Tigrayans. And many, many communities, facing in part or in whole acts of genocide, are invisible: Indigenous populations in South America and Africa, Artsakh, multiple minorities in the Middle East and the list goes on indefinitely. Why is the Arab world also so taciturn?

On the sixth annual commemoration of the 2014 Yazidi genocide, my Yazidi friends and I invited Iraqi President Barham Salih to share his opening remarks and he stated on the record: “Yes, indeed, there was a genocide perpetrated against Yazidis.” On the same occasion, I invited Prince Turki Al-Faisal to voice his solidarity and, in his keynote speech, he said: “To ensure that our Yazidi brothers and sisters, and fellow human beings, our friends and colleagues, never suffer again, I call on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League to form the International Muslim and Arab Friends of the Yazidi people, dedicated to bringing world peace, intercultural dialogue and international awareness of the rights of all minorities.” So why do such moments of truth and solidary not evoke seismic shockwaves across the parliaments, governments and communities of our Middle East?

International law, as it currently stands, offers insufficient means and innovation to uphold and preserve humanity.

Lynn Zovighian

There is only one genocide that saw legislative deliberations in Middle Eastern parliaments: The Armenian genocide, which was recognized by Lebanon in a unanimous vote in 2000, followed by Syria in 2020. Abu Dhabi has called for full recognition by the UAE and Saudi ambassadors to both the US and Lebanon have made symbolic statements commemorating and calling for the historical truth to be made clear. But that is all.

What do all these genocides have in common? Silence. A silence that is truly deafening. One clear pattern is that, under the guidance of the Geneva Conventions, “never again” is not working. International law also needs to be held accountable to how much it has been able to achieve versus where it has failed humanity. Again and again.

When Lemkin proposed his legal covenants, he leveraged his mastery of multiple languages to propose a definition for genocide and legal mechanisms for truth and justice. It is chilling to think that he studied linguistics in Lwow, now Lviv, in Ukraine. He spoke a language of law. And in doing so, he gave genocide a stage to speak.

Today, we need to give genocide a voice. A language of survivors. A language of diplomacy. A language of science. A language of action. We need a multilateral linguistic, legal and human framework that sets forth rigorous, agile and urgent pathways for victims and survivors to be honored and empowered with unconditional solidarity. They need to be given the seats of power and decision-making on the diplomatic stage. Many of these survivors are from the Middle Eastern and Muslim worlds. Will Middle Eastern policymakers finally step up and take their seats as needed diplomats on a global mission to recognize, respond to and prevent genocide? We owe it to survivors of our region and beyond.

Lynn Zovighian is the co-founder and managing director of The Zovighian Partnership, a family-owned social investment platform that conducts community-centered research, designs and implements humanitarian and socioeconomic interventions. Twitter: @lynnzovighian

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