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Genocide is one of the foundational moral, legal, and political concepts of modern society. While the terrible suffering named by the term is not new, the meaning of genocide is intimately bound to the creation of the modern human rights movement in the wake of World War II (1939–1945) and the subsequent evolution and expansion of new mechanisms of global governance.
Genocide is a term of profound moral, legal, and political significance. On moral terms, genocide references extreme inhumanity, naming a boundary where the central tenets of civilized behavior are called into question by the most reprehensible acts of political violence. Legally, genocide is understood as a crime whose severity demands immediate and total condemnation. As the special rapporteur to the UN Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights stated, “Genocide is the ultimate crime and the gravest violation of human rights it is possible to commit” (1985, part I, para. A14).
Politically, the term helped establish the foundations of modern human rights discourse and practice. The United Nations began discussing genocide in its first year of operation (1946), and the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention), entered into force in 1951, was the first legally binding international human rights convention. In these interconnected ways, genocide represents a major element of an evolving human rights consciousness as well as a growing global commitment to protecting people from harm and preventing the worst excesses of the exercise of power.
Throughout human history, there are records of massacres and violence directed toward the destruction of entire peoples. References of mass violence that might be termed genocide can be found in the Bible, the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the religious-military campaigns of the Middle Ages, and the mass killing of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere associated with “discovery” and colonization. The modern discussion of the concept is often associated with Turkish atrocities against the Armenians (1915–1923), when as many as 1.5 million may have been killed. However, it was the Nazi atrocities of the Holocaust that led to the evocation of genocide as a distinct crime, in which over 6 million Jews were exterminated in a systematic and calculated manner, along with Roma, Slavs, and other groups viewed to be dangerous or undesirable.
The word genocide was invented in 1943 by Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959). Lemkin also wrote Military Government in Europe, which was a preliminary version of his more fully developed publication Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944). In 1943 Lemkin was appointed consultant to the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration and later became a special adviser on foreign affairs to the War Department, largely because of his expertise in international law.
The term is based on the Greek word genos, referring to race or tribe, and the Latin term cide, meaning murder. Lemkin created the term to refer to a new crime committed against group victims and involving, “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” (1944).
Lemkin invented the term because he believed that the Nazi’s planned eradication of various groups represented an irreparable harm to global society, as well as a special challenge to existing conceptions of criminal law, which tended to focus on crimes committed against individuals.
The text of the UN Genocide Convention was completed in 1948, and in 1951 the Convention became a legally binding document. By mid-2006, 138 nations had accepted the Convention as legally binding. The Genocide Convention declares genocide a crime under international law whether committed during war or peacetime. It requires all the nations that accept the document to take measures to prevent and punish acts of genocide committed within their jurisdiction and to enact appropriate domestic legislation to criminalize genocide. The treaty also criminalizes attempts to commit genocide, conspiracy or incitement to commit genocide, as well as complicity in the commission of the crime. Nations that sign the Genocide Convention agree to try individuals suspected of having committed genocide in domestic courts or in an appropriate international tribunal (which did not exist at the time the Convention was written, but is now present in the form of the International Criminal Court). The prohibition on genocide is now so widely accepted that it has become a part of international customary law so that it is understood to be binding on all states, regardless of whether or not they have ratified the Genocide Convention.
The legal definition of genocide is found in Article II of the Convention. This definition is widely accepted and has been reinforced by its repetition in relevant domestic legislation and in the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Article II defines the crime as follows:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm tomembers of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditionsof life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent birthswithin the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group toanother group. (OHCHR  1951)
In this way, genocide is composed of three key elements: acts, intent, and victim group. The five enumerated acts are distinct in nature, yet unified as strategies that can either destroy an existing group (killing, causing serious harm, creating destructive conditions) or ruin the possibility of the group’s continued existence (preventing reproduction and forcibly removing children). The issue of intent is complex, but is generally understood to limit claims of genocide to those cases where political violence is purposefully directed, either as an officially stated policy to destroy a group or as expressed through an analysis of repressive strategies. The idea of a victim group defines genocide as a unique crime in which individuals are targeted for repression because of their membership in either a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
Each element of the legal definition of genocide raises complex questions, many of which run counter to dominant moral and social understandings of the term. That is, genocide is widely understood to be a crime involving mass murder and the idea of destroying “in whole or in part” suggests some numerical threshold. So, while it would trivialize the moral power of the concept to include cases of hate crimes or small-scale racial killing, the Genocide Convention allows a case of genocide to involve few casualties, as with the forced transfer of children. Similarly, the popular understanding of the crime assumes that the mass killing of hundreds of thousands would constitute genocide, yet the Convention’s definition only covers acts committed against one or more of the four protected groups and may not, for example, cover the brutal destruction of political opponents (as in the Khmer Rouge’s killing of 1.7 million in Cambodia in the 1970s). Equally complex is the question of whether group status is a function of perpetrators’ understandings of targeted victims (so that the Nazi’s vision of Jewish identity would define the group) or whether the concept seeks to protect a group defined by some inherent, objective, or actual identity, a problem heightened where different groups appear highly similar (as with Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis, who speak the same language, practice the same religions, and commonly intermarried).
In order to address these issues, scholars have expanded the interpretation of the crime to cover many instances of mass violence, or created new terms such as autogenocide to deal with mass murder where perpetrators and victims are of the same group, or democide to refer to mass killing based on any justification. While these efforts play an important role in evolving understandings of the crime, the Genocide Convention’s definition remains the central understanding of the concept.
Despite the widespread acceptance of genocide as a crime, there were few twentieth-century attempts to prosecute individuals. In fact, it was not until 1998 that the first international prosecution and conviction for genocide took place in the Jean-Paul Akayesu case at the ICTR. This historic decision was followed by a number of additional cases in the same court (Jean Kambanda, etc.), as well as other important cases at the ICTY (Milan Kovasevic, Radislav Krstic, Dusko Tadic, etc.), allowing for the evolution of a new jurisprudence of genocide. The decisions of these ad hoc tribunals represented an important expansion of the international legal commitment to prosecuting genocide. This commitment was further supported by the creation of the ICC in 2002, which provides a permanent body for prosecuting cases of genocide and other severe atrocities. Also in 1998, a Spanish judge brought genocide charges against former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in a domestic court for crimes committed in South America. This ushered in a new era of using the concept of universal jurisdiction as a means of prosecuting individuals accused of genocide in national courts in countries distinct from where the violations occurred.
The Genocide Convention was also created to prevent genocide, ideally by stopping potential genocides before they occur, or by taking action against severe violations before they reach a genocidal intensity. Yet, since the mid-twentieth century, the world has witnessed many atrocities often described as genocide. These include Cambodia (1975–1979), Rwanda (1994), and mass political violence in the former Yugoslavia (1992–1995) that brought the world a new, nonlegal term, ethnic cleansing. In addition, there have been formal claims of genocide associated with atrocities throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the Guatemalan military regime’s attacks on indigenous people. And, there have been claims of genocide against the former Soviet Union for military actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere, as well as state policies such as the use of famine to kill seven to fifteen million Ukrainians. In Africa, there have been numerous genocide claims, most recently in the Sudan.
The case of Rwanda is especially chilling in that an estimated 800,000 people, generally Tutsis, were killed with machetes and small arms by a Hutu-dominated regime in 1994. Before the killing began, UN peacekeepers warned of an upcoming genocide and estimated that an international force of around five thousand could have prevented the violence. During the hundred-day killing, the international community refused to acknowledge that genocide was taking place, in part to avoid the legal responsibility to act. Later, most nations recognized these killings as an example of genocide, but by then the murderous regime had been removed from power by a Rwandan rebel army.
In many respects, genocide defines the twentieth century, representing a harsh warning of the destructive capacity of modernity as well as the open promise of the benefits of international cooperation. Genocide is one of the central, foundational ideas within human rights discourse, which represents the first universal structuring discourse of an emerging global order. Genocide was defined formally through global commitment toward its punishment and prevention. In this sense, the term is almost iconic in its representation of the complexity of modernity, defining both the worst and best of human society, a word that names acts of unforgivable brutality while offering the promise of a world where such acts cannot be tolerated and can only exist within the imaginary, banished from the real through concerted, coordinated, international action.
- Andreopoulos, George, ed. 1994. Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Chalk, Frank, and Kurt Jonassohn. 1900. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Charny, Israel W. 1982. How Can We Commit the Unthinkable? Genocide, the Human Cancer. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Fein, Helen.  1993. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London: Sage.
- Horowitz, Irving Louis. 2002. Taking Lives: Genocide and State Power. 5th ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Kuper, Leo. 1981. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Lemkin, Raphael. 1944. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.
- Rummel, R. J. 1994. Death by Government: Genocide and Mass Murder since 1900. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
- Schabas, William A. 2000. Genocide in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Staub, Ervin. 1989. The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights, Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. 1985. Revised and Updated Report on the Question of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, prepared by Benjamin Whitaker. Thirty-eighth Session, Item 4 of the Provisional Agenda, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1985/6. 2 July. http://www.preventgenocide.org/prevent/UNdocs/whitaker/.
- United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). 1948/1951. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. http://www.ohchr.org/english/law/genocide.htm.
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