What is Genocide?


What is Genocide?

Until 1944 there was no term “genocide” for the phenomenon that has been occurring through the ages of man.  It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against a group with the intent to destroy the existence of the group. Human rights, as laid out in the US Bill of Rights or the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concern the rights of individuals.  As we are well aware genocide is not about the individual, but instead an entire group whether they be Jews, an ethnic group or religious group such as Muslims or Buddhists.

A Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin in 1944 set out to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of European Jews. He came up with the word genocide by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, from the Latin word for killing. In creating this word, Lemkin had in mind “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”  Raphael Lemkin’s full definition was as follows, “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”  The following year, the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg, Germany, charged top Nazi officials with “crimes against humanity.” The word genocide was included in the indictment, but as a descriptive, in no way was it yet a legal term.


There were many after the Holocaust that believed that genocide would never raise its specter again, but today we know how wrong they were whether it be in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burma, Darfur, Iraq, Rwanda or anywhere else.  As Secretary-General António Guterres of the United States echoed in 2018, “My generation believed that after the Holocaust, we would never see genocide again. We were wrong. Around the world, racism, hate speech, violent misogyny, antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of xenophobia are on the rise. Dehumanizing language is not harmless and may also sow the seeds for far more evil acts, including genocide.”
In 1948 the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention established genocide as an international crime, which signatory nations to “undertake to prevent and punish.” The United Nations defined genocide as follows:

Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The intent to destroy a particular group is unique to genocide.  “Crimes against humanity,” is a closely related term in International Law, but defined as systematic widespread attacks on civilians.

While genocide has occurred throughout history before and since the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, International Law has broken it down and focused on two distinct time periods.  The time from its coining until its acceptance as international law (1944–48) and the time of its activation with the establishment of international criminal tribunals to prosecute persons responsible for committing it (1991–98).  Preventing genocide has been a major obstacle of the convention.  At the 2018 Convention meeting a humanitarian official noted, “By the time you have established that all the criteria have been met, it’s over.”

There have been several tribunals that have taken up the case of genocide, most notably the Nuremberg Tribunal (1945–1946), International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (1993–2017), International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (1994 to present), Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (2003 to present), additionally the International Criminal Court has taken up the case of Darfur, Sudan.


The historian William Rubinstein rgues that the origin of 20th century genocides can be traced back to the collapse of the elite structure and normal modes of government in parts of Europe following the First World War:

“The ‘Age of Totalitarianism’ included nearly all of the infamous examples of genocide in modern history, headed by the Jewish Holocaust, but also comprising the mass murders and purges of the Communist world, other mass killings carried out by Nazi Germany and its allies, and also the Armenian genocide of 1915. All these slaughters, it is argued here, had a common origin, the collapse of the elite structure and normal modes of government of much of central, eastern and southern Europe as a result of the First World War, without which surely neither Communism nor Fascism would have existed except in the minds of unknown agitators and crackpots.”

~ William Rubinstein, Genocide: a history

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