The Current

The power of a word: Is it time to call Syrian atrocities a holocaust?

The bombing of eastern Aleppo has become relentless. Victims are overwhelmingly civilians — many are children. The devastation is so great, so deliberate, some have begun to characterize it as a holocaust. Others say that is neither factual nor accurate.
A grief-stricken Syrian man is comforted by people as rescuers pull the body of his daughter from the rubble of a building in the rebel-held neighbourhood of Al-Shaar, Aleppo, Sept. 27, 2016. (Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images)

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According to UNICEF, since September 23, at least 96 children have been killed in Aleppo, 223 injured. Residents say the aerial bombardment they're facing is the worst it's been in the five-year conflict.

Airstrikes in Syria hit eastern Aleppo, including hospital

7 years ago
Duration 0:55
Rebel-held area subjected to intense bombing overnight

But the question remains: how to describe what's happening in Syria right now? Terms like "tragedy" and "horror" seem too small to contain it.

Activist and ANA Press journalist Rami Jarrah believes the word "holocaust" is justifiable when used to describe the atrocities in Syria.

"We're seeing the sort of ethnic and geographical cleansing… that has happened elsewhere in the country and it seems to be the same in Aleppo," Jarrah tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

He wants to be clear that using the word "holocaust" is not to replace or diminish what happened to six million Jews in the Second World War.

"I mean 'a' holocaust and I didn't mean to replace it with the term 'The Holocaust'."

 Jarrah tells Tremonti that Syria has killed people in mass numbers and points to cases such as a chemical weapon attack that killed 1,500 people in a matter of minutes.

"The only difference here is that Assad does not openly say that he is murdering people because they disagree with him or because of their identity, or political affiliation — whereas Hitler was very honest about doing that."

Syrians pass the body of a child after digging it out from under the rubble of a building following bombardment on the al-Marja neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Sept. 23, 2016. (Ameer Alhalbi/AFP/Getty Images)

Mosaic Institute's executive director Bernie Farber understands the need for a public outcry in the context of Syria but feels using the term "Holocaust" resonates with The Holocaust and takes the discussion off topic.

"I think we should stick to words that have more common meaning that people better understand, that can be used with power."

Farber tells Tremonti that words do have meaning and power and sometimes people have ownership of certain words but the bottom line is "one should concentrate more on what's going on to get the message out."

"The terrible, horrific tragedies that are going in Syria [is] what I would really refer to at this point as a genocide," says Farber.

"Genocide is a pretty devastating term and accusing a country or a government of genocide I think does raise the eyebrows of the world."

Syrians react as the bodies of children are pulled from the rubble of a building following government forces airstrikes in the rebel held neighbourhood of Al-Shaar in Aleppo, Sept. 27, 2016. (Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images)

"There's no doubt, that what is being committed by the Assad regime in Syria constitutes war crimes and crimes against humanity. And genocide is a species of crimes against humanity, says Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University.

As a former UN prosecutor at the Hague, Akhavan remembers the UN Security Council debated whether to call the 1994 Rwandan extermination campaign a genocide or not. He tells Tremonti the Rwandan genocide was five times that of the Nazi death camp — almost 800,000 in three months.

"The question is: why are we engaged in this oppression Olympics where we have to gauge whether one people's suffering is more or less than the other?" says Akhavan. 

"Half a million people have died in Syria and the world is doing nothing."

"We're engaged in these abstract debates about words and labels and that's what concerns me."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman, Ines Colabrese and Peggy Lam.