By Dr. Tony Kireopoulos
World leaders and political commentators are all, to one degree or another, flirting with the charge that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. President Biden has already done so. It’s time to go one step further, as Volodymyr Zelensky has done, and to call out Putin’s crime against humanity for what it is: genocide.
In the last weeks, Russian soldiers have bombed hospitals, schools, shelters, and apartment buildings; in recent days, they have shot Ukrainian citizens who, if not thrown into mass graves, have been left dead in the streets. Officially hundreds, unofficially thousands, of men, women, and children have been killed. Given this shocking assault on civilians, there is no doubt that the military would not have done this without orders from the top.
Whether or not Russians and Ukrainians are of the same stock, whether the killings constitute fratricide or inter-ethnic violence, the bloody outcome is the same. What makes these killings different than the Serbs’ mass execution of Muslims in Srebrenica? What makes them different from the Hutus’ massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda? What makes this horror different from the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields in Cambodia? What makes it different from Germany’s Holocaust against Jews in Europe? All of these, and other similar, atrocities – singled out in history for their largescale murder, for their attempts to stamp out a national identity, for their denial of an ethnic group’s future – have long been understood by the international community as genocide.
I first learned up close of the horrors of, and ongoing trauma after, genocide when I went on a delegation to Rwanda in 2004 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of that genocide. I saw human skulls lined up at a memorial, many of them cracked from blows sustained in machete attacks; I walked on a church’s pews for fear of stepping on human bone fragments still strewn among the debris littering the floor; I witnessed one of countless Gacaca court proceedings, in which perpetrators faced their victims’ surviving family members and confessed to their individual crimes as a means to bring about some sort of justice to society.
Around the same time as that delegation, the genocide in Darfur was attracting the attention of the world. In the US, the Save Darfur Coalition was created, its mission to raise awareness of the genocide and to lift up the moral imperative for the US and its international partners to respond in a way that would end the killing. I was honored to be one of its founding board members and, after the organization morphed into United to End Genocide, its chair. We had rallies on the National Mall, and in Central Park; we advocated in Congress, and allies advocated in local state houses; we worked with committees and persons of conscience across the board. Recalling those efforts, and contemplating earlier genocides, I now ask: What makes the Russian military’s slaughter of innocents in Ukraine any different from the Janjaweed’s slaughter of innocents in Darfur?
Genocide is indeed the worst of crimes that a people can commit against another people. Because of this, the world, rightly, is careful when considering the charge against a leader who presides over such carnage. The annals of history reserve this charge for only the most reprehensible of these figures. Vladimir Putin should no longer be exempt from this judgment.
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As I drafted this reflection, the US announced its determination that the military in Myanmar committed genocide against the Rohingya. Evidence continues to mount that China is doing the same against the Uyghurs. Usually, the international community waits until genocides have already been committed before labeling them as such. In the case of Ukraine, as it virally unfolds before our eyes, we can call it for what it is in real time.
Dr. Kireopoulos is Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA.
About this blog: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the original author and were prepared in the author’s personal capacity. These views and opinions do not represent those of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, its member communions, or any other contributors to this site.