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Biden called Russia’s actions in Ukraine ‘genocide.’ Here’s what that term means—politically and legally

April 13, 2022, 8:51 AM UTC

U.S. President Joe Biden labeled Russia’s actions in Ukraine “genocide” on Tuesday, using a charged term that may indicate tougher action against Moscow.

Biden used the term in a speech in Menlo, Iowa, saying that Americans’ ability to pay for gas should not “hinge on whether a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away.” 

Biden later confirmed to reporters that his use of the term “genocide” was intentional. “It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of being Ukrainian,” he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised Biden after his remarks, tweeting that “calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil.”

Prior to Biden’s declaration, the top members of his foreign policy team had scrupulously avoided labeling Russia’s actions in Ukraine genocide, using other, more general terms instead.

“Based on what we have seen so far, we have seen atrocities,” said national security adviser Jake Sullivan at an April 4 press conference. “We have seen war crimes. We have not seen a level of systematic deprivation of life of the Ukrainian people to rise to the level of genocide.”

This is not the first time that the president has used stronger language than the rest of his administration. On March 26, Biden told reporters that Putin “cannot remain in power” after the war in Ukraine. Biden and his officials walked back the comments the following day, saying that the U.S. was not making regime change in Russia a policy objective.

The Biden administration may now face a fraught decision on whether to formally designate Russia’s actions as an act of genocide.

What complicates matters is that genocide is both a specific concept in international law and a political term with strong moral connotations.

“Genocide is a powerful word,” Gregory Stanton, chair of the nongovernmental organization Genocide Watch, told Politico. Using the term, Stanton said, “places upon a nation greater duties” to stop it.

The formal definition recognized by the United Nations and the U.S. deems genocide to be a deliberate attempt to destroy an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group, whether through actions like murder, causing serious bodily harm, preventing births, or forcibly taking children away from parents.

That intent is what distinguishes genocide from the larger category of “war crimes”—like massacres of civilian populations, as the Russian army is accused of perpetrating in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha—or “crimes against humanity.”

“Ethnic cleansing”—which is when a country expels a group from a given area, rather than exterminating them—may be considered a “crime against humanity,” but may not rise to the level of genocide.

Calling something an act of “genocide” without that proof of intent could backfire on Biden. Without clear proof of intent, “charges of genocide can easily be dismissed by detractors, while charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot,” notes Dominique Fraser, research associate for the Asia Society Policy Institute, in a Lowy Institute publication.

A fraught definition

The last two instances in which the U.S. has issued formal accusations of genocide—against the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnic minority in northwestern Xinjiang province, and the Myanmar military’s treatment of the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority concentrated in the western state of Rakhine—show how fraught the label can be.

On Jan. 19, 2021—the final day of the Trump administration—then–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department had determined that China’s actions in Xinjiang satisfied the criteria for formal classification as genocide. China has been accused of implementing policies to suppress Uyghurs’ culture, religion, and identity by sending them to reeducation camps, forcing them to work for Chinese companies, and destroying cultural sites, among other actions.

Yet State Department lawyers were reportedly uncomfortable with the designation, arguing that the abuses alleged against China did not reach the high bar set by the legal definition of “genocide,” according to Foreign Policy.

Biden declared China’s treatment of Uyghurs an act of genocide as early as August 2020 while campaigning for the presidency. He appears to have issued that designation after careful consultation with his campaign advisers rather than as an off-the-cuff remark. Soon after taking office, Biden made clear that he intended to uphold the formal accusation pushed through by Pompeo. The State Department on Monday reaffirmed that “genocide and crimes against humanity occurred during [2021] against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang” in its report on human rights practices around the world.

Human rights advocates, following Biden’s decision to embrace his predecessor’s use of the term “genocide” to describe China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, then put pressure on the Biden administration to apply the same designation to the Burmese army’s treatment of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine.

The Myanmarese army launched a deadly crackdown against the Rohingya in 2017, driving more than 700,000 of the minority into neighboring Bangladesh. Refugees said the army set fire to Rohingya homes, attacked residents as they fled, and committed widespread acts of rape and murder. Myanmar’s military dismissed those allegations and justified its campaign as a counterterrorism strike.

A UN fact-finding mission concluded in 2018 that the army’s crackdown included “genocidal acts,” but the Trump State Department decided to continue using the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe the situation in Myanmar.

In 2019, the predominantly Muslim West African republic of the Gambia, backed by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, filed a criminal case with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, accusing Myanmar’s government of perpetrating acts of genocide against the Rohingya. In 2021, Myanmar argued that the Gambia had no standing to file a legal case. The ICJ has yet to formally rule on Myanmar’s objections, after holding hearings on the subject in February.

In August, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley told Politico that the U.S. refusal to call Myanmar’s actions a genocide “undermines the legitimacy of the U.S. declaring other situations a genocide, particularly the way the Uyghurs are treated.”

According to Reuters, earlier attempts by the State Department during the Trump administration to call Myanmar’s actions “genocide” were derailed by fears that using the term might push Myanmar closer to China, or that it might upset the country’s democratic development—the latter of which was no longer a concern after the 2021 coup. 

In March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. would designate Myanmar’s actions in Rakhine state regarding the Rohingya Muslim minority as “genocide.”

In his comments on Tuesday, Biden said he was offering a personal opinion, not making a legal judgment.

“We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies [as genocide],” he said. “But it sure seems that way to me.” 

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