David Scheffer


The term ‘‘genocide’’ has been commonly used, particularly in political dialogue, to describe atrocities of great diversity, magnitude, and character. Yet the prospect of the term’s arising in policy making too often imposes an intimidating brake on effective responses. The political use of the term should be separated from its legal definition as a crime of individual responsibility. Governments and international organizations should be liberated to apply the term ‘‘genocide’’ more readily within a political context so as to publicly describe precursors of genocide and react rapidly either to prevent or to stop mass killings or other seeming acts of genocide. They should not be constrained from acting by the necessity of a prior legal finding that the crime of genocide in fact has occurred or is occurring and, once that legal finding has been made, that governments are somehow obligated to use military force in response. There also is a critical need for a new term—‘‘atrocity crimes’’—and a new field of international law—atrocity law—to achieve a similar objective, namely, to enable public and academic discourse to describe genocide, crimes against humanity (including ethnic cleansing), and war crimes with a single term that is easily understood by the public and accurately reflects the magnitude and character of the crimes adjudicated before international and hybrid criminal tribunals and of the law being applied by such tribunals, governments, and international organizations. The purpose would be to simplify and yet render more accurate both public dialogue and legal terminology describing genocide and other atrocity crimes.