Raphael Lemkin Is Sighing from His Grave

Heloise Martorell Analysis

4 minute read

There is a genocide in Europe. Those are the words the 21st century did not see coming. Homosexuals in Chechnya have disappeared and been sent to concentration camps in a government-sponsored program as authorities have detained, tortured, and killed members of the LGBTQ community. Allegations were first reported by Novaya Gazeta on April 1st, 2017, a Russian opposition newspaper, stating that over a hundred men were detained and tortured. These accusations, as well as the presence of homosexuals in the republic were denied by Chechen officials: “If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

Chechnya, an administrative unit of Russia, has nurtured a conservative culture centred around family values. So much so that family members have taken part in ‘honour killings’ of their homosexual relatives who tarnish the family’s honour with their sexuality. Meanwhile, Russia has turned a blind eye on this hate campaign. Not surprisingly, the superpower implemented anti-gay policies such as banning the “propaganda of sexual relations to minors,” and banning gay parades in multiple cities, thereby limiting rights of LGBT people.

These allegations come at a time when the Western world is witnessing a rise of populism, raising the voices of homophobic, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric. However, it seems the West is unable to focus its attention on the Chechen atrocities. While French President Emmanuel Macron has condemned the actions of Chechen authorities, Donald Trump has yet to release an official statement. Angela Merkel urged Vladimir Putin to conduct an investigation of these allegations, but unsurprisingly the Russian report declared it found no evidence of mass detention according to the Russian Embassy in Israel. The United Nations Security Council has yet to officially reprimand the Chechen government for its actions: even the use of the term ‘genocide’ is widely avoided because of its implications in terms of involvement.

The term ‘genocide’ coined by Raphael Lemkin in the 1940s is defined, by the Geneva Convention, “as 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; or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Lemkin, a trailblazer in the advancement of human rights, created a word that conveyed the combination of mass extermination, cultural annihilation and prolonged emotional suffering. Lemkin lobbied governments and UN officials for years until the organization ratified the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in December 1948. The document discusses the intervention of international courts in Article Six, bypassing the issue of state sovereignty, one that prevented prosecution in the case of the Armenian genocide. However, the issue limits the scope of potential targets as the groups subjects to genocide: “national, ethical, racial or religious” thereby marginalizing political groups such as the LGBT community, or gender based and social class discrimination. This omission allows government to use a term other than ‘genocide’ to describe the unfolding events as the latter would imply that countries need to intervene to prevent the continuation of mass killings.

What next? As the atrocities continue to unfold, Western countries have to press Russia and Chechnya with sanctions. This may prove difficult with Trump’s close ties with Russian leader, Vladimir Putin: the American president is less likely to contradict Putin as well as his own party, which currently holds a majority in Congress. Additionally, the United Nations should include this group as a potential target in the Geneva Convention and they should assist LGBTQ+ people to leave Chechnya by offering them sanctuaries in Europe and North America with humanitarian visas and refugee resettlement. The victims of this homophobic pursuit need to feel as valued as any member of the community, they need to feel safe and welcomed. The actions taken by Chechen authorities are the result of ignorance and fear of diversity. What they fail to realise is the power a country’s culture can have if it accepts diversity as a strength rather than a weakness, or in this case as a humiliation.