The meaning of 'genocide'

June 26, 1998

Sir, - I am grateful to Roger W. Smith (Letters, June 12) for reminding me that one cannot argue with Humpty-Dumpty. Let him continue to maintain his - surely rather odd - distinction between total genocide (as practised by the SS on Jews and Gypsies) and partial genocide (the Ottoman practice of not automatically killing all women and children if they could be converted to Islam). I would have thought genocide was like virginity, a case of either/or. Did the women and children cease to be Armenian by virtue of their enforced conversion?

What I did not understand, until Professor Smith listed his other, to me, alas, unknown, works on the nature of genocide, was the degree of personal capital he seems to have invested in his particular choice of definition for the term. He is, of course, free to widen or reshape the definition as he chooses. I think he is wrong to do so. Definitions, especially if they are to be used for legal or condemnatory purposes, should be tight, precise, particular, specific. For his own sake, I hope Smith does not have to come to regret the lack of precision he has chosen to introduce in so widening the range of phenomena that he chooses to include under the term "genocide". For while the actions which the term covers are among the most terrible and shameful in the history of humanity, we are arguing about definitions not actions.

D. CAMERON WATT Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street, London WC2.

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