What is “Genocide”?: The Case of Chechnya


Life is hell for queer people in Chechnya, the troubled subnational republic within the Russian Federation run by Vladimir Putin’s chosen henchman, Ramzan Kadyrov.  The tough-guy image Kadyrov has cultivated is absurdly comical to the Western eye. He snuggles with wildlife, strikes a variety of awkward poses while working out, and throws tacky public spectacles.  What is not funny is that this overgrown man-child has a penchant for using terror to rule and is perpetrating a genocide against gay men--and now in the latest wave, women--within Chechnya’s borders.

The word “genocide” emerged in the wake of the Second World War, when the targeted enslavement, torture, and murder of certain groups demanded its own place in the lexicon.  The term itself was coined and promoted by Raphael Lemkin, and after the war the consensus was that this concept needed to be codified in international law. There was debate about the scope of the definition, but there was no mention of one of the groups that is most likely to be targeted for atrocities and, in some cases, extermination, both in Lemkin’s time and today: the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community.  While the threat of genocide sadly remains with us, it seems irresponsible of the international community not to include the LGBTQ+ community in the legal framework.

The idea is not completely novel.  In May 2017, French activists initiated a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) alleging genocide over the situation in Chechnya.  Although this particular case will not proceed due to Russia’s subsequent withdrawal from the relevant treaty, it should inspire other cases before not just the ICC but also numerous other bodies in the international human rights system.

The arguments for making the term “genocide” accurately reflect reality are myriad.  LGBTQ+ people are especially vulnerable to persecution, the desire being to erase any visible trace of them. Using the word “genocide,” when appropriate, will elicit a visceral repugnance that will then spur efforts to stop it.  Most important, the scope and scale of genocide is tremendous, as should be our response.

Genocides are often tied up in many other issues in failing societies.  Nazi ideology mandated the elimination of Jews, homosexuals, and the disabled because they were viewed as, among other things, antithetical to the hypermasculine and militarized ideal of the Aryan master race.  Today’s genocide against LGBTQ+ people in Chechnya is a symptom of a country whose overall freedom has been completely crushed by a bizarre and despotic leader. Kadyrov is unfortunately not alone. Authoritarian regimes, from Cairo to Kabul, often turn to scapegoating LGBTQ+ people to distract from the oppression of the people and looting of treasuries. 

According to the Russian LGBT Network, Chechnya has renewed the mass arrest of gay men, which in 2017 brought widespread condemnation outside Russia.  After infiltrating social media in late 2018, authorities began arresting, imprisoning, and torturing men and women. In this latest round, two individuals are confirmed dead.

What distinguishes these actions from the situation in other countries is the systematic approach from the highest levels of government.  Unsatisfied with homophobic proclamations or scattered crackdowns, the Chechen regime is hellbent on ensuring the extermination of queer life within its borders. 

Finally, for very practical reasons, integrating LGBTQ+ individuals into the legal definition of genocide strengthens the overall legal and moral case against violators.  The reaction of most countries will be to take the strongest possible steps to end any genocides. Those countries that do not join the condemnation position themselves outside the international consensus.

The benefit of using accurate terminology transcends individual prosecutions and related proceedings.  Simply using the terms “genocide” and “LGBTQ+” together improves the perception about other violations against LGBTQ+ life and dignity that do not rise to the level of genocide.  LGBTQ+ lives are as important as any other lives and demand the protection of the international community, including when mass extermination is happening or is threatened.

Beyond the immediate concern with stopping the genocide in Chechnya is the need to establish a lasting legal framework.  It has been 75 years since “genocide” was coined. The international community must correct the definition to include the LGBTQ+ community.  Otherwise, human rights norms risk ossification and irrelevance at a moment in world history when they are so desperately needed.

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