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What’s Unsaid | Genocide or not, what difference does a word make?

‘Victims want the word genocide to be used. Because they believe that really lifts up the grotesqueness and the horror of what has happened to them.’

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What purpose does using the word “genocide” serve, to people trapped in mass violence?

For many, it’s an accurate term to describe Israel’s siege of Gaza. To others, it’s offensive. This debate over using the word has played out elsewhere in recent years, from Pakistan to Myanmar. But has it done anything to stop the violence?

Human rights lawyer and war crimes investigator Yasmin Sooka joins the latest What’s Unsaid episode to discuss using the word “genocide” in Gaza and beyond, and why language matters – in the middle of a crisis, and in the aftermath of mass violence.

“The legal obligation exists, whether it's a war crime or genocide, for the international community to act,” says Sooka, who currently serves as the executive director of the International Truth and Justice Project, which promotes justice and accountability in Sri Lanka. “But where it will make a difference is around this question of accountability, and who should be held accountable.” 

What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by The New Humanitarian’s Ali Latifi and Irwin Loy.

Guest: Yasmin Sooka, Human Rights Lawyer

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Transcript | Genocide or not, what difference does a word make?

Ali Latifi:

Today on What’s Unsaid: Genocide or not, what difference does a word make?


Yasmin Sooka:

Victims want the word genocide to be used. Because they believe that to some extent that really lifts up the grotesqueness and the horror of what has happened to them.



Stop the genocide. It’s a slogan that’s been trending on social media. It’s also used by protestors against Israel’s ongoing violence in Gaza, since October 7. 


Calling this a ‘genocide’ is contentious, to say the least. For many, it’s an accurate term to describe what’s happening in Gaza. To supporters of Israel though, it’s highly offensive. This debate over using the word ‘genocide’ has played out elsewhere in recent years, from Pakistan to Myanmar.


Joining us today is Yasmin Sooka, a human rights lawyer who has investigated serious war crimes in places like Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. 


We put the question to her: What purpose does using the term genocide serve to people experiencing violence? And, if there’s no political will to act when the risks of genocide are there, does the world need new legal definitions to hold perpetrators to account? 


This is What’s Unsaid. A bi-weekly podcast by The New Humanitarian where we explore open secrets and uncomfortable conversations around the world’s conflicts and disasters. My name is Ali Latifi, staff editor at The New Humanitarian. 


On today’s episode: Genocide or not, what difference does a word make?


Yasmin, thank you for being here.



Thank you, Ali.



There is a lot of talk and criticism around Israel's disproportionate use of force in Gaza and the West Bank, and it’s obviously growing much louder. And there is also a lot of talk now about whether or not all of this does add up to genocide. Can you explain why it may or may not be helpful to argue about genocide definitions at this very moment?



When we look at this issue of genocide, obviously, there's a legal definition. And what it basically means, it's really the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious groups.

Under international law you have four international crimes, which are seen almost in the same vein, as equally serious. You have war crimes, crimes which have been committed in war. You have crimes against humanity, which are committed both in war and in peacetime. You have the crime of aggression. And of course, you have genocide, which has its own convention. 


The difference between using the word war crimes and genocide is that in terms of the Genocide Convention, this really requires the international community to take action against whoever is the aggressor, in this case. And we haven't seen that happen.


And in fact, when you even look at the statements by even the Secretary-General, a number of UN Special Rapporteurs, they talk about the risk of genocide, or genocidal intent. 


But you see, in most of the language, the use of the word war crimes, and I think that's because people from a legal background, in many ways are conservative and are waiting for this independent inquiry, to kind of prove that it's genocide.



Obviously, Palestine isn't the only place facing this issue. We have mass targeted violence against Rohingya people in Myanmar. We have the legacy of what happened between the Armenians and the Turks. We have the Hazaras in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. So there are a lot of places where people are asking for some kind of action, collective action, to be labelled as genocide. If the UN were to label either Palestine or any of these other places as genocide, what would actually change? Especially the ones that are ongoing.



It’s a very good question. Because I think that the legal obligation exists, whether it's a war crime or genocide, for the international community to act. But where it will make a difference is around this question of accountability, and who should be held accountable. There have been very few prosecutions of persons who have been alleged to be the authors and implementers of genocide. And one of them was an army commander in the Srebrenica case, which was also in fact classified by the ICTY as genocide. And then of course, you've had a number of Rwandans who have been indicted. For me, those are the two things which are important, which is, can we intervene to stop this carnage happening now? And to be frank, I see no real political will. You have the UN secretary-general, you have the high commissioner for human rights, you have many special rapporteurs – and that's in the multilateral system – saying this has got to stop and it's got to stop now. But they are powerless in being able to force Israel to end it. And in fact, to allow people to be treated humanely. And in fact, the bigger discussions which are taking place now are: what's going to happen in a post-war situation. And I think that it's quite disingenuous because it's quite clear that there isn't any real political will to stop this happening.



So twice, you brought up the issue of political will. And as you said, it can be a very political issue to define something as a genocide or not. And it has big political consequences. So given that, and everything that we've seen from so many Western leaders, even parts of the UN, should this discussion around genocide be parked? And should we really only see it as something that can be decided after the fact, given all of this political fervour around the current conflict?



I don't think people can wait for after. After what? After more people are killed and more people are wiped out? What do we do about the situation now? And I think that that's really the important question that should be put to the international community. What are you doing to actually stop this now? 


I don't think it's going to be so difficult to, in a way, prove that there was intent, because when you just read the statements of Benjamin Netanyahu, what did he say? 


Audio clip, Oct 2023

[Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Hebrew: ‘We will turn them into rubble’.]



He's going to reduce parts of Gaza to rubble. And he also referenced and for me, that was really a dangerous statement of intent when he said:


Audio clip, Oct 2023

[Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Hebrew: ‘You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. We do remember. And we are fighting.’]



He invoked the notion of the people of Amalek, having to be destroyed. And while that is a biblical reference, it's a very powerful one, in the way in which it's saying that let's get rid of all of these people whom we regard as the Amalek. 


And then there was, I think, the defence minister who said:


Audio clip, Oct 2023

[Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Hebrew: ‘You saw what we are fighting against. We are fighting against human animals.’



He used the word, we are fighting animals, and are attacking accordingly. And that dehumanising is allowing them to make it permissible to kill. I mean, there was another member of parliament that said, we should invest all of our energy in only one thing: erase all of Gaza from the face of the Earth. And we should force the Gazan monsters to flee or to face death. Now, what more do you need for the international community to say, this is genocide in the making that we are watching. And we need to act to intervene.



So do you think that there's something else that could be done at this moment that would be maybe more timely and more immediately helpful to those in need at this very moment?



To stop this punitive collective punishment against all, we should get the ICC prosecutor to open up an inquiry. And we need to look for those who are accountable and to do something about it. But right now, in the face of the crimes which are taking place, it needs a ceasefire. You need Israel to get out of Gaza completely. And you need those who have been impacted to receive some kind of justice and reparations. Although I think that is going to be long in coming.



You brought up several words that have either been played with or that have become kind of politicised in themselves: ceasefire, obviously genocide, war crimes. So in your view, do we just need to throw all of these words out and start over again? Do we need new definitions for war crimes and abuse that can't necessarily be played with as easily?



There's going to be a need for lawyers who study what we call the laws of war, or international humanitarian law, to really look at some of the language that has been used. And also I would argue some of the legal concepts. 


I’ll give you a few examples. We talk about the right to defend yourself. And this is a terminology that Israel has used. The way in which they interpret that is that they're not just gonna stop at taking out Hamas, but they treat the Palestinians as a collective group. And, in that way, they will take out everybody who lives in Gaza. 


I mean, there are three cardinal principles in international humanitarian law. One is that civilians and people who are wounded are not to be attacked. The second is, we talk about distinction. And that distinction is about civilians. And the third is the question of proportionality. And I think everybody would argue that these attacks have been completely disproportionate and that they have included the targeting of civilians. And that is certainly going to cause the need to begin to re-examine this language, because, to be very frank, it's not working. 


But in terms of going into the future, I think that we're going to have to examine a lot of these words, and the one I raise is this question of the right to defend yourself. I think people are going to lose any faith they have in the international legal system. And we are going to have to go back to the drawing-board. And maybe that's a good time, because we should remember that these laws were drafted in the aftermath of the Second World War. Even the term genocide came after the Holocaust. And it was only much later which we had the Genocide Convention. At the end of the day, if we interpret the terminology, and this question of intent, we can see that if people as a group are being destroyed, and yet we seem to be powerless to stop it, the big question that the international community is going to have to deal with is: how do we stop this happening in the future? How do we stop what's happening now in Israel? 



We've talked about previous examples that actually have been labelled as genocide. But the one thing that really makes this instance different is obviously how much has been documented. How much has been documented on social media, how many photos, how many videos, how many testimonies. And so as someone who has investigated serious crimes in different parts of the world, does the amount of digital documentation available to us now, does it make a difference when you're investigating something like a war crime?



Yeah, as somebody who's investigated serious crimes in many countries, I've always said to people that in a way your documentation, and the data you collect, including photographs and videos, and they’re really lots of videos that have been posted on social media, these are going to be quite critical to an investigation in the future. And to some extent, it makes the work of the investigators a lot simpler, because, in a way, it's out there. And you see that that's tangible information that will be turned into evidence. 


The one caution I would add, of course, is we’ve also noticed that there's a lot of disinformation. And you have a lot of videos that are being put out. And I would say, by the Israelis, which are, quite frankly, not truthful. In a way, it's disinformation. And so that's the one thing I would say that one would need to sift out. 



You're someone who has dealt with these kinds of issues from South Africa to Sierra Leone, and you're obviously very well-versed in all of this. But the core question to the people who are affected by this type of violence, especially as they are facing it, do you think that a term like genocide is actually important to them? Do they really care that what is happening to them is termed as a genocide as opposed to a war crime or a violation of humanitarian law?



At this moment, when you’re under attack, the terminology of what it's called, I think, doesn't really matter to you. But I think that when, in the aftermath of this, when you begin to think about it, and I've certainly seen that in the cases of many other countries: Sri Lanka is one, Afghanistan is another, Sudan is another. And the victims want to word genocide to be used. Because they believe that, to some extent, that really lifts up the grotesqueness and the horror of what has happened to them.


But in that moment, all you are conscious of, and this is from the testimonies they make, they want you to stop, they don't want to be killed. They want their children to be saved. They want not to suffer hunger and starvation. They want to have medical care. They want water. They want to be able to live. But it's in the aftermath, that these terms become important because to some extent they would see genocide as an affirmation of the horror, even though it is as serious as a war crime.



Thank you so much for joining us today Yasmin.



Thank you for having me.



Yasmin Sooka is a South African Human Rights Lawyer who has investigated serious crimes around the world. She currently also serves as the Executive Director of The International Truth and Justice Project.


Do visit TheNewHumanitarian.org for ongoing reporting on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the wider region. 


What are people afraid to talk about in today’s crises? What needs to be discussed openly? Let us know: send us an email: [email protected]. Subscribe to The New Humanitarian on your podcast app for more episodes of What’s Unsaid – our new podcast about open secrets and uncomfortable truths. With new episodes every other week. Hosted by Irwin Loy, and me. 


This episode is produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf, sound engineering by Mark Nieto, with original music by Whitney Patterson, and hosted by me, Ali Latifi.

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