Social media as a Platform for Educational Art: “The Seeds of Genocide” and the Seventieth Anniversary of the Genocide Convention

Social media as a Platform for Educational Art: “The Seeds of Genocide” and the Seventieth Anniversary of the Genocide Convention

[Marina Aksenova is a Professor of Global, Comparative and European Law and Law, Politics and Economics at IE Law School.]


“The Seeds of Genocide”

The image “The Seeds of Genocide” was created at my request by an artist Avital Legar with the idea of the legal prohibition of genocide in mind and with reference to the Genocide Convention. I am promoting use of this symbol to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which was signed on 11 December 1948. The image aims to reflect the nature of genocidal ideology by representing its main elements in a way that speaks both to intellect and emotions. It is designed to be distributed via social media or displayed in specialized blogs, such as this one. The intention is not to shock but rather to create an artistic piece that would be highly symbolical in nature.

The image depicts life as a garden where all humans are beautiful flowers. Each flower is unique and generic at the same time; its roots are tightly intertwined with those of other flowers. This connection happens underground and is thus hidden from plain view. The tension occurs when one flower starts seeing another flower as a ‘weed’ rather than as a different flower. The virus of genocide is exactly the idea of ‘othering’ flowers as weeds to be eliminated. It has capacity to destroy all flowers for it defies the universal connectedness of all flowers-human beings. The power of symbolism makes it possible to stress the gradual process of alienating and dehumanizing others. It appeals to senses as well as to the analytical mind.

Social media platforms: tools for division or unity?

The project is a pilot study of the possibilities offered by art in raising awareness through creative representation, using social media platforms as dissemination tools.

The crime of genocide is the first theme that I chose to work with due its reputation as the crime that sits at the apex of all international offences. This is despite the absence of a legally recognized hierarchy in international criminal law. Take, for instance, the pronouncement of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Krstić: ‘[a]mong the grievous crimes this Tribunal has the duty to punish, the crime of genocide is singled out for special condemnation and opprobrium.’ (para 36) The reason for such special notice is the cancerous ideology that underlies the offence, namely the denial of individuals’ right to exist based on their belonging to a group defined by certain characteristics. This motivation, legally referred to as ‘the specific intent’, is particularly heinous and has highly traumatic connotations for future generations. Hanna Arendt referred to genocide as ‘an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the human status without which the very words “mankind” or “humanity” would be devoid of meaning.’

The impetus for the collective action that paved the way to the Genocide Convention in 1948 was the desire to prevent reoccurrence of “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” In the years to come, the crime of genocide solidified its reputation by surfacing in the work of the ad hoc tribunals and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet 2018 witnessed a highly publicized report by the OHCHR Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar, which found that there is sufficient information to warrant the investigation and prosecution of senior officials for genocide against the Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities (para. 87).

Sadly, neither the existence of a clear legal prohibition contained in the Genocide Convention and reproduced in its original form in the ICTY Statute and the Rome Statute of the ICC, nor the consequences of moral and political stigmatization, deter the acts falling under the definition of genocide from reoccurring. Moreover, new technologies exacerbate the problem by facilitating easier access to larger segments of the population. They offer additional possibilities for disseminating divisive ideologies. The OHCHR report specifically noted that Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate (para. 74, Emma Irving’s discussion here). In this regard, it is important to mention here as a ‘footnote’ that the records of genocidal statements held by social media platforms can serve as evidence in open source intelligence gathering, making it easier to prove the specific intent in cases when criminal prosecution is a viable option.

The question raised by the image “The Seeds of Genocide” relates less to accountability efforts and more to the goals of prevention and reconciliation in international criminal justice. Interestingly, the OHCHR report mentions that the process of “othering” the Rohingya had started before the worst atrocities unfolded (para. 20). Can social media serve as a platform for educational art that fosters a sense of unity rather than division? I would say ‘yes’ and argue that new technologies offer such possibilities when it comes to both preventing and addressing mass atrocities. They do so by allowing for the distribution of the results of creative endeavors aimed at raising awareness online through social media outlets.

Art and international criminal law as complementary mechanisms

This proposal stirs a host of questions, legal and ethical. I will only touch upon one bigger question that speaks rather to the foundation of the whole discussion than to the choice of any particular legal prohibition or creative vehicle for its expression. My aim here is merely to start the conversation using “The Seeds of Genocide” as a pilot image. Why would one employ art to complement individual criminal responsibility and prosecutions?

Broadly speaking, art and law target different areas of human psyche and are not mutually exclusive. Law has regulatory function and rests on well-defined black-and-white categories. In contrast, art is there to connect us to ourselves. It dwells on ambiguity for its purpose (if art is discussed as a purposeful activity at all) is to reflect the complexity of human condition in fullness. The symbiosis of art and law thus does not shun away from nuance but accommodates structure. Law encompasses the system of norms, which supports the values agreed upon internationally. Art, in turn, adds experiential dimension to the picture by connecting individuals to the present moment. Arguably, the strength of art is in its capacity to establish an individual connection to the theme of work. The same aspect can also be interpreted as a weakness for it leaves room for multiple interpretations where the legal provisions are clear.

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