The Politics of “Genocide”: A Critical Look at the Naming-Game

Reviewed by Amy Liu

Throughout history, the word “genocide” has garnered significant power —we have only used the word to describe events so horrific that we feel almost reluctant to process them. Emily Schraudenbach, in “The Politics of ‘Genocide’: A Critical Look at the Naming-Game,” calls on her audience to explore the conscious process in which we make the decision to label something as a genocide, and explores how the “naming game” affects the way we process and provide solutions to such tragedies.

Schraudenbach starts by first outlining her desire to break down the concept of “political will” that goes into the decision of labeling a mass killing a genocide, claiming that her study reveals that such decisions are susceptible to a variety of “pervasive and subtle frameworks” (Schraudenbach 6). She then goes on to trace the definition in international law doctrines of genocide itself, and states that the decision to label something a genocide is an extension of its legal definition, and by association, by the countries who contribute to writing, framing, and enforcing that law.

To demonstrate the effects of outside countries and their political decisions on the naming-game of genocide, Schraudenbach then compares the actions of the international community in response to the crises in Rwanda and in Darfur. She highlights the different views towards the Rwandan conflict that existed within the United States alone, stating that the Clinton administration felt concerned towards labeling the event as a “genocide,” while the Bush administration immediately expressed desire to intervene. However, the conflicts in Darfur were universally agreed upon as “unimaginable atrocity” (Schraudenbach 27), and received widespread media coverage. Schraudenbach is clear in pointing out that the legal definition of genocide applied to the situations in both countries, and that NGOs like Human Rights Watch were quick to immediately apply the label to both situations.

Schraudenbach’s work presents a unique insight into how even a tragedy can be constructed as a political weapon, and asserts that names and labels are integral in determining how countries respond to international crises. For peacebuilding and prevention efforts to be successful in the wake of the genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, and other countries, the work articulates that victims, perpetrators, and outside nations must all acknowledge the “truth of a genocide” (Schraudenbach 34), and push for a universal label that accurately describes the events occurring.

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