- Genocide:Beyond Definition
Genocide is beyond reason. While the law and rational theories are necessary tools to address this monstrous crime, they are clearly insufficient. In order to truly confront this evil, we need to embrace the greater truth that confers meaning on this word and identify with the depth of suffering experienced by the survivors and victims; to see them as we see ourselves. This is the message that renowned McGill University law professor and former UN prosecutor Payam Akhavan seeks to communicate in his intriguing book, Reducing Genocide to Law: Definition, Meaning, and the Ultimate Crime. Beyond the elegant language of his original and provocative work, the greatest difficulty facing the reader is grasping the ethereal sentiment that Akhavan seeks to convey, ever mindful that the inability to reduce the enormity of this crime to words is itself the message. I know this tension well. It has been part of my lived experience since 1994: the Rwandan cataclysm, my encounter with unspeakable evil and its enduring effect on my consciousness. That emotional space remains separate from the daily routine that I share with policymakers and leaders of public opinion. It is the dichotomy between these two realities, and the desire to bridge the vast distance between intimate experience and the abstract discourse of elites, that drives Akhavan in his courageous and thoughtful labor.
He first describes it to the reader through his experience as an idealistic [End Page 778] academic empowered by a Harvard education and his position as the first Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor of the UN Tribunal for Yugoslavia. That is one reality, but far from the whitewashed Doric columns of the Harvard Law library laid another. Akhavan details the atrocities that he witnessed first-hand as a UN human rights investigator in Bosnia during the 1990s: "women with babes in arms murdered in the streets as they attempted to flee, entire families burned alive . . . the harrowing testimony of children raped in front of their parents, survivors weeping uncontrollably as they sifted through mass graves in search of their loved ones."1
Akhavan goes to great efforts to explore the juxtaposition between the lofty perch of rational abstraction and the gutter of human depravity. It is forcefully captured in the cover image of the book: a winter's day in Paris, white bow-tied garçons carrying the first course at the restaurant at the Palais de Chaillot where the UN General Assembly is convened, white linen tables where diplomats and dignitaries are celebrating the signing of the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide ("Genocide Convention").2 The Eiffel Tower can be seen in the background, a metaphor for those standing on top of the world looking at the reality below from a safe distance. It is what this image does not show that is most important. Hidden away in a secluded back room, far from the restaurant's ceiling high windows, is a young Polish lawyer of Jewish descent named Raphaël Lemkin, the convention's architect. Lemkin did not share in the celebrations: he sat in a dark room at the Palais weeping over the loss of his family, forty-nine of whom perished in the Holocaust. Even amidst this enormous moral triumph, he suffered in the knowledge that it was too late and perhaps not enough. The Genocide Convention, momentous as it was, could not measure up to the horror that is genocide. This is Akhavan's account of this legendary jurist, often lionized in triumphant narratives of international law, oblivious to how personal experience shapes a broader struggle, and how often law-making and institution-building without a deeper commitment by those in power creates the illusion of progress. After all, the vow of "never again" that followed the Holocaust, and the many acts of remembrance since, did not make an appreciable difference for the millions that became victims of annihilation in the years following the adoption of the...