Genocide in our time – the crime of crimes

Proposals to reform the international Genocide Convention are being researched by a leading authority on the subject in our School of Law.

Through his internationally acclaimed research and teaching, Dr Paul Behrens of the University of Leicester School of Law consistently challenges the current law on genocide, which he believes to be discriminatory.

He calls for a law which is inclusive without losing the stigma that the “crime of crimes” confers on conduct which the international community perceives as particularly heinous.

“The way genocide is addressed in international law can be disheartening even to lawyers,” he said. “One thing is certain: the legal concept of genocide is quite different from the way the word is commonly understood.

“In a recent case, the Rwanda court confirmed that political opponents to the murderous regime during the massacres in 1994, are not a recognised group under the Genocide Convention. That rules out people like the man on whose actions the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ was based – Paul Rusesabagina, who risked his life to save more than a thousand refugees. And the same logic applies in other situations: political opponents to Idi Amin or Pol Pot would not have the protection of the Convention.”

Paul Behrens has investigated genocide and other international crimes for the past eight years and is co-author of The Criminal Law of Genocide. Conferences he has hosted on the topic have attracted worldwide interest and the new Leicester Master’s module he created, Genocide and the Law, has drawn students from around the globe.

In 2010, Behrens and Dr Olaf Jensen from the School of Historical Studies set up the Leicester Project on Genocide and the Holocaust. Among its successes were two international conferences hosted at Leicester – the second receiving funding from the British Academy. That event, which took place in September 2011, brought together experts from history, law, psychology and anthropology to investigate aspects of Genocidal Intent.

“The intent to destroy a group is an important feature in many academic fields, and yet this was arguably the first time an interdisciplinary conference has dealt with it,” said Behrens. The conference papers are now being prepared for publication as part of a series on Genocide and the Holocaust.

However, if genocide is open to academic debate, its legal treatment invites huge controversy. Only four groups are protected under the Genocide Convention. Crimes against political or economic groups, against homosexuals or against disabled people are excluded.

“These blind spots in the Convention are clearly not acceptable,” said Behrens,
“they never were.”

Dr Behrens is currently working on an analysis of proposals to reform the Genocide Convention – a topic on which he is an acknowledged authority. He has been interviewed widely on the subject by international media, including on the case of General Mladic brought before the Yugoslavia Tribunal.

On the question whether the Genocide Convention has in general been a  success, he is cautious. “People have claimed that the convention has not prevented a single case of genocide, but the real reason may be that international criminal tribunals are still a fairly young invention,” he said.

“The arrest of Milosevic and the arrest warrant against Bashir have certainly sent shockwaves through the international community and warned other State leaders that they too may face their judges one day.

“One can hardly improve on the words of Martin Luther King: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’.”

This article originally appeared in LE1 Spring 2012/Annual Report Edition 2010/11.

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