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Reading Lemkin in the time of genocide by Myanmar, Russia & Israel

Guest contributor

Maung Zarni

The world is living through a series of deeply destabilizing genocidal wars. Having returned from The Hague, where I joined the “End Israel’s genocide in Gaza” protests in front of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), I felt inspired to re-read Raphael Lemkin’s writings on genocide.

Lemkin was a Polish-Jewish lawyer and activist who gifted the world with the term “genocide.” 

He served as a tireless campaigner to encode, in the existing body of international law, any intentional, organized and coordinated destruction, not simply mass killing, of marked populations with their distinct group identities, “in whole or in (substantial) part,” as genocide.      

Russia’s imperialist aggression towards Ukraine, a sovereign neighbour; Israel’s half-century of colonial occupation and the relentless expansion of Jewish settler colonies on the occupied territories; and the Myanmar military junta’s genocidal wars against national minorities and political oppositional groups, are all grave crimes under international law, and an affront to humanity at large. 

In all three cases, the policies and conduct of Russia, Israel and Myanmar are categorically immoral, mock international law, and violate the norms established by the international community.  

Their financial backers join in the wars of propaganda while arming, training, financing or profiting from the crimes of these states.   

Russia has stepped up its military-to-military ties with Myanmar’s embattled junta, including holding a joint naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal with the junta’s navy.   

According to Antony Loewenstein, the author of The Palestine Laboratory, Israel hosted Min Aung Hlaing and his entourage at Yad Vashem in 2015, at the country’s Holocaust memorial, before proceeding to make deals with the genocidal visitors “for drones, a mobile phone-hacking system, rifles, military training, and warships.”  

In December 2019, when Aung San Suu Kyi travelled to The Hague to deny and defend genocide allegations at the ICJ in The Gambia vs. Myanmar case, the then Israeli Ambassador to Myanmar Ronen Gilor tweeted, “Encouragement for a good verdict and good luck!”   

Unfortunately, when Israel itself landed before the ICJ this month, Aung San Suu Kyi was unable to tweet words of encouragement to Myanmar’s genocide enabler, Israel, as she is held in captivity in Naypyidaw.  

To belabour the obvious, the U.S. government supplies Israel with arms, military advice, and money while protecting Netanyahu’s government – and all other Israeli governments before – with veto protection at the U.N. Security Council.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime Genocide Article II (C) clearly enunciated what kind of policies and conduct constitute acts of genocide. 

It is worth taking a glance at the Genocide Convention, which reads “(i)n the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; ….

There are two additional acts, which bring the total to five.

Raphel Lemkin, who studied at Lviv, then a part of Poland, would be turning in his grave today as Israel openly announces its intention to perpetrate genocide against 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza, under its total occupation.   

But what is common in all three countries is the flagrant attempt to flaunt the Genocide Convention, an inter-state treaty or a genocide as a crime in domestic law (in the case of Russian Federation), the emergence of which Lemkin devoted his life.    

Despite its recognition of genocide as a death penalty worthy crime under U.S. domestic law. Shockingly, if not surprisingly, the U.S. unequivocally throws its political and military weight behind Israel’s latest war in response to the 7 October violent attacks by Hamas.  

Israel’s President Herzog declared “no one in Gaza is innocent.” This presumably includes infants and one million children who make up about half of Gaza’s total population.   

The result is the slaughter of Palestinian children – 10,000 and counting in 100 days.

In his ground-breaking essay Genocide (Chapter 9 of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe:  Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, originally published in 1944), Lemkin called such populations in the Nazi-occupied Europe “nations in prison.”   

Because Gaza has been left under the Hamas’ administration since Israel’s withdrawal some years ago, international lawyers may split hairs as to whether the term “occupation” applies.  

In the context of Israel’s genocide in Gaza, Lemkinian “nations in prison” is a more apt characterization.  

In his briefing at the U.N. Human Rights Council on 26 September this year Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, of Myanmar’s military junta,“(w)e are faced here with a system of ruthless repression designed to coerce and subjugate its people and to erode a society so that the predatory interests of the military are preserved,” he said.   

He identified three specific military tactics employed against civilians: airstrikes, mass killings, and the burning of villages and pointed out Myanmar’s “military’s blatant disregard for fundamental principles of humanity as well as the U.N. Security Council repeated demands for an immediate cessation of hostilities and unhindered humanitarian access”. 

Citing Myanmar eyewitnesses and calling the Myanmar military’s actions as “inhumanity in its vilest form,” Turk called attention to soldiers using horrific methods to inflicting pain on civilians, including burning alive, beheading, dismemberment, rape and more.  

He urged the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court

The ICC has already issued an arrest warrant for the Russian President Vladimir Putin for the “unlawful deportation” en masse of Ukrainian children since the start of Moscow’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. 

At the ICJ, the world’s highest court for settling legal conflicts between its member states, Myanmar as a state party of the Genocide Convention is already in the Merit Phase of the genocide case – The Gambia vs. Myanmar – for its intentional destruction of Rohingya people in Western Myanmar.  

Enjoying the blanket impunity which the U.S. has afforded, Israel has flouted 28 U.N. Security Council resolutions and is a vile subject of international condemnations worldwide save a handful of E.U. and other western nations.  

It is no coincidence that these three violators of international criminal law and inter-state treaties flock together.  

Besides, there are other “liberal democracies” of the West who are acting as enablers and collaborators of these genocidal regimes, most specifically Israel.  

Most shocking of all is the fact that post-Holocaust, unified Germany has officially backed Israel on the very day – 12 January 2024 – when it declared its intent to intervene as a third party in the Republic of South Africa vs. Israel at the ICJ.

It took the German government four years to take such legal action in The Gambia vs. Myanmar (or Rohingya genocide case). Germany accused South Africa of engaging in “weaponizing the Genocide Convention.”   

At the risk of sounding essentialist, I fear that the Germans do feel genocide is something Germany does and excels in while Zionist Jews give the distinct impression that genocide is “the shit” that only happened to “God’s chosen people.”    

It is deeply troubling that these three countries are in the various stages of their respective genocides, all variously backed by other U.N. member states, including its founding members.  

The genocidal complicity of these states are, in effect, setting the clock back to the 1930s, when Lemkin was forced to envisage the crime of barbarism and the crime of vandalism, before he settled on “genocide” and “ethnocide.”

*this op-ed was edited for brevity and clarity.

Maung Zarni is a UK-exiled scholar and revolutionary from Burma with 35 years of direct political involvement in Burmese affairs.  

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]


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