Constituting a Genocide

As Ukrainian troops retook the northern city of Bucha, they came across scores dead of civilians who had been bound and shot. It also became clear that civilians had undergone torture, mutilations, and beheadings. The mayor of Bucha estimated that over 300 locals had been killed during the massacre. The Kremlin sought to deny any culpability, claiming that Ukrainian forces placed the bodies there after Russian forces had pulled out of the city. However, the BBC and New York Times used satellite imagery to confirm the bodies had been there three week prior, under Russian occupation.

The images that surfaced from Bucha drew strong reactions from world leaders. Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the shootings “doesn’t look far short of genocide.” Taking a more impassioned stance, Poland’s Prime Minister claimed that “the bloody massacres perpetrated by Russian soldiers deserve to be called by name: This is genocide and this crime must be tried as the crime of genocide.” The strong condemnations coming from the West seem superficial, at best, for Ukrainians; the international community has ignored Ukrainians’ calls for them to establish a military presence in the country.

As leaders, historians, and analysts continue to call the killings in Ukraine’s northern city a genocide, they risk falling into the historical inaction that often surrounds these events. The use of this word draws natural comparisons with well-known mass extermination events of the 20th century, such as the Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust, or the Cambodian genocide.

After each of these events, the international community admonished world leaders for their inaction and passivity. The phrase often used in the wake of the holocaust is “never again.” Zelenskyy even made reference to this during his address to German lawmakers. Yet if political leaders are calling the human rights abuses in Ukraine a genocide, they seem to be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. World leaders are once again publicly and personally admitting that the war crimes in Ukraine constitute genocide but are taking no direct action to prevent further atrocities. In other words, these leaders are writing themselves into history as another example of politicians acting as passive observers of mass killings.

Words carry weight, but they are only as effective as the actions that follow them. If world leaders are going to equate Russia’s killings in Ukraine with other genocides, then they need to take the proper course of action to prevent another scenario of “never again.”


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