<p>Beginning of the burning of the village of Um Zeifa in Darfur after the Janjaweed looted and attacked. Photograph taken by Brian Steidle, December 2004.</p>

What is Genocide?

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The Term "Genocide"

The term "genocide" did not exist before 1944. It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against groups 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.

In 1944, Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) coined the term "genocide" in a book documenting Nazi policies of systematically destroying national and ethnic groups, including the mass murder of European Jews. He formed the word by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, from the Latin word for killing. Noting that the term denoted "an old practice in its modern development," Lemkin defined genocide as "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 next year, the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg, Germany, charged top Nazis with "crimes against humanity." The word “genocide” was included in the indictment, but as a descriptive, not legal, term.

“[T]he allies decided in Nuremberg a case against a past Hitler, but refused to envisage future Hitlers, or like situations … In brief, the Germans were punished only for crimes committed during or in connection with the war of aggression. Crimes against humanity were not an independent category of crimes in themselves. They were only considered crimes when their connection with other crimes could be established.” 
—Unpublished memoir of Raphael Lemkin

The Crime of Genocide

On December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust and in no small part due to the tireless efforts of Lemkin himself, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention establishes "genocide” as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.” It defines genocide as:

[G]enocide 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:

  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.

While many cases of group-targeted violence have occurred throughout history and even since the Convention came into effect, the legal and international development of the term is concentrated into two distinct historical periods: the time from the coining of the term until its acceptance as international law (1944-1948) and the time of its activation with the establishment of international criminal tribunals to prosecute the crime of genocide (1991-1998). Preventing genocide, the other major obligation of the convention, remains a challenge that nations and individuals continue to face.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • When have events since 1945 been labeled genocide?
  • What countries or institutions may label an atrocity as genocide? Is this significant?
  • Why would the label of genocide be resisted or denied by non-involved countries?