Reviewing Genocide as Biden Invokes Its Name against Putin

no formal declarations made against russia

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

President Joe Biden informally accused Vladimir Putin of committing genocide in Ukraine. However, his comment is different from a determination of genocide by the U.S. government, which would require specific action. What constitutes genocide?

Collection of skulls
Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray explains that “the term genocide is used for the deliberate extermination of a targeted group of people, whether for political, racial, economic, or other social reasons.” Photo by papi8888 / Shutterstock

On April 12, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., spoke in Iowa about reducing gas prices and mentioned the Ukraine war. President Biden said that filling up one’s gas tank should have nothing to do with whether “a dictator declares war and commits genocide half a world away.” He later doubled down on his claim, though he expressed that it was his own opinion, not a formal declaration of genocide by the U.S. government. His comments were commended by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has accused Putin of the same.

A formal declaration of genocide would require some legal action under the 1988 Genocide Convention. Genocide has occurred several times in world history. In her video series Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals, Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, Professor of Biology at Mount St. Joseph University, examines some cases.

Defining Genocide

“The term genocide is used for the deliberate extermination of a targeted group of people, whether for political, racial, economic, or other social reasons,” Dr. Murray said. “A key word here is deliberate. To be precise in calling a massive loss of life ‘genocide,’ the deaths must have been intentional, which differentiates genocide from other types of mass fatalities, whether natural, or even man-made.”

According to Dr. Murray, the tragic deaths of Native Americans who died during the colonization of the United States would technically not fall under the term “genocide,” since so many of them died from European diseases, not European warfare. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a terrible, world-altering decimation of life, but only that, since contagion wasn’t well understood at the time, deaths by disease weren’t specifically intentional.

However, the 4,000 who died on the Trail of Tears definitely would meet the definition of genocide. The U.S. government forced the relocation of Native Americans from Florida to Oklahoma, and there was every reason to suspect they wouldn’t survive the journey.

Stalin, Mao, and Hitler

Twenty million died in the U.S.S.R. due to Joseph Stalin, whose failed socialist agricultural programs caused great famine throughout the Soviet Union. Stalin’s regime followed an overarching pattern of targeting former Russian military and the upper crust of Russian society. What makes his failed agricultural programs genocide? Consider Mao Zedong.

“The agricultural, industrial, and social changes of the so-called Great Leap Forward of China’s Mao Zedong led to mass death from starvation throughout the Chinese countryside in the late 1950s and early ’60s,” Dr. Murray said. “Mao’s Cultural Revolution that followed caused the imprisonment or murder of anyone believed to be against the government. Some estimate 50 to 70 million people were killed in China between 1949 and 1976.”

According to Dr. Murray, the deliberate intent to wipe out so many people came into play for Stalin’s and Mao’s regimes because they knew very early on that their citizens were dying from these programs and they consciously, specifically chose to continue them.

“Probably the most well-known genocide came at the hands of the German Nazis, who killed about two-thirds of Europe’s Jews in the 12-year Holocaust between 1933 and 1945,” Dr. Murray said. “Others targeted include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma and Polish people, Russian prisoners of war, homosexuals, and those who were mentally or physically handicapped.

“Total estimates are that 11 million people died, mostly by poison gas administered in Third Reich death camps.”

Whether Putin will officially join the ranks of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler remains to be seen.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily