Economic Groups

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Economic Groups

Protection has traditionally been offered to those groups whose defining characteristics are as inflexible as their race. Amorphous qualities such as monetary wealth or property ownership can change. For this reason economic status alone probably is insufficient to qualify for protection under the laws concerning genocide or crimes against humanity, despite the fact that economic groups have been the target of persecution throughout history. Slaves, serfs, wage laborers, Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Native Americans, wealthy Jewish money lenders, the Chinese in southeast Asia, East Indians in Uganda, and caste members in Asia and Africa—all have at various times been the target of persecution. In almost all these situations, the desire for wealth and greed motivated the persecutors, but the economic status of the victims often was not the sole means of identifying them, because their economic status was coupled with race, religion, or nationality.

Situations have arisen in which persecution was based purely on economics, such as the struggles confronting serfs, peasants, wage laborers, labor unions, and communist class warfare. Classes within feudalistic societies were clearly defined by law. During both the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the French Revolution lower economic classes targeted wealthy landowners. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries labor union leaders in the United States were imprisoned, deported, and executed for their role in organizing and directing the actions of the labor movement.

In the majority of instances, however, economic status was not the sole criterion for persecution. Slaves have traditionally been regarded as property, and in most cases that status is transmitted from one generation to the next. Slaves were frequently branded or marked in order to more easily identify them, but the origins of enslavement can often be traced to racial, ethnic, or religious groups. The Chinese minority in Indonesia has been persecuted for their wealth, but their ethnicity and religion also set them apart from the Muslim majority. They have been forced to give up their Chinese names, their language, their schools, and their traditions. In addition, repression reaches down to the entire Chinese minority in Indonesia and does not target only the wealthy.

Indians in East Africa also have been persecuted for their perceived wealth. In the 1970s Idi Amin threatened to imprison nearly 55,000 Asians (Indians and Pakistanis who made up the majority of the merchant class) if they did not leave Uganda. Upon their departure, he nationalized their shops. In 1980 Tanzania nationalized Asian-owned businesses. In 1982 following an unsuccessful coup in Kenya, Asian-owned shops and homes were looted and Asian women raped.

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination protects caste members based on their descent. The notion of caste may have originated as an economic concept, or it may have had racial or ethnic connotations. The lowest caste, the untouchables, were given the dirtiest jobs and persecuted as "subhuman." Some theories suggest that Aryans initiated the caste system following their invasion of India and categorized those with the darkest skin as untouchables.

Economic status can thus factor into genocide and crimes against humanity. At a post-World War II war crimes tribunal, the court, with a U.S.–led prosecution team, found executives at a German firm guilty of crimes against humanity for the economic sanctions and political pressures they had imposed on the Jewish owners of industrial businesses that they later seized with Nazi support. In Rwanda Belgian colonists were unable to differentiate between the Hutu and Tutsi so they used the number of cattle a family might own to determine its ethnic origin and legal status. Tutsi were generally wealthier and more powerful than the Hutu. This simplistic system of ethnic determination was the foundation for the genocide that later occurred in the 1990s.

The 1948 United Nations (UN) Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide protects "national, ethnical, racial, and religious" groups. Political groups had been included in the draft of the Convention, but last-minute negotiations ended in the deletion of that reference in order to get more member nation-states to sign the treaty. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for the individual freedom to change one's nationality and religion if so desired. But if peoples worldwide freely change their nationality and religion, then groups become mutable. Domestic legislatures have thus expanded the definition of genocide without reference to the permanence of group membership. France legally defines genocide as the intentional destruction of any group.

If economic groups constitute a subgroup of one of the protected groups, they would fall under the protection of the Genocide Convention. The Convention clearly defines genocide as the intent to destroy a group even in part. If only the wealthy Chinese were targeted in Southeast Asia, for example, it would still be considered a case of genocide.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), in its Rome Statute, defines crimes against humanity as actions committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population. The statute includes the persecution of identifiable groups based on grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law. The phrase "any civilian population" could be interpreted to include the targeting of economic groups, even those groups that are more loosely defined.

Historical instances of persecution based on economic status have often led to the persecution of a larger ethnic group, but if persecutors stopped short and merely targeted an economic group, using no other basis in their selection, such persecution may not rise to the level of genocide or crimes against humanity.

SEE ALSO Slavery, Historical


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Rebecca L. Barbisch