A Narrow Definition of Genocide

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In his new book, Assistant Professor Ben Meiches explores the creation of the word genocide.

There’s a moment in the original Matrix film where Morpheus offers Neo a choice. He can take the blue pill and continue living his life as before, or Neo can take the red one and see reality for the first time. Higher education can sometimes feel like this scene, especially when in conversation with Assistant Professor Ben Meiches.

A self-described pessimist, Meiches’ research and teaching focus on global politics. “I’m interested in where we get our ideas, where we get our concepts,” he said. Meiches came to UW Tacoma in 2015 after completing a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University. Meiches’ dissertation focused on genocide, a subject he returned to in his recently published book, The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide.

The term genocide describes, “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The word is used enough to feel familiar, as if the definition always existed.  “The concept was only invented in 1943,” said Meiches. “The man who invented it, Raphael Lemkin, was Jewish and actually fled on foot from the Nazis and essentially came up with the idea while living as a refugee.”

Assistant Professor Ben Meiches teaching a course on international relations.But Lemkin had a much broader understanding of genocide. “He outlined eight different techniques of genocide that included mass murder but also included social, economic, cultural, political and biological techniques,” said Meiches. “”Some of his examples included destroying libraries, forcing one party of politics, controlling who could have a baby and even changing the names of street signs.”

What happened? The United Nations convened the Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. “There were political forces who were more interested in a restricted vision of genocide,” said Meiches. “All of the major powers — the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France — wouldn’t accept a broad vision of violence and international justice because it meant practices like cultural destruction and segregation would be subject to this treaty.”

The impact of a watered-down understanding of genocide is multifold. “Under Lemkin’s original version you could have a genocide of disabled persons or a genocide of people in the LGTBQ community,” said Meiches. “This probably wouldn’t be the case under contemporary terminology.  Ultimately, what is at stake in these distinctions are what ways of life we considered valuable and worthy of justice and protection.

The current definition of genocide also frames how a country, or entity like the UN, responds to mass violence . “We’ve likely all heard about Sudan and Darfur but we’re less familiar with the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Meiches. “There were hundreds of thousands of people killed in Sudan and Darfur, but there were millions killed in the DRC at the same time. What happened in the DRC was more complex and didn’t fall along racial or religious lines as it did in Sudan and Darfur.”

Meiches’ broader research also includes armed conflict and the development of international law. He teaches classes about political violence, human rights and international theory. All of these subjects are heady, some even a little grim. However, given a choice, Meiches prefers the red pill to the blue. “I think we don’t know how to deal with sadness or death in our culture,” he said. “Not engaging with these topics doesn’t make them stop.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / March 20, 2019
Photos by: 
Brian DalBalcon
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu