Karadzic conviction a reminder of genocide's horror

Radovan Karadzic appears before the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia at the Hague.

Story highlights

  • Radovan Karadzic's genocide conviction reminds us of ISIS atrocities, say two legal scholars
  • Karadzic was responsible for an extraordinary catalog of atrocities across Bosnia, they say
  • Authors: We should continue to be careful about how we apply the term "genocide"

Laurie Blank is clinical professor of law and director of the International Humanitarian Law Clinic at the Emory School of Law. She is co-author of "International Law and Armed Conflict: Fundamental Principles and Contemporary Challenges in the Law of War." Geoffrey S. Corn is professor of law at South Texas College of Law and co-author of "The Law of Armed Conflict: An Operational Perspective."

A version of this piece appeared last week regarding ISIS atrocities.

(CNN)Yesterday's conviction of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, is a stark reminder of the horror of genocide in the midst of similar crimes by ISIS.

Karadzic was responsible for an extraordinary catalog of atrocities across Bosnia, most notably the genocide of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995, when he and his subordinates carried out a highly-organized operation, the purpose of which was to kill every able-bodied Bosnian Muslim male in Srebrenica and thus destroy the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica as a group.
Geoffrey S. Corn
Laurie Blank
Genocide is the "crime of crimes," the most heinous of international crimes. And yet while genocide is the ultimate atrocity, not every atrocity amounts to genocide -- for good reason. The Yugoslav tribunal's findings demonstrate that genocide is a weighty legal term connoting a certain crime -- an effort not only to kill, torture, enslave or otherwise brutalize a population, but to eliminate it altogether.
    As the Karadzic conviction reinforces, the term "genocide" is not a vague assignation to throw at every atrocity that shocks the conscience. Applying the term loosely risks diluting its moral, legal and political weight. The conviction thus affirms both the truly barbaric, nearly inconceivable horror of genocide and the importance of adhering to the specific legal parameters of the crime, much like the U.S. State Department's careful examination and characterization of ISIS atrocities as genocide last week.
    Genocide is the commission of certain acts with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, religious or racial group: killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about the destruction of the group, imposing measures to prevent births or forcibly transferring children to another group.
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    A crime against humanity

    In an earlier judgment condemning the genocide against Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia explained that genocide is uniquely "horrific in scope; its perpetrators identify entire human groups for extinction." It is a crime against all of humanity, because "those who devise and implement genocide seek to deprive humanity of the manifold richness its nationalities, races, ethnicities and religions provide."
    The stringent requirements to prove genocide thus preserve the singular opprobrium it deserves and also "guard against a danger that convictions for this crime will be imposed lightly," according to the tribunal.
    Genocide is thus distinguishable from other international crimes, in particular through the requirement of specific intent: The perpetrators must have an actual objective to destroy a particular group, in whole or in part. In addition, the victims must also be a national, ethnic, religious or racial group, not merely any group or collection of victims.
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    As a result, not all heinous or even widespread atrocities qualify as genocide. But the fact that atrocities -- such as the widespread brutal attacks on civilians and use of sexual slavery in Sierra Leone or the Syrian government's mass shooting of unarmed protesters in the spring of 2011 -- do not meet the definition of genocide does not mean they are unimportant or not criminal.
    Such widespread or systematic attacks directed against any civilian population are crimes against humanity, one of the most severe international crimes and most important tools in the arsenal of international criminal justice. The difference is that crimes against humanity do not require a specific intent to destroy and do not require that the victims be part of a specific national, ethnic, racial or religious group, the unique feature of genocide. Thus, Karadzic was also convicted of crimes against humanity, war crimes, persecution and other offenses where the acts in question met those standards but not the specific intent to destroy required for genocide.
    Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish lawyer who escaped Germany's clutches and later coined the term "genocide" to capture the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust, explained that there had been "no serious endeavor hitherto to prevent and punish the murder and destruction of millions" and "there was not even an adequate name for such a phenomenon." The term genocide, and its legal definition, capture precisely that specific objective.
    Karadzic's crimes -- like the current campaign of atrocities ISIS is waging across communities in Syria and Iraq -- surely deserve every form of censure and denunciation the international community can muster. His genocide conviction and the United States' recent labeling of ISIS atrocities as genocide show robust and deliberate efforts to bring the criminal, diplomatic and moral force of the international community to bear against this horrific crime.