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International Court of Justice

Criticisms Of The Genocide Convention

Although the convention has enjoyed near unanimous international support and although the prohibition of genocide has become, according to the International Court of Justice, a peremptory norm (jus cogens [Latin: “compelling law”]) of international law, the convention has often been criticized for excluding political and social groups from the list of possible victims of genocide. The so-called “intentionality clause” of the convention’s definition of genocide—the part that mentions the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”—also is problematic. Two of the most common objections are that such intent can be difficult to establish and that the attempt to assign such intent to individuals makes little sense in modern societies, where violence can result as much from anonymous social and economic forces as from individual choices.

In support of the first objection, some scholars have noted that governments do not openly admit to committing genocidal acts—a fact that is borne out in history. The Iraqi regime of Ṣaddām Ḥussein, for example, portrayed its use of chemical warfare against the Kurds in the 1980s as an effort to reestablish law and order, and the Ottoman and successive Turkish governments asserted that the Armenians killed in the massacres were casualties of war. Even Germany’s Nazi regime did not publicize its extermination of Jews and other groups. In response, defenders of the intentionality clause have argued that “a pattern of purposeful action” leading to the destruction of a significant part of the targeted group is enough to establish genocidal intent, irrespective of the reasons the perpetrator regime offers for its actions