Payam Akhavan


As scholars and advocates, we are formidable taxonomists and explorers of distinctions, ever probing new conceptual frontiers in the elusive quest to render an overwhelming universe of human struggle more coherent and manageable. The proliferation of terminology, however, the incantation of new strategic mantras, while obviously relevant to the legal and political construction of the world, can often become a self-contained exercise creating the mere illusion of progress. In some circumstances, it can even divert precious resources away from the consolidation of existing, and hard-won, norms and institutions. In considering the introduction of the term ‘‘atrocity crimes’’ to the already complex lexicon of humanitarian discourse, we need to take account of its relative weight in terms of the most important challenges confronting the prevention of genocide. In particular, we need to ask whether the cost–benefit calculus of promoting this new concept and purported discipline justifies a significant commitment of energy and resources, whether intellectual or political, that might otherwise be focused on strengthening established concepts and disciplines that may be adequate but still at the margins of political consciousness. While I have the utmost respect and admiration for David Scheffer’s unique contributions to the prevention and punishment of genocide and crimes against humanity, I have misgivings about the relative weight and importance that he assigns to ‘‘atrocity crimes’’ as a useful instrument for promoting this cause