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The weight of 'genocide': Why leaders are hesitant to use the word

Russia Ukraine War
Posted at 5:52 PM, Apr 14, 2022

President Joe Biden is now calling Russia’s actions in Ukraine a genocide.

"It is a horrible thing that the Russians have done in Ukraine, and we're only going to learn more and more about the devastation," he said.

The president then told reporters he stands by his use of the word in his Tuesday speech.

"Your family budget, your ability to fill up your tank, none of it should hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide a half a world away,” President Biden said.

The U.N. defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The use of the word has become a litmus test of Western resolve against Russia because of the weight it carries.

“The general public generally views the term genocide as representing the crime of all crime," said Valerie Oosterveld, professor of international criminal law at Western University Canada.

But there’s more to it than symbolism.

“If there's a genocide, you need to take action to punish it," said Stephen Rapp, former U.S. ambassador-at-large and leader of the State Department's Office of Global Criminal Justice. "If there's a threat of genocide, you need to take action to prevent it.”

President Biden says it’s still up to lawyers to determine if Russia’s crimes in Ukraine meet the legal standard of genocide. That international standard would trigger an obligation to intervene, but it’s a high bar.

“To get to genocide, you have to show that intent, and the fact that not all Ukrainians are being targeted, which to some extent belie that intent," Rapp said. "On the other hand, we're seeing a lot about the way the Russians are conducting themselves, the language used by Putin denying that Ukraine really exists as a country.”

“The images coming out of Bucha and the area surrounding Kyiv in recent times really have galvanized the international community," Oosterveld said.

Oosterveld says a recent account by a Ukrainian official that 25 women and girls were raped in Bucha is one potential indication of Russia’s genocidal intent.

“Being told as they were being raped that they were being raped so they could never have Ukrainian children, that their children would be Russian, that is a real warning sign of potential genocide," Oosterveld said.

Unlike President Biden, French president Emmanuel Macron says it’s too early to tell if Russian war crimes amount to genocide.

“I want to continue to try my best to be able to stop the war and restore peace," Macron said. "I’m not sure if the escalation of words serves our cause.”

In the past, American leaders have often dodged the word because of the legal obligations it triggers.

“When the genocide in Rwanda was unfolding, there were many world leaders, including the president of the United States, who did not want to name what was happening in Rwanda as genocide because they feared that they would need to intervene under international law," Oosterveld said.

President Biden’s use of the word drew immediate praise from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his staff.

“I'm thankful to your president, your president who recognized the genocide, thank you," Zelenskyy said.

The White House says the escalated rhetoric does not mean an escalation in the U.S. response. Still, experts tell Newsy that President Biden’s choice of words increases pressure on the U.S. and its allies to prevent and document Russian crimes in Ukraine.

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