On April 13, President Joe Biden said Russia’s war in Ukraine amounts to genocide, accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to “wipe out the idea of even being a Ukrainian.” Biden previously called Putin a “war criminal” and called for the creation of a war crimes tribunal, following images showing Ukrainian apartment complexes, schools and hospitals bombed out and destroyed.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said the reports of people being tortured, executed and put in mass graves in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha likewise constitute genocide. Still, Biden said it would be up to lawyers to decide if Russia’s conduct met the international standard for genocide, but that “it sure seems that way to me.” When asked about Biden’s use of the term genocide and whether it was a shift in U.S. policy, both press secretary Jen Psaki and State Department spokesperson Ned Price attempted to separate official policy from what Biden believes is occurring in Ukraine based on what he’s seen. However, it is worth noting that as president, Biden sets U.S. foreign policy. It may not be long before an official statement follows what may have initially been an off the cuff remark.
Since the start of the war, these different terms — “crimes against humanity,” “war crimes,” “genocide” and “atrocities” — have all been used, but few really know what they mean. Some of these terms have precise legal definitions in international law. Others have widely understood definitions but are not yet codified into law.
Defining Atrocity Crimes
The term “atrocities” can mean many things; however, the terms “mass atrocities” and “atrocity crimes” have a more specific meaning. The term mass atrocities is a catchall phrase that refers to the atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. It is a term of art that has no legal definition but is often used to describe a situation in which civilians are being systematically targeted with violence, either during peace or war.
Crimes against humanity, meanwhile, are widespread and systematic attacks against civilian populations in which the civilians are the target of the violence. While there is no international convention that defines what crimes against humanity are, the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), outlines the specific acts that constitute crimes against humanity. The United States has still not joined the ICC, and at times has worked to undermine the court. But now would be as good a time as any to join the ICC and provide the court with additional credibility.
War crimes, on the other hand, are often thought of as the laws of war or international humanitarian law, and can be committed against both civilians and combatants during wartime. The most widely accepted definition of war crimes is found in the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols. The Geneva Conventions include the prohibition of violence against civilians and outlines protections for wounded combatants and prisoners of war, among other things.
Genocide, however, has the narrowest definition of all atrocity crimes. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as, “the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” The definition of genocide does not specify the number of people that need to be killed to constitute genocide. In fact, individuals do not need to kill anyone to be found guilty of conspiracy to commit genocide, incitement of genocide and attempt to commit genocide, which are all punishable crimes under the United Nations convention.
Is Genocide Happening in Ukraine?
The key factor in determining genocide is the intent. It is difficult to determine exactly what Putin and the Russian government’s intent is. However, one could make the argument that if Russia’s goal is to subsume Ukraine into Russia, thereby destroying the Ukrainian identity, in whole or in part, Russia’s actions in Ukraine could very well constitute genocide.
Some believe that saying genocide is occurring in Ukraine will lead to stronger action by the international community. However, there’s little evidence to suggest this is true. The U.S. government has determined that genocide is currently taking place in Xinjiang, China, against Uyghurs and in Myanmar (also known as Burma) against Rohingya. Despite those determinations, the U.S. has dedicated far more resources to the crisis in Ukraine, where no genocide determination has been made.
When discussing these different crimes, we often consciously or unconsciously tend to view genocide as worse than other atrocity crimes. While definitions are important, the truth of the matter is when civilians are being systematically killed, it shouldn’t matter whether the targeted violence meets the narrow definition of genocide. The priority should be the protection of civilians and the prevention of mass atrocities.
There should be renewed diplomatic efforts to bring this crisis to an end and ongoing investigations to compile evidence against Russian leaders to hold perpetrators accountable. We will have to wait to see if an international tribunal is able to hold individuals accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity or even genocide, but for accountability to be possible, there must be evidence to show at a trial.
President Biden’s proposed 2023 budget includes a huge increase in military spending, on top of previous years’ increases to the defense budget. It’s clear this is not the correct response to the Ukraine crisis. We must make more investments in prevention.
In the future, the U.S. government must dedicate more funding and resources to prevent mass atrocities around the world. This includes focusing on long term, upstream prevention efforts that seek to address the root causes and drivers of violent conflict. U.S. foreign policy tends to be very reactionary, ignoring warning signs until a crisis emerges and then the only thing left to do is provide humanitarian assistance to survivors of mass atrocities. Instead, more investments need to be made in programs that support civil society, combat corruption, and help build just and equitable countries. That also means ending support for dictators that masquerade as democratic leaders.
The U.S. Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability is a welcome step in the right direction toward building a prevention-focused foreign policy, as it creates a whole-of-government strategy specifically focused on long-term prevention efforts instead of the more traditional ad hoc reactionary approach. The strategy, mandated by the bipartisan Global Fragility Act, will focus on building resilience and preventing violence in nine countries over a 10-year period. The larger goal, however, is to reform U.S. foreign policy to prioritize prevention. However, in order to be successful, Congress must appropriate more funding. Currently, Congress only provides $5 million for the Atrocities Prevention Fund. We cannot expect the U.S. government to be very successful at preventing mass atrocities with such little funding.