Latin America extends the definition of genocide

05 November 2007 by Santiago O’Donnell

A growing number of loosely defined groups are being declared victims of genocide by Latin American and Spanish courts: Indians in the Brazilian Amazonia, victims of the Argentine junta, student demonstrators in Mexico, street protesters in Bolivia, and former guerrilla members in Colombia. Yet, this trend goes against the widely accepted United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 and the legal definition of genocide used by all contemporary international or hybrid tribunals, which are much stricter about what constitutes a genocide.

These Latin American cases approach genocide with a large, liberal interpretation of the term that is not in tune with what is happening at the international level,” said William Schabas, Professor of Human Rights Law at the National University of Ireland-Galway and a leading authority on the subject. “The International Criminal Tribunal for the formerYugoslavia and the UN Commission of Inquiry in Darfur have adopted a more strict approach. Perhaps the reason it has remained narrow is that the concept of crimes against humanity has grown broader and more robust. Therefore, atrocities that, in the past, people were not sure how to  label are now being labeled without dispute as crimes against humanity, and this has relieved the pressure on genocide from the arguments that it should be more broadly interpreted. Crimes against humanity carry the same sentencing weight as genocide, [are not proscriptable] and cannot be pardoned, just like genocides,” he said.

Want to read more?

If you subscribe to a free membership, you can read this article and explore our full archive, dating back to 1997.

Subscribe now

Related articles

article
19 February 2007 by Laetitia Grotti

One year ago on January 6, 2006, the 17 members of Morocco's Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) were closing up shop after submitting their final report to King Mohammed VI. The Moroccan truth commission had received a flood of compliments from the international community praising the recommendations in its report, especially those advocating legislative and constitutional reforms. One year later, however, the results have been rather mixed.

article
11 September 2006 by our correspondent in Arusha

After having tried high-ranking officers, ministers, businessmen, priests, journalists, local officials and militiamen, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is in uncharted waters. On September 11, the most famous rwandese troubadour of his generation will stand trial for genocide. 

article
23 October 2006 by Christine Chaumeau

China is keeping a polite distance from international criminal justice. Beijing is hardly disinterested, but China does want to make sure that these new global mechanisms are not going to infringe upon its sovereignty by delving into particularly sensitive cases such as Tibet. 

article
United Nations Operation in Burundi disarms rebel forces in Mbanda in February 2005 (Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Martine Perret)
03 June 2015 by Janet H. Anderson, The Hague (The Netherlands)

Over the last month, Burundi has hit the headlines as the president put himself forward to be elected for a controversial third term, resulting in street protests, thousands of refugees who fled instability and an attempted coup. Behind the issues of elections and constitutionalism are also those of justice following Burundi’s long-running civil war. The international community supported an intensive process of negotiation and the signing of the Arusha Accord in 2000. But in the decade and a half since, its provisions on justice have been debated though never fully implemented.

article
06 November 2006 by Pierre Hazan

France's attitude towards international criminal justice is marked by ambiguity. Paris subscribes to a vision of the world in which international humanitarian law is considered a way to curb violence against civilian populations, but at the same time it is wary of an unchecked judicial system that could end up prosecuting French soldiers engaged in areas where it has old and deep-rooted interests.