Is Genocide The Worst Moral Crime Criminology Essay

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Genocide is considered to be one of the worst moral crimes a government can commit against its citizens or those it controls. Winston Churchill called it the crime 'that has no name' after the extent of the Nazi slaughter against the Jews in the World War II. [1] 

Genocide is the deliberate and orderly devastation of a group of people defined by their nationality, ethnic, cultural or religious background. There are several competing definitions of the term 'genocide', some taking a narrow scope with others taking a broader definition. Genocide became of interest to the field of public health only in the late twentieth century. Dozens of genocides have taken place over the last couple of years, accounting for over 23 million deaths occurring in Rwanda, Burundi, Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina [2] 

Who then are Bystanders? The Oxford English Dictionary [3] defines a bystander as one standing by, one who is present without taking part in what is occurring. A bystander to genocide does not necessarily have to be present, but merely has to know of the events at hand. The horrific genocides that have taken place around the globe could have been prevented, or atleast halted, by the contemporary bystanders to it. Bystanders can therefore be extremely influential in saving the lives of many who are killed in genocides.

To what extent can the culpability of bystanders in genocide be assessed within a state crime framework? Why do they decide to not get involved? Are certain bystanders more to blame than others? These are some of the issues I will look at in this essay. I will also assess the work of Zygmund Bauman, in his book, modernity and the holocaust, and look at his example of how German citizens became bystanders in the murder of 6 million Jews.

What is genocide???

Despite numerous attempts, which were made, the word genocide did not exist until Raphael Lemkin in 1943. The term genocide derived from Latin and Greek concepts. 'Genos' derived from the Greece meaning 'family, tribe or race' and 'Cide' derived from Latin meaning 'to massacre'. Genocide before was termed as 'barbarity' and 'vandalism' [4] . Lemkin believed that the terms did not accurately describe genocide. After the Holocaust arose which was committed by the Nazis, Lemkin then successfully campaigned for the acceptance of international law, defining and forbidding genocide. [5] 

Genocide is now defined by Article Two of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as 'any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethic, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group condones of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group' [6] .

This includes Article One, which states 'the contracting parties confirm the genocide, whether committed in time of peace is in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish'. Along with article three and four. Under Article 3, the following acts shall be punishable: 'genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide and complicity in genocide'. Under Article 4, 'Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals' [7] .

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN General Assembly and came into effect in 1951. Who are bystanders and does their behaviour fit in with any of the components of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.


For the most part, for every person directly victimised by genocide and killed there will be hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions, who are neither directly targeted as victims nor directly participating as perpetrators. Those directly involved in the genocide will always form a minority; the majority will be formed by the contemporary bystanders. These bystanders are individuals; in their private and professional lives, belonging to a vast score of groups and collectives, some of which being informal and closely knit, and others formal and detached as far as personal involvement are concerned. Bystanders are capable of observing ongoing genocides through various means. This can be through the newspapers, TV, radio and other publicly available sources of information. Every existing citizen who takes notice of a specific ongoing instance of genocide, regardless of where in the world, counts as a bystander. [8] 

In a double sense genocide and crimes against humanity are collective crimes; therefore bystanders can be a complicated category in crimes such as genocide. In these crimes both the perpetrators and victims are collectives. Genocide, for example, is a crime an entire society commits and is committed not against an individual but against multiple individuals who themselves comprise a group or social category, thus also a collective.

Two distinctions must be made about bystanders to collective crimes that do not generally need to be made when both the perpetrator and victim are individuals. Because collective crimes are crimes an entire society commits, a distinction must be made between those bystanders who are internal and those who are external. Individuals and organizations that are internal to a society committing a collective crime are internal bystanders, individuals and organizations that are external to the society are external bystanders. Citizens of Rwanda, for example, who observed the genocidal activities occurring within the nation, without contributing to it, were internal bystanders to genocide. In contrast observers outside Rwanda were external bystanders. [9] 

Within the context of collective crimes, it is also necessary to make a distinction between individual and organisational bystanders. This distinction is usually not needed in crimes involving only individuals. Crimes solely concerning individuals are mostly episodic. Therefore they occur in one place at one moment, and the bystanders are those who were physically present at that place at that moment. Generally, the bystanders who are physically present will all also be individuals. Some collective crimes are also episodic for examples massacres, which occurs abruptly in one place and is quickly over. If there were bystanders physically present at the time and place of the massacre, they will all usually be individuals. [10] 

Adversely, genocide and crimes against humanity go beyond the limits of space and time that apply to crimes involving only individuals. Firstly, because genocide and crimes against humanity are vast social events not restricted to a single place and time, it is not necessary to be physically close by to view them. Instead, genocidal efforts can be observed from afar and even people in other countries can be counted as bystanders. Secondly, there is an opportunity for reaction from both observing individuals and observing organisations; this is because genocide and crimes against humanity take place not in a moment, but over an extended length of time. Therefore in the case of collective crimes, bystanders can include other collectives ranging from religious organisations to non governmental organisations such as the Red Cross, to entire nations [11] .

Passive bystanders [12] have an inactive role; they are onlookers at the unfolding events. However it must be noted that even the most initially passive and remote bystander possesses a potential to cease being a mere onlooker to the events unfolding. Outrage at what comes to pass may prompt the judgement that 'this simply must be stopped' and translate into action promoting that aim. This type of bystander is not however involved in the genocide through profession or formal appointment.

Bystanders by assignment are those physically present on the scene. They have been professionally assigned by formal appointment as a 'third party' to the interaction between the two parties directly involved in the acts of genocide. They are determined to keep an impartial stance by avoiding taking sides and staying neutral to the parties involved. [13] 

So I have explained by what is meant by bystanders, I have also described some of the different types of bystanders that exist and how they are different from each other. If bystanders are to be culpable for genocide under any of the components of the convention it is going to be under Article 3 (e) complicity in genocide. Complicity can be defined as 'the being an accomplice or partnership in an evil action'. [14] Can we go far as to say bystanders are accomplices?

How bystanders can be beneficial

In the eyes of a perpetrator of genocide, the bystanders are those who have the capacity to stop his actions in progress. The perpetrator will be alarmed by the bystander, to the degree that he has reason to believe that the bystander will interfere and hinder the action already under way, thus disturb their goal of eliminating the target group. [15] 

Some bystanders clearly carry greater responsibility than others. In regards to bystanders to contemporary, ongoing events, it is clear that some bystanders will be closer to the event than others. Closer can be spatially, by virtue of professional assignment or virtue of ones knowledge as an intellectual. [16] The perpetrator will have more reason to fear the bystander who is more knowledgeable and otherwise resourceful, as there is a greater potential that such resistance will translate into action. Most people would agree, however, that the greater the magnitude of the crime witnessed, the greater the obligation on bystanders to intervene somehow [17] . Since genocide and crimes against humanity are the most enormous of crimes, bystanders to these crimes seemingly bear the greatest obligation to intercede.

So why should we help the victims? Shouldn't the task of stopping genocidal activity be the duty for the victims themselves? The fact that genocide is occurring in the first place show us that the targeted group have not been able to prove itself able to put a stop to it. The victims therefore cannot be liable for the responsibility solely and responsibility must hence be shared by those who are knowledgeable about the occurring genocide, which is more or less anyone witnessing the genocide that is taking place [18] . To be knowledgeable about genocide occurring around the world, physical presence is not required and is more than what is needed. Simply watching it on television new or reading the headlines of a newspaper is suffice.

When people are endangered, bystanders presumably have an ethical obligation to help somehow. Although how much does it oblige bystanders to do? Bystanders may be ethically obliged but are they legally obliged under the convention?

Why people decide not to get involved

Although all bystanders to crime initially find themselves passively observing, some abandon passivity to intervene. They actively seek to help the victim and, in so doing, move from bystander to rescuer. In contrast, other bystanders, remaining passive throughout, have come to be called nonresponsive bystanders [19] . Although there is a range of possible bystander behavior between all-out rescue and complete non responsiveness, many bystanders to crime do remain entirely nonresponsive. Why do so many people so frequently do nothing when others are in peril? Are not bystanders morally obliged to help somehow? These are important questions, especially when what is underway is genocide or some other crime against humanity.

So why do bystanders remain non responsive to events such as genocide and other crimes against humanity? There are several factors to this and not one can answer every case. Variations exist between those bystanders who are inside and those who are outside a society committing a collective crime. Variations also exist between individual and organisational bystanders. How significant the different factors are to each case requires a specific historical study of that case.

Firstly, inaction may be a rational response. An individual bystander for example must rationally weigh up the benefits of action to protect victims against the cost of action to themselves and their families. These weights will differ according to whether the bystanders are inside or outside the region of genocidal activity. Organisations must also rationally calculate. This can be seen during the holocaust, as organizations such as the Red Cross remained quiet about the vicious acts it knew was occurring within the concentration camps. The reason for this was that the Red Cross came to a conclusion after rational consideration that the benefits of speaking out were outweighed by the possible costs to the people it could help if the Nazis were to consequently prohibit their activity. The decision was rational, although some would question whether or not it was morally right [20] .

On the face of it anyway, the Red Cross appeared to be evaluating moral weights. In contrast, if bystanders are morally indifferent towards the victims, morality will not even enter their rational calculations. This can be seen in the inaction of the US government to react to cases of genocide that it knew of. This came down to the weighing up of political costs of action against the political cost of inaction. As there was hardly ever any pressure to act from the U.S. citizens, the cost of inaction were consistently small. Therefore, with morality out of the equation, inaction generally became the government's rational response. [21] 

It would be harsh to argue that bystanders are culpable for genocide if their decision not to take part was a rational one. It may have been a decision that was taken after considerable analysis of the consequences of their actions. In the case of the Red Cross, they were able to save more lives by remaining bystanders and I do not think their behavior can not be considered to be under Article 3 (e) of the convention.

Why does the British public not put more pressure on the government to get involved in cases of genocide and crimes against humanity? Several factors combine to produce in bystanders what can be called the social creation of moral indifference.

The heart of the matter is comes down to the universe of obligation, according to Helen Fein [22] , this refers to the universe of people one feels obligated to help. The scale of this universe generally declines with physical and social distance. Physically, one feels most obliged to help people in need when their needs are observed firsthand. Social distance matters, too. In declining order one feels most obligated to help family, friends, community members, and compatriots. For many bystanders the universe of obligation ends abruptly with nationality. [23] 

The universe of obligation can be further restricted by cultural factors, making bystanders unsympathetic to certain victims. An example of this would be the bystander non-responsiveness during the holocaust, which was clearly assisted by the rise of anti-Semitism at the time. Further more it also matters whether or not bystanders have been brought up in a culture that emphasises care for others. Whether the culture is authoritarian or not is also significant. Those bystanders in an authoritarian culture will be more likely not to question their government should they stand and watch genocide occur or even be perpetrating the genocide itself [24] .

Bystander non-responsiveness can also produced by group effects developing from the social structure of an emergency situation. When bystanders are already present, the remaining bystanders to an emergency are less likely to respond. When numerous bystanders are present, conditions arise that social psychologists call the diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance.

An individual bystander may feel fully responsible to respond to an emergency that he/she witnesses. However when there are various other bystanders, the responsibility is diffused among all the spectators of the event. All assume that others will take on responsibility, however if everyone makes this presumption, no one ends up acting. This is called the diffusion of responsibility. [25] 

When numerous bystanders witness an event of some kind, each bystander looks to the other for assistance. If all bystanders wait for others to respond, no one ends up acting. Since no one seems to be reacting, all bystanders may wrongly assume that nothing urgent is taking place. This condition is known as pluralistic ignorance [26] and fundamentally means that two or more heads are worse than one.

Diffusion of responsibility and Pluralistic ignorance are even more pronounced at a national level [27] , where they are also likely to be combined with authoritarianism and governmental efforts to conceal the situation. If, in addition, a society feels it is politically disempowered, it may not pay enough attention to even notice that genocide is taking place.

There are many reasons that may be able to explain bystander behavior and why they have failed to respond. These underlying factors need to be assessed if looking at the culpability of bystanders in genocide.

Not Acting, Still Acting??

When talking of crimes relating specifically to individuals, the difference between bystander and accomplice is apparent. The accomplice is one who assists the perpetrator in some way such as lookout, someone who creates a distraction, or the driver of the getaway car. An innocent bystander is one who has not helped the perpetrator in anyway, but was present at the time the crime was committed.

The moral complication in the case of collective crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity is that even doing nothing can assist the perpetrator. Therefore, even the totally passive bystander becomes something of an accomplice. If so, no bystanders to collective crimes ever remain totally innocent.

When a bystander does nothing, the perpetrators are benefited in two main ways. Firstly, while a society is committing a collective crime such as genocide, anything that promotes normal social functioning, enables that society to continue the crime. As a result, Henry David Thoreau [28] has famously argued, if the citizens of a society continue to conduct business as usual while their society is committing a collective crime, the citizens share complicity in that crime.

There is a second way in which doing nothing contributes to a collective crime. In contrast to the actions of an individual, when a society acts, especially in the absence of opposition, it authorises what is normal or legitimate for that society. This is especially the case when a society engages in genocide or some other crime against humanity. By failing to confront these acts is to overlook them and make their advancement more feasible. Helen Fein [29] , in her comparative study of Nazi-occupied Europe found that when subjugated populations fought back against the Nazis, more Jews escaped death. How bystanders behave is consequently very important.

The points mentioned above demonstrate how we can be guilty, without actually lifting a finger. As it has been quoted by Ricoeur;

''on the level of interaction, just as on that of subjective understanding, not acting is still acting: neglecting, forgetting to do something, is also letting things be done by someone else, sometimes to the point of criminality." [30] 

By failing to act when being able to confront an action such as genocide, is a failure which carries a message to both perpetrator and victim; the action may continue. Knowing, yet still not acting, means granting acceptance to the action. Inaction therefore implies complicity; accordingly, it raises the question of responsibility, guilt, and shame on the part of the inactive bystander, by which is meant the bystander who decides to remain inactive. [31] 

These points explain how bystanders can be culpable for acts of genocide even by doing nothing. If we are aware of the horrific acts and fail to act, we are our sharing our part in the complicity of genocide, but can this complicity come under the Art 3 (e) of the convention.

Zygmund Bauman

Bauman starts by arguing that we human beings have an in-built psychological need to divide up the world into simple divisions, simple contrasts. For example black and white, good and bad, them and us, outside and inside etc. These divisions are used are used by human beings to create boundaries, boundaries which make the world orderly and predictable, therefore safe. For Bauman these sorts of divisions make us feel that our lives have purpose and unity. By dividing up the world, it gives us an identity.

But by dividing, however, we are driven to separate people, 'them and us', friends and enemies. By diving up the world like this makes us feel safe and secure. It gives us identity and purpose, because we know we're not them, for example, Christians are different from Muslims, and these differences are what unites Christians and gives their community identity. We feel secure because we know the enemies safe on the on the outside. We interpret other cultures negatively because they differ from what we're familiar with and with what make us feel safe and secure.

Who are strangers? The stranger is someone who comes into a community from the outside, so the stranger is an alien presence within a social group, within a community. They are situated or located within a particular community but who hasn't belonged to that community from the beginning. The stranger is the person who comes today and who stays tomorrow. The stranger is the outsider, inside. The stranger represents a combination of opposites. This is because the stranger represents both nearness and also distance. The stranger represents nearness because the stranger is physically with us in the community and represents at the same time, distance, because the stranger is socially apart, socially separated from the community. Bauman argues that it is because of this combination of opposites that cause confusion and anxiety. We view strangers he says as threatening the very fabric of society.

Strangers, do not fit into that cosy set up of friend and foe, they are neither us nor them, and they are something that exists between the two poles. They are undecidables. They cause us confusion and they disrupt our neat and tidy ways of dividing up the world, after which they question the validity of dividing it up. The stranger blurs the boundary between us and them- making us confused about who we are.

The stranger created this fear that the world is far more complicated than we would like to think, because we like to think in black and white, and the stranger messes that up, and mucks up the boundaries between them and us, friend and foe. According to Bauman, because the stranger disrupts our sense of identity, we project our anxieties and insecurities onto the stranger. The stranger, in Baumans eyes, is even scarier than the enemy as they live with us and are potentially the enemy within.

This concept can be used to explain virtually every form of heterophobia; there are 3 possible strategies with dealing with the stranger;

Assimilation- trying to get rid of them by making them one of us

Exclusion- keeping them at arms length

Elimination- getting rid of them altogether

Elimination can also mean physical extermination, for example the Nazi genocide

In Bauman's book, Modernity and the Holocaust [32] , he applies his concept of stranger to the Jews, who were the universal strangers in western society. Why the Jews? The Jews were nation less, borderless people in a world of borders. They did not fit in with the new modern world that was taking shape, a world of borders. Before modernity there were no clear cut borders, modernity created that. Suddenly with the onset of modernity, people began to see themselves as citizens of a particular nation, for example, British. The Jews lived in the nation of others and upset the 'them vs. us' categories that define nation states. By settling everywhere, they defied national borders and became a target of hatred; they couldn't be trusted because they chose to come here and were not here from birthright.

The essence of nationalism is 'my country right or wrong', but Jews were nation less and seen to have no loyalty to the nation state where they lived.

They could easily move to another country if it suited them, they were not seen as true patriots and this caused deep anxiety amongst the German population. It called into question the validity of national borders and made them insecure. If a Jew could shift from one nation to another and transfer their loyalty, it called into question the sacred character of nationalism and made it disposable. It meant that no nation was better than another; there was nothing special about being British. All nationalisms were insecure as it was possible to live without them.

In the second half of 20th century, these anxieties were felt more as Jews attempted to assimilate and chose same rights to citizenship as ordinary Germans. This lead to hostility as they were disregarding the old status divisions, they broke down strategies that previously kept the Germans secure by keeping the strangers at arms length. They stoked up fears of the outsiders, inside and potentially be the enemy within.

In the context of the great depression, alongside massive inflation and unemployment, the Nazis were able to exploit fears and anxieties over difference in order to provoke popular anti-Semitism and recruit new members. An example of this is the way Hitler argued that the Jews were not true patriots as they took safe clerical jobs during the First World War, leaving the real fighting to the Germans. Anxieties over the Jew as the stranger hardened into this stereotype of the Jew as the enemy within.


Bauman's main stance is anti-modernity, and he believes that modernity created the right conditions in which the Holocaust could flourish. Without modernity, there would be no Holocaust. Bauman's theory of the stranger is a compelling theory as to why the citizens of Germany remained passive bystanders to the horrific acts of genocide that was taking place in their nation. By remaining passive, they could be seen to have shared complicity in genocide and at first glance, it is easy to see how the German population can be seen as accomplices. However, before assessing their culpability, a historical, political, economic and cultural analysis of that genocide is needed to explain their bystander behavior [33] . My example gives us a theory to their behavior and perhaps gives us an understanding of their complicity in genocide. A background analysis of any specific genocide is needed to assess the culpability of the bystanders in that particular genocide. No one theory would be able to explain bystander behavior completely.

It is difficult to accurately assess the culpability of 'bystanders' in genocide as there are also many different definitions of the term genocide and it must first be established what definition is to be taken into account, whether to take a broader or more narrow approach. Also when discussing bystanders to a genocide, it must be established whether they are internal bystanders or external bystanders, are the bystanders individuals or an organisation, are the bystanders passive/nonresponsive or active, perhaps they are bystanders by assignment? All these factors need to be assessed when discussing the culpability of the bystanders 'involved'.

It must also be noted that some bystanders may perhaps have greater responsibility than other bystanders, whether this be spatially, by profession or perhaps by knowledge as an intellectual. Bystanders choose to remain passive for various reasons, this can be a rational decision they have made, cultural restraints, perhaps due to diffusion of responsibility or pluralistic ignorance. It may be also be due to the limitation of their universe of obligation. These factors will also affect the culpability of the bystander. Therefore an accurate analysis of the culpability of the bystander will depend on a range of factors, all of which must be rigorously assessed in order to get a true picture of how culpable the bystander is.

Although certain bystanders can be seen to be more at blame than others, we are all to blame, as long as we are bystanders, for these acts of genocide that occur all around the world. Even by doing nothing, we can encourage acts of genocide to progress further. Larry May [34] has quoted, 'once one is aware of the things that one could do, and one then does not do them, then lack of action is something one has chosen' (1992:119). Whereas for the agent, bystanders represent the potential of resistance, for the victims they may represent the only source of hope left. [35] We are all ethically and morally obliged to respond to genocides in anyway that we can however there are many factors that can stop us in this path. However throughout this essay I have not been able to explain how we can legally share complicity under Article 3 (e) of The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide for our failure to respond.

"All that is necessary for evil to triumph in the world is for good people to do nothing."

Edmund Burke [36]