The International Law of Genocide and the Soviet Terror Famine of the 1930s:

Last October, I explained why international law is wrong to classify "genocide" as a different and more serious crime than mere mass murder. The recent brouhaha between the Russian and Ukrainian governments over Joseph Stalin's terror famine of the 1930s is a case in point. Not even the apologists for communism in former KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin's government deny that Stalin ordered the deliberate mass murder of millions of peasants in order to facilitate the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. In his classic study, The Harvest of Sorrow, historian Robert Conquest estimates that as many as 14 million rural people may have died because the Soviet government confiscated their land and food supplies.

However, the Ukrainians claim that this mass murder counts as genocide because Stalin specifically targeted Ukrainian peasant farmers for extermination. The Russian parliament, by contrast, claims that Stalin was an equal opportunity mass murderer, targeting Russians, Ukrainians, and others alike. International law considers mass murder to be genocide only if it is the result of an "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." Thus, if Stalin killed the Ukrainian peasants because they were peasants rather than because they were Ukrainians, it wasn't genocide, and therefore a less serious crime.

Frankly, I see no reason why this difference in Stalin's subjective intentions affects the severity of the crime in any way. The impact of the mass murder is exactly the same either way. And I don't see why Stalin and his henchmen somehow become less immoral if they killed millions of innocent people for "economic" reasons rather than for racial or ethnic ones.

Interestingly, as Jonah Goldberg points out in a column on this dispute, the international law definition of genocide may have been crafted to exclude mass murders targeting political or economic groups precisely because the Soviet bloc insisted on it. Although communist states sometimes do target groups based on ethnicity (as in the USSR's ethnic cleansing and partial extermination of the Crimean Tatars), most of their mass murders were based on economic and political grounds; and Stalin apparently wanted to make sure that they weren't covered by the international law of genocide. If so, this is another example of the pernicious influence of nondemocratic states on international human rights law, which John McGinnis and I discuss in this paper.

UPDATE: Various commenters argue that genocide is worse than other mass murders because it destroys cultural value as well as killing individuals. I addressed this point in my earlier post on genocide and mass murder. For readers' convenience, here's what I said:

Sometimes, it is argued that genocide is worse than other types of mass murder because it deprives the world of valuable cultural diversity, not just of the contributions of particular individuals. That may well be a real harm of genocide. But other types of mass murders also destroy diversity and other cultural resources. For example, Pol Pot's decimation of Cambodia's educated classes surely did severe damage to Cambodia's culture. Stalin's extermination of Russians active in political movements other than his own certainly undermined valuable diversity in that country, and so on. Whether genocide causes more cultural damage than other types of mass murder will vary from case to case.

UPDATE #2: For what it's worth, I think the evidence on Stalin's motives is somewhat unclear. There is little doubt that Stalin's main objective was to achieve the collectivization of agriculture by destroying the class of private landowning farmers - regardless of ethnicity. In addition to the Ukrainians, millions of Russian peasant farmers were also killed, along with members of other ethnic groups (including a good many Georgians - Stalin's own nationality group). On the other hand, Stalin, like other Russian and Soviet rulers, feared Ukrainian nationalism, since the Ukrainians were the Soviet empire's largest minority group. As Conquest and other historians suggest, he may well have been happy to cut down on the number of Ukrainians under his rule, thereby reducing the chance that they would ever be able to achieve independence. The terror famine enabled him to achieve both his ethnic and his economic objectives at the same time.

Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
There's a lot of sense in this, but there's also a fair amount of persecution complex in this post. You know, like the people screaming that racism is worse than sexism, or whatever.

Of course if someone kills 300,000 people for political reasons, they are just as dead as if they are killed because of their race or just for a completely random reason.

And sure, the victorious powers in World War II weren't going to declare whatever they did to be against international law. I might add this goes not only for Soviet crimes, but also for American tactics such as firebombing cities and using nuclear weapons. (By saying this, I am not equivalencing these things to Soviet atrocities. I am just observing that the Nuremburg and Tokyo principles are filled with "victor's justice", and this includes not condemning American practices as well as not condemning Soviet practices.)

On the other hand, there is in fact a basis for saying genocide is worse, because it destroys a culture as well as killing people, and because ethnic discrimination is independently wrong, making killing because of ethnicity a doubly-wrong act.
4.9.2008 7:26pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
I can't say that Soviet interests didn't play a role, but the idea that there is value in the survival of cultures and nations above and beyond the individual lives of their members is not a Soviet invention. The problem, it seems to me, lies not in evaluating genocide sensu stricto as worse than non-genocidal mass murder, but in failing therefore sufficiently to condemn mass murder of any sort.
4.9.2008 7:31pm
Ilya Somin:
On the other hand, there is in fact a basis for saying genocide is worse, because it destroys a culture as well as killing people, and because ethnic discrimination is independently wrong, making killing because of ethnicity a doubly-wrong act.

I covered the first point in my initial post. The second point doesn't distinguish genocide from most other mass murder. Government discrimination against people based on political grounds is also independently wrong.
4.9.2008 7:33pm
Ilya Somin:
I can't say that Soviet interests didn't play a role, but the idea that there is value in the survival of cultures and nations above and beyond the individual lives of their members is not a Soviet invention.

I covered this argument in the October post. There is no reason to believe that ethnically based mass murders necessarily destroy more cultural value than other mass murders do. Sometimes they will, sometimes not. Pol Pot's mass murder of Cambodia's educated classes (discussed in the October post) caused far more cultural damage than most ethnically based mass murders do.
4.9.2008 7:35pm
glangston (mail):
The correct term is democide death by government. It's capable of nuance but we are talking death.
4.9.2008 7:37pm
Displaced Midwesterner (mail):
Would mass murder by a state against its own people be treated more strictly under international law than it currently is if it weren't for the existence of separate concept of genocide? I think it's certainly a possibility. But I think it's also a possibility that mass murder would be viewed the same under international law, but with no concept of enhanced severity when the intent of the actor makes it genocide. If it's the latter, I really don't see it as a big deal. It's not really a problem in my view if you aim high and come up short. It is a problem if you never both to aim high in the first place.
4.9.2008 7:43pm
Thales (mail) (www):
One should apply a credibility discount filter to anything Jonah Goldberg writes, in light of his more absurd and selective statements on "liberal fascism." But the point is well taken. How about a simple rule that killing a lot of people is bad, no matter what characteristics, if any, they share in common?
4.9.2008 7:45pm
Ilya Somin:
How about a simple rule that killing a lot of people is bad, no matter what characteristics, if any, they share in common?

This is more or less what I advocated in the October post (except that it has to be innocent people; killing large numbers of enemy soldiers in battle, for example, wouldn't qualify).
4.9.2008 7:48pm
Anderson (mail):
Which people outside the Ukraine did Stalin starve by the millions in the same manner?

If the famine was imposed on the Ukraine in particular, then it seems a pretty good bet that Stalin had in mind the deaths of Ukrainians. Sure, Russians would starve too, but then, Stalin wasn't a Russian, was he?
4.9.2008 7:54pm
Elliot123 (mail):
The UN definition:

"any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

So, the Canadians carried out genocide when they forced Indian kids to leave the tribe and attend government schools? If they did that today, should we send armored divisions north? Didn't the Australians do something similar?
4.9.2008 7:57pm
Displaced Midwesterner (mail):

Forcing someone to attend school is not transferring children to "another group." Forcibly taking Indian kids and making them be raised in non-Indian Canadian households would be. And if they did, sure, send in the tanks.
4.9.2008 8:05pm
Displaced Midwesterner (mail):

Also, I take it we are assuming that the transfer was done with the intent to destroy Indians as a group.
4.9.2008 8:07pm
It would seem, according to the UN definition, that China's one child policy is an act of genocide:

"any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a, as such:...imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."
4.9.2008 8:22pm
Vermando (mail) (www):
If I may, this is actually a subject I know something about for a change. :)

A large part of the contemporary theoretical explanation of why genocide is a different and worse crime than sheer mass murder is found in Hannah Arendt's work on totalitarianism. The reason why a totalitarian state is worse than a simply tyrannous state is that in a tyrannous state you know what you need to do to avoid being killed - the regime kills people to stay in power, so to stay alive you must keep your head completely down, never appearing in any way in the public sphere. In a totalitarian regime, in contrast, you do not know what you need to do to avoid being arrested / killed because there is literally no logic to the killing - classically, Hitler targeted the Jews because they were Jews, ethnically, and no matter how assimilated a Jew became or how much he pledged his allegiance to the Third Reich, there was nothing he could do to avoid being killed. Likewise, Stalin's purges were not simply killings of dissenters or brutal yet logical means of obtaining state resources; there was, again, no logic as to why he would turn on a certain person at any moment, and there was nothing that one could do to avoid ending up the victim of a purge.

The historical truth of Arendt's account is of course debated, and I pass no judgment on it here. The idea, though, is that such a form of totalitarianism in which people lose all choice in their ability to live or die is a worse form of terror and a worse crime against humanity than simply killing a lot of people for a brutally logical reason.

On this basis, genocide is seen as a worse crime than just killing a lot of people because it targets an ethnicity simply because people are a member of that ethnicity - again, in the classical genocide of the Jews, there was no amount of assimilation a Jew could engage in that would stop the regime from killing him, and indeed, the regime arguably was quite "illogical" in its insistence of eradicating Jews who could have been very valuable to it. (See Jews: on the boards of major companies, Jews: willing to fight for the fatherland, and Jews: who knew atomic physics, for three prominent examples). In our law, there is some kind of understanding of the brutal dictator who does all that is necessary to remain in power; we lack the same understanding of a regime that kills without a logic, creating a world in which power is exercised without logic and people lose any ability to structure their lives.

As with many areas of the criminal law, the translation of this theory to practice is of course difficult and fraught with boundary problems, some of which we encounter here.

Thus ends that which I know a lot about. Now begins the speculative application of that knowledge to this situation:

Intent is certainly an element of the crime of genocide, and arguably Stalin did not have the requisite intent if he was engaging in this activity for utilitarian reasons - i.e., if the Ukrainians were collateral damage in his quest for food / redistribution / power, then it is not genocide. Likewise, if he only targeted those Ukrainian villages or regions that opposed him, he was again arguably not targeting them as a group because of their ethnicity but as a means of staying in power - this point is of course debatable, because if he was limiting his crimes to just Ukrainians, then arguably ethnic killing was the real purpose of the crime, and he was just using some convenient filter this time to avoid using all of his resources. Finally, as an extrapolation from evidence, just the fact that Stalin killed other ethnic groups does not also mean that he did not target the Ukrainians on the basis of their ethnicity - Hitler also killed Catholics, homosexuals, the mentally ill, etc., and he engaged in a maniacal quest for world domination, but that does not make his crimes against the Jews any less a targeting of them.

I am very curious to hear from others on these points - I have done a lot of work on Germany but comparatively little either on the Soviet Union or very recent applications of these doctrines, so I look forward to anyone who can supplement / correct my analysis.
4.9.2008 8:29pm
Henry (mail):
Isn't this argument the same as the argument surrounding hate crimes? If you assault or murder a person because of his race, religion, or sexual orientation, he's no more injured or dead than if you assault or murder him for money, but we generally accept that the criminal's motivation may rightly earn him a stiffer sentence.
4.9.2008 8:42pm
Anderson (mail):
with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a, as such:...imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."

China is not attempting to destroy the Chinese people, in whole or in part.

You could make a somewhat more interesting case by taking into account China's knowledge that, de facto, its policy promotes the abortion or infanticide of girl babies.
4.9.2008 8:46pm
George Weiss (mail) (www):
is this a possible reason genocide is worse than non ethnically based slaughter of innocent civilians:

The genocide perpetrator, by definition, targets an aspect of their victims' essence that is beyond the control of those victims. A person cannot chose not to be the genocide perpetrator's definition of black, or the perpetrator's definition of hispanic, ukranian, or asian. If the genocide perpetrator thinks that Judaism is a race (as Hitler did), than the victims cannot chose not to be that either.

In contrast, the mass murderer who targets socioeconomic class, or political party, or religion (assuming the perpetrator defines religious affiliation by something other than being born into it) at least may be targeting something that the victim has chosen to make himself a part of. During the Spanish inquisition, for example, many heretics or members of not catholic faiths were spared, provided that they chose to end their allegiance to the perpetrator's undesired characteristic.

Of course, the person may not always be able to change, even in the case of socioeconomic or political mass murder. For example, pol pot did not spare the children of his economic victims-despite the fact that they had little choice what class they were born into. Nor is this change always something that the victim would have known about in order to change (Pol Pot's victims wouldn't have known to change classes until it was too late)

Furthermore, some mass murderers killed people whom they accused of being (heretics, members of the wrong class, political party, etc..) who were in fact, not guilty of the 'crime' the mass murderer accused them of.

Nor, of course, does the possibility that the victims could cahnge to avoid persecution make the killing OK.

But, in the case of genocide, the very definition of the crime forces the image of people being killed for something they could not in any way control. It makes it immediately and totally clear that they were innocent.

While other mass murders are also of the innocent-it must first be explained why they are innocent-and such an explanation necessarily leads to disagreement in some cases. E.G-Palestinians arguing that Israeli nationals (note not ethnicity) are not innocent because they can all be drafted based on their citizenship.
4.9.2008 8:47pm

Which people outside the Ukraine did Stalin starve by the millions in the same manner?

If the famine was imposed on the Ukraine in particular, then it seems a pretty good bet that Stalin had in mind the deaths of Ukrainians. Sure, Russians would starve too, but then, Stalin wasn't a Russian, was he?

Which people? Yes, quite a few Russians, but not only them. And it was disproportionately Russians from the rich agricultural regions (surprise). Ukraine, as has been pointed out, was the biggest and richest of those regions in the Soviet Union. Now, I don't know enough to say whether and how much Stalin had Ukrainians specifically in mind with this policy, although I tend to think that this was at best secondary. In my view, that does not diminish the crime one iota either way.

As to Stalin being non-ethnically Russian, his policies in the later years were rather of super-Russian than Soviet patriotism and he himself was an honorary super-Russian. By that point he had learnt the value of ethnic warfare in addition to economic one from his one time buddy Adolf. Incidentally, the phenomenon of a minority member becoming a super-specimen of the majority is not unique: consider Napoleon (a Corsican), Saladin (a Kurd), and even Hitler himself, to an extent (an Austrian).
4.9.2008 8:49pm
alkali (mail):
It's surely true that mass murder is really, really bad just like genocide is really, really bad, and for all I care Hitler and Stalin can spend eternity in hell debating which is worse.

That said, it's a category error to think that you are making a meaningful criticism of international law by pointing out that it does not take account of non-genocidal mass murders. International law, by definition, consists of what nations can get other nations to agree to, and as such it is inevitably not going to be "complete" in any principled way. Getting genocide recognized as a violation of international law and a crime against humanity was a big step, and it was possible only because the definition of genocide was limited in a way that avoided potential objections from various countries.

If you think the US should be using its diplomatic power to make mass murder in general against international law, then feel free to write your representatives in Congress and your favorite presidential candidate, and urge them to do that. You should also give some thought to the objections that other countries might raise and think about how you would address them. (And remember, you actually have to get the other countries to agree: saying, "You, Country X, have no moral standing to raise that objection," probably won't work.)

[The point I am trying to make here is sort of like the argument Prof. Heather Gerken has made about election law scholarship: "The problem is that we spend a great deal of time thinking about what an ideal election system ought to look like, but almost no time figuring out how to get from here to there: how reform actually takes root. Although we purport to study the political process, remarkably little scholarship is devoted to remedying the crucial problem within election law -- it is extraordinarily difficult for reform proposals to get traction in this country. We thus rarely write about the type of institutional fixes and wedge strategies that would help reform proposals (of whatever sort) get adopted."]
4.9.2008 8:50pm

Since you are referring to your earlier posts, I would point you to my earlier comments on your post. Your dominant focus then, and now, is on whether genocide is different and more serious than mass murder. Many references to genocide might explicitly or implicitly make that assumption, but it is hard to maintain as a categorical, for reasons far easier than those you focus on here: for example, that many acts short of murder are genocidal, even putting intent to one side.

But as I said to you at the time, the point of outlawing genocide was not merely that it was heinous conduct (and I doubt you would disagree with that); it was also someplace for international law to start -- not the least because it was limited and would not reach many episodes in which governments could also be accused of behaving atrociously, while at the same time clearly prohibiting many kinds of conduct that were common and devastating in their impact.

You now back into this point while focusing on an instance in which the Soviet Union might be able to deny that it committed genocide more easily than it might deny committing mass murder; you acknowledge as an aside that the political appeal of this distinction might have more to do with the definition of genocide than the relative severity issue you've been pounding away at. Fair enough. But it compounds your problems to jump from one favored conviction to another. Stalin was wrong to seek to shield mass murder (of course, he was doing so prospectively only, as the Convention applied only to future conduct). But what makes you think that this was only the Soviet Union's doing, or the doing of it and other nondemocratic states? To my understanding, democratic states (including Uruguay, I think) supported the exclusion as well, and some nondemocratic state thought inclusion was okay; in the end, plenty of democratic states supported limiting the scope of genocide's definition, and I'm aware of no evidence suggesting that Lemkin or anyone else thought that democratic states would support a prohibition on mass murder, which is the principle you would favor.
4.9.2008 9:03pm
David Hecht (mail):
"There may be a meaningful distinction between being exterminated because one is a shopkeeper and therefore a class enemy, or because one is a Jew and therefore a race enemy. But one suspects the nuance is lost on the Jewish shopkeeper in question."

--Ryszard Kapusczinski, Imperium
4.9.2008 10:45pm
Considering how disruptive the effort to create the "New Soviet Man" was to various cultures within the USSR and considering the number of people killed by the Soviet government, it seems the entire project qualifies as a rolling genocide.
4.9.2008 11:48pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Here's the difference between mass murder and genocide: In Poland, the Nazis killed 3 million Jews and 3 million ethnic Poles. After the war, there were still plenty of Poles, but less than ten percent of Poland's Jews survived.

Russians are not fond of Ukies; it's not for no reason that the unsafe power plant was located in Chernobyl.
4.9.2008 11:51pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
So freakin' what? Is somebody being prosecuted, convicted and punished for mass killings under either definition?

Tibet, East Timor, Congo, Darfur, Iran?

Hello, hello?

In the very few attempts, punishments, when given, work out to a few minutes per murder.
4.10.2008 3:12am
Displaced Midwesterner, yes, the attempt was to destroy the first national's culture. Just the same as we (the US) did in Alaska.
4.10.2008 3:28am
Kevin Jon Heller:
Following up on Guesteronomy's comment, I would simply note that the proposal to exclude political groups would never have succeeded if the US delegate had not supported it in a "conciliatory spirit." Damn "the pernicious influence of nondemocratic states on international human rights law"!
4.10.2008 8:12am
Is there any reason why, using the Russian government's definition of 'genocide', we should not regard the Nazi extermination of the Jews as non-genocidal? After all, the larger context was the elimination of those 'parasites' who were battening off the Aryan people and preventing them from achieving their natural greatness. Hence, Gypsies, Homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally retarded and the mentally ill were all also 'democratically' victimized.

Since somebody is sure to misread this comment as a defense of the nazis, let me point out that it speaks to the Russians' definition, not the Germans' actions.
4.10.2008 9:04am
with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a, as such:...imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."

China is not attempting to destroy the Chinese people, in whole or in part.

This definition includes measures to prevent births within the group. Thus, according to the UN, genocidal destruction includes not only the termination of present lives but the suppression of future lives. Thus the Chinese government intends the destruction in part of the Chinese people.

BTW, I don't actually consider the one-child policy genocide. I merely think that it fits the UN's careless definition of genocide.
4.10.2008 11:37am
Bob from Ohio (mail):
I second Harry. Who cares if international "law" bans genocide but not regular mass murder. Nobody does a thing about either when it matters.

More examples:

Biafra, Rawanda, Kurds in Iraq, Cambodia

A few prosecutions after the fact is such a big comfort to the dead.

Let's look at Rawanda, the numbers of killed and the time element means that tens of thousands of murderers took part. How many trials? Ten?

Every Sunday for three years, I pass a "Not on Our Watch" sign about Sudan. How many people are dead since that sign went up?

That sign and the Genocide Convention have had exactly the same impact.
4.10.2008 11:49am
Elliot123 (mail):
"Also, I take it we are assuming that the transfer was done with the intent to destroy Indians as a group."

When the kids were taken from the tribes and transferred to a new environment, they were forbidden to speak their native languages. That might be intent to destroy Indians as a group.

Should we send the tanks north if they do that again? How many Canadians should we kill to stop their genocide? How many Americans should dies to keep those kids out of government schools? What's to be done about the genocide on outr borders?
4.10.2008 12:57pm
There appears to be a major drafting inconsistency in the UN definition of genocide. Each element of the crime has in common "physical destruction" of the person, save the removal of children from the community, which appears to relate solely to cultural destruction, or "assimilation" if you're a fan of the Borg or Richard Henry Pratt. Compare "killing," "causing serious bodily or mental harm," "calculated to bring about its physical destruction," and "prevent[ing] births" with "forcibly transferring children."

One could argue that there is a significant qualitative difference between setting out to murder members of an ethnic group versus assimilating them. Not to pick on any particular genocidal regime or anything, but one can easily hypothesize that a regime should be more harshly condemned for deliberately distributing smallpox-infected blankets to an indigenous ethnic group with the intent of causing fatal disease outbreaks, as opposed to establishing what became Dartmouth College or the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

There may be good reasons to invade and conquer Canada [/sarcasm off], but the way they chose to educate the Inuit through the Canadian Residential School System isn't one of them, IMHO.
4.10.2008 3:14pm
c.gray (mail):
I'd argue that the distinction between genocide along ethnic lines and mass murder for political purposes, matters for the practical reason that the conflation of ethnicity and national identity is much stronger than that between any particular political movement and national identity. And political causes come and go, while in general ethnicities do not. Genocide is widely perceived not simply as a horrible massacre perpetrated by a distinct group of criminals versus a distinct group of victims. Instead genocide is a crime where one nation, as a whole, victimizes another nation, as a whole.

Thats why the Russians are so incensed by the Ukrainian efforts to present the famine as a genocide. A genocide automatically becomes characterized as a crime by the Russian nation against the Ukrainian nation. Russians view this, quite correctly, as an attempt to make the crimes of the Bolsheviks the sole responsibility of the Russian people.

The reality is that the famine was a consequence of efforts by the Bolsheviks to squeeze the countryside of the USSR as a whole. The Bolsheviks consisted of Ukrainians as well as Russians (not to mention lots of other ethnicities), and so did the victims.
4.10.2008 7:38pm
J. Otto Pohl (mail) (www):
Thanks a lot for linking to the chapter on Crimean Tatars from my second book.
4.11.2008 7:55am
Rich Rostrom (mail):
What C. Gray said. There may well be an implicit agenda in the Ukrainian position. Given the intense friction between Russia and Ukraine today, this could be a form of "waving the bloody shirt". And as noted, this particular crime was perpetrated by against Ukrainians and others by others and Ukrainians; and there is no evidence, AFAIK, of an extreme disparity between Ukrainians and others on either side.

I do agree that genocide includes attacks on a culture. During WW II, the Nazis kidnapped "Aryan" children from Poland and gave them to German families. That was genocidal. Also, there is a great difference between a school for Indians which they may choose to attend if they want to learn white man's ways in addition to Indian ways, and a school for Indians they are forced to attend, where they are prevented from learning Indian ways.
4.12.2008 1:50am