Why you should care
By the letter of the law, the 1948 Genocide Convention protects Jedis, but leaves other groups vulnerable. That’s no moon; it’s a giant hole in a major international treaty.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) had a rebellion on its hands, not unlike the Galactic Empire faced in Star Wars . In reality, it wasn’t such a long time ago (2001), but it did involve the Jedi Order. When asked by the ABS about religious preference in a compulsory national census, over 70,000 Australians self-identified as belonging to the Jedi religion, believing in the Force and following the teachings of such Jedi luminaries as Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. Jedi as a belief system has not waned Down Under since 2001, with over 64,000 people self-identifying as Jedi in the 2011 national census. To date, Australia has not acknowledged Jedi as an official state religion, but the fact remains that a significant number of Australians maintain their belief in the higher power of the Force.
My inner Star Wars nerd combined with my even nerdier inner international criminal-law-scholar self to ask the following…
While watching the wholesale slaughter of the Jedi by a corrupted Anakin Skywalker at the end of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), my inner Star Wars nerd combined with my even nerdier inner international criminal-law-scholar self to ask the following: Under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention), were Anakin’s actions an act of genocide upon the Jedi? As Yoda might have said in his inimitable inverted syntax, “Genocide, it may be, but a legal scholar, I am not.” So let me lead you in an exploration of mass atrocity law to discover whether the Jedi were the victim of genocide and, more importantly, to show why it’s past time to update the Genocide Act.
Admiral Motti: Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient Jedi religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes or given you enough clairvoyance to find the rebels’ hidden fortress…
[Vader makes a pinching motion and Motti starts choking]
Darth Vader : I find your lack of faith disturbing.
— The Force is used for evil in a scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
I proceed cautiously in discussing genocide, the most serious crime known to humankind, through the lens of a fictional space adventure. However, given the massive reach of the Star Wars juggernaut, and the limited exposure of important genocide court rulings, it’s an opportune way to discuss an important issue. Star Wars movies have sold 548,618,007 tickets while seminal genocide-related court rulings such as U.S.A. v. Alstoetter et al. and Prosecutor v. Akayesu are known only to serious devotees of mass atrocity law. I believe theStar Wars analogy can teach us much about genocide law and how it can be improved.
Under the Genocide Convention, Article II: “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Obi-Wan: The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.
— The master defines the Force in a scene from Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Even a cursory reading of the Genocide Convention reveals no mention of the Jedi, but, much more importantly, a number of other real-world vulnerable populations are similarly left out of the treaty. Economic, social and political groups are not protected from genocide, nor are sexual minorities such as homosexuals and bisexuals and gender minorities such as transgender and intersex persons. The gaps in the law of genocide have left these and other groups unprotected from targeted mass violence, and must give us pause.
In Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith , the fictional Anakin Skywalker committed his killings with the intent to destroy the Jedi and wipe them off the face of the universe. So the only remaining legal question is whether the Jedi could properly be considered a “religious group” for purposes of the Genocide Convention, as they do not fit as a ”national, ethnical or racial group.”
Although freedom of religion and belief are protected, the term “religion” has never been defined by international law. The case law from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda suggests that a religious group is one “whose members share the same religion, denomination or mode of worship.” This fairly vague definition leaves many unanswered questions, ranging from whether a so-called religious group must have a certain number of members to what exactly constitutes a mode of worship? Also, must a religious group be officially recognized by a state or a group of states in order to qualify for protection against genocide?
Han Solo: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
— Han questions the Force in a scene from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Here’s my ruling. Roughly 70,000 Australians maintain a religious affiliation with the Jedi. Also a number of quotes from the “first book of the Star Wars bible,” Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), identify Jedi as a religion (see sidebars for the quotes themselves). Based on this evidence, it seems that the Genocide Convention would indeed protect the Jedi from genocide due to its status as a religion, albeit an unorthodox and recently established faith.
The potential inclusion of the Jedi as a religious group protected by the Genocide Convention, while welcome both by those who love Star Wars and those who celebrate the expansion of human rights law, demonstrates the haphazard nature of international criminal law. Members of a “religion” based on a 1977 space opera are protected under the law, while groups that are not “national, ethnical, racial or religious” are left unprotected.
While welcome by those who love Star Wars and those who celebrate the expansion of human rights law, including the Jedi under the Genocide Convention demonstrates the haphazard nature of international criminal law.
With violence against economic, social and political groups on the rise in many countries — not to mention the specter of mass violence against sexual and gender minorities across the globe — “time, it is, perhaps” to review and reconsider the restrictive nature of the 1948 Genocide Convention and pursue a redrafted treaty that protects not only Jedi but all groups, including homosexual, bisexual and transgender persons, not to mention all homosexual, bisexual and transgender Jedi that live in this and other galaxies.For while there exist around 70,000 Jedi in Australia, a recent survey by the Australian Ministry of Health showed that up to 11 percent of the Australian population may be a member of the LGBT community. With a national population of about23 million , this number of more than 2.5 million Australian LGBT persons dwarfs the number of protected Australian Jedi, yet they are not covered by the Genocide Convention.
Until then, may the Force be with you, always.
Brian Kritz is a Research Fellow in the MA Program in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University, where he also teaches in the Department of Government.