Woodrow Wilson was a man of his time. His idea of the League of Nation as well as his famous 14 points – designed to shape the peace at the end of World War I but end of all wars – were deeply flawed, but well intended. We can now point out that Wilson failed to extend the same considerations to all peoples. He didn’t seem to be bothered that his idea of self-determination was explicitly reserved for white Europeans. He certainly didn’t question whether the concept of “nation” as the logical and natural organizing principle for humanity. Or that national homogeneity will prevent wars. We can point all of that out. But what is more difficult to see is that some of the thinking that may have shaped Wilson’s good intensions, continues to underly some of the flaws in our contemporary international order with horrific consequences for human life.
Consider the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar as examined by the New York Times today. The government of Myanmar denies allegations of genocide, its military continues to terrorize villages, raze homes, shoot people at random and subject women and girls to rape. In side note, the NYT reports that the government of Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group. Instead it considers them to be dangerous migrants, sometimes even terrorists. Even though the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Declaration of Universal Human Rights in 1948, the resolution on the prevention and punishment of genocide adopted in the same year defines genocide as “acts intended to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The violations of human rights are beyond dispute in the case of the Rohingya. But whether or not the international community is able and willing to act in light of these violations depends in part on whether or not the group targeted is in fact recognized as a group according to international law.
Wilson thought that nations are to humanity what elements are to chemistry. The League of Nation then might be thought of as akin the periodic table of humanity. But what if your nation is not granted element status and hence does not make it onto the periodic table?Since Wilson’s time our conceptualization of groups has considerably broadened even if the international governing body, is still organized on the basis of “nations” – the United Nations, which also protects non-national groups, such as groups based on ethnicity, religion, or race. Nonetheless, international bodies set up to ensure your individual rights depend on your identity aligning with a recognized group identity. If your suffering is depicted as random and defensive rather than genocidal, protective measures of the international community will find it even more difficult to protect you than if you than if your group status is well documented and universally recognized.
The government of Myanmar does not defend the raping and killing of innocent civilians as just. Rather it insists that the definition of genocide does not apply here, by labeling the targets of state-sponsored violence “terrorists.” In our post 911 world, it seems – even though there has been no UN resolution on the matter – that the rights and lives of “terrorists” somehow do not warrant the same protection as the rights and lives of “humans.”
Language matters. Categories matter. They are the building blocks of our logic.