What is Genocide?
“Genocide” is an internationally recognized crime with a specific legal definition. The term refers to acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, first introduced the term “genocide” in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.
The chief prosecutors of the International Military Tribunal used the word “genocide” to describe Nazi crimes in their indictment of 24 Nazi leaders.
Genocide was recognized as an international crime in 1948.
The legal term “genocide” refers to acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. According to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), genocide is an international crime. The acts that constitute genocide fall into five categories:
- Killing members of the group
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
There are a number of other serious, violent crimes that do not fall under the specific definition of genocide. They include crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and mass killing.
Origin of the Term “Genocide”
The word “genocide” did not exist prior to World War II. It is a specific term coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959) and was first introduced in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In his book, Lemkin described Nazi policies of systematic murder during World War II, including the destruction of European Jews. He formed the word genocide by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, from the Latin word for killing. 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."
Early Use of the Term “Genocide”
In 1945, the International Military Tribunal (IMT) was held in Nuremberg, Germany. During the trial, 24 high-ranking Nazi officials were charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, among other crimes, as defined by the Nuremberg Charter.
The word “genocide” was used in the indictment as a way to describe Nazi crimes. It was not, however, a legal term at the time of the IMT.
Genocide as an International Crime
In the shadow of the Holocaust, the word “genocide” was established as a legal term for a specifically defined international crime.
On December 9, 1948, the United Nations approved a written international agreement known as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The adoption of this convention was in no small part due to the tireless efforts of Raphael Lemkin. By the end of the 1950s, over 65 UN member states had signed it. As of April 2022, 153 states have ratified the convention (meaning they have agreed to follow its terms).
The convention established genocide as an international crime. This means that the law against committing genocide is binding on all states, whether or not they have ratified the convention. Preventing genocide, a major obligation of the convention, remains a challenge that states, institutions, and individuals continue to face.
Series: After the Holocaust
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?
- How can individuals and leaders recognize and respond to indications that a country is at risk for genocide or mass atrocity?