Reckoning with Genocide, 75 Years After the UN Convention

As Jewish people, most of us have grown up hearing stories of the Holocaust. No one should be better prepared than us to recognize genocide. And many Jewish people are now recognizing what could not be more clear: there is a genocide unfolding in Gaza. And the state of Israel, despite a history so intertwined with the Holocaust, is the perpetrator. 

This is not hyperbole. It is not conspiracy. It is certainly not antisemitic. It is based on the sober assessment of many of the world’s leading experts on genocide.

Raz Segal, an Israeli associate professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Stockton University in the US, has noted that the situation in Gaza is unique in how overtly it is meeting the criteria for genocide. In an article published on October 13, Segal argued that Israel’s actions constituted at least three of the five acts constituting genocide according to the UN genocide convention, specifically “1. Killing members of the group. 2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group. 3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” 

On October 15, 2023, a public statement by over 800 scholars and practitioners of international law, conflict studies and genocide studies wrote that they were “compelled to sound the alarm” about what they saw as an escalation of previously documented concerns about “the possibility of the crime of genocide being perpetrated by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.” 

One of the key factors in this determination of genocide is that the intent to destroy a specific group – Palestinians – has been clearly articulated in shocking language by Israeli government officials, journalists and through social media. Segal emphasizes that the people making the threats wield the “command authority” to follow through on their threats, which they have. 

The Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a US-based legal organization founded in 1966, has released a report documenting how Israel is “attempting to commit, if not actively committing, the crime of genocide.” The report notes that it is not a question of scale of murder that defines a genocide. It refers to a statement by Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish lawyer credited with creating the term genocide, in which he says it is “a coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups so that these groups wither and die like plants that have suffered a blight . . . . It may be accomplished by wiping out all basis of personal security, liberty, health and dignity.”

The CCR also references William Schabas, a Canadian academic specialising in international criminal and human rights law and past President of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, who notes that under international law, “no State or individual can ever be permitted to justify genocide in the name of self-defence.” This is also captured in the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court, which notes that being involved in a “defensive operation conducted by forces shall not in itself constitute a ground for excluding criminal responsibility…”

In the first genocide conviction by an international court, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda held that “subjecting a group of people to a subsistence diet, systematic expulsion from homes and the reduction of essential medical services below the minimum requirement” also constituted the crime of genocide. 

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has released a legal brief which focuses on the international community and the responsibilities that States outside of Israel hold. The ICJ affirms that under the Genocide Convention, there is a legal obligation on States to each take reasonable action to contribute toward preventing genocide, regardless of whether their actions are sufficient to prevent it. 

Critically, it cites precedent from other case law that the States’ duty to act is triggered when there is a risk that genocide will be committed. The ICJ’s opinion is that there is enough information at this time for States to be held responsible for taking measures to prevent genocide in Gaza. 

Canada is a signatory to all four Geneva Conventions and it has enacted all of the Geneva Conventions into Canadian law in 1957 through the Geneva Conventions Act. It has full force in Canada as Canadian legislation. It is therefore legitimate and crucial for Canadians to be calling on our own leaders to stand up against the genocidal intent that has been demonstrated by representatives of the Israeli government.

The urgency of this moment should not be lost. Recently, Rabea Eghbariah, a Palestinian human rights attorney completing his doctoral studies at Harvard Law School, noted that “it is much easier to dissect the case law rather than navigate the reality of death. It is much easier to consider genocide in the past tense rather than contend with it in the present”. 

We must learn from the past and continue to demand an end to the atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank. There is no military resolution to the situation. The only way forward is an immediate ceasefire, ending the siege in Gaza and addressing the systemic oppression that is at the root cause of the violence. 

We owe it to the memory of our ancestors to learn from the past. We must remember the disappointment and heartbreak that our communities felt when the world was silent as they were annihilated. We vowed to do better. The evidence of Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity is well documented. As Jews, we must unequivocally call out Israel for its actions. As Canadians, we must demand better from the politicians who are supposed to represent us and stand for the rule of law.