Humanity or humaneness? Aleksandr Podrabinek on a substitution of meanings

2 April 2024

By Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda


Distorting the meaning of everyday words and concepts is common practice in oppressive regimes. Once they’ve been in use for a while, the new meanings become commonplace, and people stop noticing the divergence from the original meaning. That’s what happened with the concept ‘crime against humanity,’ which originated in the Nuremberg trials against Nazi criminals.

The Tribunal indicted the defendants on three counts: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The latter included murder, extermination, enslavement, banishment, and other atrocities committed against civilians before and during the war, or persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds. The murders and other atrocities of this nature were no different from ordinary criminal offenses, but they were large in scale and committed on behalf of and by a state. Therefore, the Regulations of the International Military Tribunal defined these crimes as crimes against all humanity, meaning they were outside the scope of national jurisdiction. The Tribunal considered the gravity and scale of these crimes to be so great that their victims were not only those affected, but all of humanity. It’s humanity that takes on the role of prosecutor and creates an international court. Humanity acts here as a subject of the law, taking the blow that a certain government was aiming at a vulnerable population. Justice is carried out on behalf of all humanity, regardless of whether or not the crimes violated the domestic law of the country where they were committed.

This handling of such crimes displeased the Soviet leadership immediately. They viewed supranational justice as a threat to the communist dictatorship, and perhaps not without reason. Therefore, in the USSR, crimes against humanity started being translated not as ‘crimes against humanity,’ but ‘crimes against humaneness.’

The English word humanity can be translated into Russian as both ‘chelovechestvo’ [человечество] or ‘chelovechnost’ ‘ [человечность], with the latter carrying the connotation of ‘humaneness’ rather than ‘humanity.’ The Stalinist judiciary system jumped on the opportunity to take advantage of this. It was a very clever manipulation and significant substitution of concepts. With one slight omission when translating, they achieved a vital ideological goal: the international community cannot try anyone, the issue is only the unjustified brutality of the crimes.

In fact, however, any crime is abhorrent to the concept of ‘humaneness.’ What kind of crime could be called humane? The result was totally stupid. Genocide, for example, would then be a ‘crime against humaneness,’ whereas rape or murder wouldn’t – they’re entirely humane crimes.

The term ‘crime against humanity’ is widely thought to have originated on May 24, 1915, the day the Entente countries published their joint declaration concerning the Armenian genocide. The declaration described the Ottoman Empire’s actions as ‘crimes against humanity and civilization.’

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines an international crime as ‘an international act governed by law arising from the breach by a state of an international obligation so fundamental to the vital interests of the international community that its violation is considered a crime against the international community as a whole.’

On November 26, 1968, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. The Soviet government didn’t have the heart to swap ‘humanity’ for ‘humaneness’ then. The Convention is still posted on the UN website, translated correctly. They were also unable to change the meaning in the Criminal Code in 1996. Chapter 34 still reads ‘Crimes against the peace and security of humanity.’

The substitution of meanings that was made over 70 years ago has turned out to be quite persistent. The Soviet interpretation of ‘crimes against humanity’ has taken root in modern Russia as well. This makes perfect sense. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has already announced future candidates for the dock. It goes without saying that these candidates prefer discussing the degree of humaneness in their actions, not their responsibility for crimes against all of humanity.


Translated by Nina dePalma

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