Crosses attached to a destroyed bridge in the town of Irpin, in the Kyiv region of Ukraine, memorialize the 60 people killed in nearby Bucha by Russian forces. Whether Russia's actions in the invasion of Ukraine rise to the level of genocide, as defined in a 1948 global treaty, has come under debate. (Photo: SOPA Images via Getty Images)
More than 350 Ukrainian villagers held in an overcrowded school basement for 28 days, leaving 10 dead. More than a million Ukrainians forcibly relocated to Russia since the war in Ukraine started, including more than 180,000 children. An 11-year-old Ukrainian boy, raped as his mother was tied to a chair and forced to watch.
The mounting allegations against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine have been described as war crimes or even crimes against humanity. But human rights groups and others are debating if they amount to genocide, at least as defined in international law.
Declaring Ukrainians to be the victims of a genocide may not have huge practical implications, but the historic weight of the word, with its overtones of the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia and the breakup of Yugoslavia, may matter more. War crimes and crimes against humanity are deplored, but genocide by its nature implies the need for more forceful, immediate action.
And though President Joe Biden has said he thinks it’s genocide, that concern over the obligations the label would impose may be why there’s wariness on Capitol Hill to follow suit.
Rep Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House and a former chair of the human rights-focused U.S. Helsinki Commission, said he was not sure if the word “genocide” was applicable because he thought of it in terms of ethnic groups.
“The way I think about genocide is Hitler getting rid of the Jews or, frankly, to some degree, what we did with Indians or what Christians did to the Muslims because they were Muslims in the Crusades,” he said.
Though that perception is widely shared, it’s actually not the definition under international law.
“People confuse genocide with mass murder and mass atrocities,” said Azeem Ibrahim, director of special initiatives for the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, pointing to the definition in a 1948 international treaty.
“The number of people being killed is not relevant to what the Genocide Convention actually says. What is relevant is the intent of the parties to eliminate a group in whole or in part using all the various means at their disposal,” he said.
If that intent exists, genocide can include:
killing members of or causing bodily or mental harm to a group;
inflicting “conditions of life” meant to bring about a group’s destruction;
imposing measures to prevent births in a group; or
forcibly transferring children of the group.
The accusations against Russia certainly check off many of those boxes. Aside from the above incidents cited in a report by New Lines and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, Russia has been accused of indiscriminately bombing civilian targets, including apartment buildings and malls; blocking the transport of and stealing Ukrainian grain exports; and bombing health care facilities, including a maternity hospital in Mariupol.
A refugee from the Russian-occupied city of Mariupol, Ukraine, Nadiajda Vorotylina, cries on arriving at a Ukrainian processing center in Zaporizhzhia on May 2. (Photo: ED JONES via Getty Images)
In April, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied Russian troops had committed atrocities. Russia has also claimed that conditions in the eastern part of Ukraine it had seized were akin to genocide for Russian-speaking people before it invaded.
Still, the report by New Lines and the Wallenberg Centre said Russia was guilty of “incitement to commit genocide” and a “pattern of atrocities” from which an intent to destroy the Ukrainian people could be inferred.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, said it is observing and documenting what’s happening in Ukraine.
Rachel Denber, the group’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said it was documenting “grave breaches” of international law and “heinous acts of murder, torture, inhuman conditions of detention.”
“I think it’s really important to focus on the evidence that we are documenting and what it is that our findings are so far because they’re really quite serious. The crime of genocide has a very specific threshold for intent, and while evidence of intent may become apparent, for now the most effective thing we can do is to continue to do our documentation of the conduct of the Russian forces,” she said.
But even some old foreign policy hands on Capitol Hill are reluctant to go as far as the human rights community may be headed.
“I don’t put this in the same category as the Holocaust,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee since 1997.
“I guess if you looked at the whole of Ukraine together, you could add up a lot of atrocities that might add up to [genocide].”
Sherman, who supports aiding Ukraine, said the cost of justice has to be weighed against the costs to the U.S., the costs to the Ukrainians fighting and the risk of a nuclear war.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a staunch Ukraine supporter, also demurred when asked if he thought Russia had crossed the line.
“I’m in favor of helping Ukraine and giving them what they need to beat the Russians,” he said.
If you could walk the streets of Irpin and Hostomel, like I did, and listen to the stories that those people told about what the Russian soldiers did — this is a genocide. The world needs to recognize it as such.Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho)
The State Department, which has recognized three instances of genocide since 2021 — the treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in China, the Rohingya in Burma and the Armenians in Turkey in 1915 — also has yet to follow Biden’s lead to add Ukraine to that list.
“We are aware of the New Lines Institute report. We are deeply concerned by the report’s findings and by what we are seeing, particularly with respect to the apparent gratuitousness of violence by members of Russia’s forces,” a State Department spokesperson told HuffPost.
“That is why we are working with allies and partners to gather, review and preserve evidence of atrocities and make it available to the appropriate bodies to hold those responsible to account.”
In the Senate, though, two members of the Foreign Relations Committee have no doubts.
“There is no question that what Russia is doing in Ukraine is a genocide,” Sen. Jim Risch (Idaho), the top Republican on the panel, told HuffPost.
“If you could walk the streets of Irpin and Hostomel, like I did, and listen to the stories that those people told about what the Russian soldiers did ― this is a genocide. The world needs to recognize it as such,” he said.
“I think they’ve passed the international definition of genocide,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “I thought they passed that a while ago. Transporting people, in some cases unaccompanied children, into Russia with clear intentions of removing them from their culture, that’s genocide.”
Under the Genocide Convention, countries are required to take measures to prevent and punish genocide. The U.S., which has signed on to the treaty, has provided assistance to Ukraine to investigate and document “war crimes and other atrocities” in addition to imposing punishing economic sanctions and providing weapons and training to Ukraine.
The ‘prevent’ comes first. The entire purpose of the convention, its primary purpose, is to prevent genocide from happening.Azeem Ibrahim, New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy
Risch said the United States is already doing a lot, but not enough. “I personally would do more,” he said, declining to elaborate.
Risch said he thinks the wariness to call what is happening genocide may stem from unfamiliarity with the definition.
“The Holocaust is the Holocaust. This, like many genocides, has its own marks and should be judged in that regard,” he said.
Ibrahim, from New Lines, said the focus should not be on whether the definition has been met because the mere risk of genocide, which has been documented in their report, was enough to trigger the genocide treaty’s obligations.
The question, he said, was whether the 150-plus countries that signed the Genocide Convention would live up to their obligations.
“This is important because what’s happened too often in our lifetimes is whether something is a genocide or not becomes an academic exercise after the fact,” he said.
“The ‘prevent’ comes first. The entire purpose of the convention, its primary purpose, is to prevent genocide from happening.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.