What is Genocide?

The term Genocide comes from the Greek – Genos meaning family, tribe, or race and the Latin – Caedes meaning massacre and was introduced in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish legal scholar, to describe the Nazi policy of the systematic murder of the Jewish people.

Defining Genocide

Lemkin defined genocide as:

“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.”

In 1945, Lemkin proposed a treaty against genocide to the United Nations. He defined it as:

The crime of genocide should be recognized therein as a conspiracy to exterminate national, religious or racial groups. The overt acts of such a conspiracy may consist of attacks against life, liberty or property of members of such groups merely because of their affiliation with such groups. The formulation of the crime may be as follows:

“Whoever, while participating in a conspiracy to destroy a national, racial or religious group, undertakes an attack against life, liberty or property of members of such groups is guilty of the crime of genocide.”

Genocide Is A Crime

In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that declared genocide a crime under international law; unfortunately at that time, it did not provide a legal definition of the crime of genocide.

The Genocide Convention

On 9 December 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide developed a clear definition of genocide in Article II as; Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group; includes direct killing and actions causing death.
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; includes inflicting trauma on members of the group through widespread torture, rape, sexual violence, forced or coerced use of drugs, and mutilation.
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; includes the deliberate deprivation of resources needed for the group’s physical survival, such as clean water, food, clothing, shelter or medical services. Deprivation of the means to sustain life can be imposed through confiscation of harvests, blockade of foodstuffs, detention in camps, forcible relocation or expulsion into deserts.
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; includes involuntary sterilization, forced abortion, prohibition of marriage, and long-term separation of men and women intended to prevent procreation.
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group; may be imposed by direct force or by through fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or other methods of coercion. The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines children as persons under the age of 14 years.

Article III declared that the following acts shall be punishable:

  • Genocide
  • Conspiracy to commit genocide
  • Direct and public incitement to commit genocide
  • Attempt to commit genocide; and complicity in genocide

Resolution 1674

In 2006, more than fifty years after the signing of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1674 on April 28, 2006 which “reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect civilian populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” With the adoption of Resolution 1674, the UN Security Council committed itself to take action and protect the human rights of civilians in armed conflict.

Resolution 1820

In 2008, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1820, which expanded the definition of genocide to include “rape and other forms of sexual violence constitute as war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide.”

Since the enactment of The Genocide Convention in 1951, there are over 130 countries that have endorsed it and more than 70 countries that have sought the punishment of perpetrators of genocide. Learning from and remembering past genocides and mass atrocities encourage us to strive to make a difference by increasing our awareness and forcing us to take action to stop and prevent mass atrocities and to end genocide.