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Genocide: The Definition, Examples & Facts

Genocide does not just happen out of the blue. There are always some circumstances that are created in order for it to occur. According to the UN, genocide is one of the gravest crimes against humanity. However, it is often defined as the eradication of a particular national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.

In order to understand better what genocide is and how many genocides have been committed in the past, let’s have a look at its official definition and background.

Background Of The Term Genocide

The word genocide was first introduced in Raphael Lemkin’s book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.” The main idea behind this term was not only a response to war crimes committed by Nazis against Jewish people during the holocaust but also to highlight the genocides committed in the past aimed at the destruction of particular groups of people. And to broadly define what genocide is.

He was successful in his attempt to recognize genocide as an international crime. The UN General Assembly declared genocide a crime under international law in 1946. In the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crime of the Genocide, also called the genocide convention, genocide was codified as an independent crime.

The United Nations has marked 9 December as the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime.

There are a number of other serious and violent crimes that do not fall under the specific definition of genocide. They include crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and mass killing. Nonetheless, looking at the official definition given by the United Nations will give a better overview of the term genocide.

Definition Of Genocide War Crimes

The term “Genocide” was first coined by the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944. The word Genocide is a combination of the Greek word “genos,” which means race or tribe, and the Latin word “cide,” which means to kill.

Genocide was recognized as a crime under international law due to the efforts of Dr. Raphael Lemkin after witnessing the acts committed in the holocaust. He lost his whole family except his brother in the genocide. It is when he campaigned to make genocide recognized as a crime against humanity.

Furthermore, the General Assembly of the United Nations, in its resolution 96 (I) dated 11 December 1946, declared that genocide is a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world. Recognizing that at all periods of history, genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity and being convinced that, in order to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge, international cooperation was required.

United Nations Convention On The Prevention & Punishment Of The Criminal Acts Committed Of Genocide

Article II of the convention states any of the following acts as genocidal if its intent is to destroy a whole or part of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group:

  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.

1) Killing members of the group

Genocide does not have to include the mass killing of people. But unfortunately, it has been present in all the genocides committed in the past. The same pattern is followed throughout history, where men and boys have been killed through a gunshot, while women have been subjected to a slow death, including slashing, burning, and sexual violence.

According to International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), including others, have shown that both the initial killings and the others that quickly follow other acts of violence fall under the first prohibited act.

2) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group

The second prohibited act consists of a number of acts that are genocidal. According to ICTR and International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), rape and sexual violence may fall under the second prohibited act of genocide as they cause both bodily and mental harm. Sexual violence is a distinctive feature of genocidal violence, as 250,000 to 500,000 women were raped in the Rwandan genocide.

Similarly, other intentional inhumane, or cruel crimes or punishments that may cause bodily or mental harm to members of the group are also included in the second prohibited act. In addition, enslavement and sexual slavery also fall under the second prohibited act.

3) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part

This third prohibited act is quite different from the genocidal killings as it does not lead to the immediate death of the members of the group but leads to a situation that does not support prolonged life.

Genocidal actions do not always need to lead to deaths to be considered acts of genocide. They can be acts causing serious bodily or mental harm, or the deprivation of resources such as clean water, food, shelter, or medical services can be regarded as inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction.

In Akayesu, the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTR) identified “subjecting a group of people to a subsistence diet, systematic expulsion from homes, and the reduction of essential medical services below minimum requirement” as genocidal acts.

4) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group

The fourth prohibited act includes acts that affect reproduction and intimate relationships among the members of the group, such as involuntary sterilization, forced abortion, the prohibition of marriage, and the long-term separation of men and women in order to prevent procreation.

5) Forcibly transferring children of A Religious group to another group

The last prohibited act does not affect the group physically or biologically. Nor does it include killing members of any political and social groups. It leads to the social and cultural destruction of a group.

It usually occurs in the form of conversions of children of the protected group to the perpetrator’s group. Boys of the protected groups are converted either to be used in labor or as a soldier. However, girls are not mostly converted. They are just used as chattel, as was witnessed during the Yazidi and Armenian genocides.

Genocide Committed in the Past

The debates between both supporters and opponents of the genocide convention have important implications for policies, which can be seen in the discussion of the connection between war crimes and genocide.

The two concepts differ principally in how the targeted group is defined and identified. Whereas the group that is targeted in the case of war crimes is identified by its status as an enemy, the group in the case of genocide is identified by its racial, national, ethnic, or religious characteristics.

Additionally, there has been a long debate about the genocides committed in the past too. Some people say the holocaust was the only genocide that occurred in the last century. However, some claim that the United Nations Convention has defined more.

Let us have a look at a few of them.

The Herero and Namaqua Genocide

The Herero and Namaqua Genocide occurred in German South West Africa (GSWA), where German military forces massacred 50,000 to 65,000 Harero and 10,000 Nama between 1904 and 1907.

It all began with the German colonization of GSWA in 1884. As the years passed, tensions began to rise between Germans and the natives due to German’s oppressive rule, which ushered in an armed rebellion against German colonial rule in January 1904.

Moreover, in 1905 Nama people in the South also rebelled against German rule. The Harero and Nama engaged Germans in guerilla warfare for years. But in the end, they were either executed or incarcerated in concentration camps.

The Armenian Genocide

The Armenian genocide included the mass killings of up to 1.2 million Armenians between 1915 and 1916 by the nationalist ruling party of the Ottoman Empire, the Committee of Union and Progress  (CUP, also known as the Young Turks).

The Armenians were one of the Christian ethnic groups who lived in eastern Anatolia and enjoyed administrative powers for centuries. Until the twentieth century, two million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire. But as soon as World War II started to emerge Ottoman Empire started to decline and became highly polarized. Due to the unsuccessful Balkan Wars, The Empire lost most of its European territories, and it gave birth to anti-christian sentiments.

Ottoman Empire joined hands with Germany and Austria-Hungary during WWII and was badly defeated. They blamed Armenians for the conspiracy and their defeat. Consequently, Armenians were considered a threat to the Empire. Hence, they were removed from the Ottoman Army and massacred. By 1917, approximately 1.2 million Armenians were massacred.

The Cambodian Genocide

This included the mass killings of up to 3,000,000 Cambodians between 1975 and 1979 by the Khmer Rouge. It was the popular name for the Communist Party of Kampuchea. They had radical totalitarian beliefs and promoted a classless, rural, and agricultural society.

As soon as they came to power, they started targeting people to begin agricultural labor. And they also targeted those Cambodians who had any association with the previous government.

The Srebrenica Genocide

The Srebrenica genocide occurred during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995. Approximately 8000 Bosniak Muslim men were massacred by Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska in the town of Srebrenica.

An independent state was founded by Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. Bosnian Serbs were not in favor, and their reaction initiated the Bosnian War.

After several skirmishes, the Bosnian War ended in November 1995, declaring Bosnia and Herzegovina an official independent state. However, in 2007, the International Court of Justice declared the Srebrenica massacre an act of genocide.

The Genocide Of The Tutsis

The genocide includes the mass murder of up to one million Tutsi people between April 1994 and July 1994 by extremist Hutu army officers in Rwanda. When the genocide occurred, there were mainly three ethnic groups in Rwanda, including Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa.

As a result of the Berlin conference, Rwanda first came under the colonial rule of Germany. Then after the first world war, Rwanda became part of Belgium according to the mandate given by the League of Nations.

But the tensions escalated when Belgium introduced the identification cards, which further solidified the polarization. In 1959, an extremist Tutsi murdered the sub-chief of the Hutu, leading to the Hutu revolution and making Rwanda an independent republic led by the Hutu.

In 1973, the country faced a military coup by its army’s head of staff which further gave rise to racist ideologies. Rwanda kept facing turmoil until April 1994 when President Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Ntaryamira of Burundi were traveling on the plane, and it was shot down and crashed over Kigali airport, killing all those on board. Tutsis were blamed for this, and this is what led to a Tutsi genocide.

The Darfur Genocide

The Darfur Genocide refers to the ongoing killings of the Zaghawa and Masalit people in Darfur, where approximately 200,000 people have been killed until now by the Sudanese government and their militia since 2003.

At the start of the genocide, Sudan was controlled by an Arab dictatorship in the capital Khartoum. The tensions escalated with the disputes over the land and unequal power. Feeling more marginalized and ignored, the people of Darfur joined forces and created Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), and even launched an attack on a military airbase in April 2003.

Since 2003, thousand of villages have been destroyed, and people have been murdered, attacked, and raped. However, in 2010, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was charged with three counts of genocide by the International Criminal Court.

Until now, over 200,000 people have been murdered, and approximately 2.5 million have been displaced in the Darfur region.

The Phases of Genocide

There are multiple phases or stages of the genocide identified by Gregory Stanton, a professor of law. He published a paper in 1987 that unfolded the different phases of genocide.

According to Professor Stanton’s recent model, there are ten stages of genocide. These are as follows:

1- Classification

Classification refers to the stage when the groups are divided into “them” and “u.”.

2- Symbolization

Symbolization refers to the stage when groups are forced to be associated with symbols to make them appear different.

3- Discrimination

Discrimination refers to the stage when groups are not allowed to participate in a civil society. They are excluded from voting and visiting certain places.

4- Dehumanization

This includes dehumanizing and belittling groups by associating them and their beliefs with animals or diseases.

5- Organization

Organization refers to the training of special police and army units in order to victimize particular groups in the future.

6- Polarisation

Polarization refers to creating a divide in society using propaganda. Thus, creating a distance and excluding groups from society due to high polarization.

7- Preparation

The preparation stage includes strategic planning for mass murder and targeting groups in order to execute them or inflict bodily or mental harm.

8- Persecution

Persecution refers to the forcible displacement of groups, incarcerating them in concentration camps, and taking their property or possessions.

9- Extermination

Extermination refers to the mass murder of a national, ethnicracial, or religious group.

10- Denial

It refers to the denial of war crimes or genocides. Moreover, denial also refers to justifying acts of murder and not considering their crimes.

United Nations General Assembly Convention 1948

The negotiation process among United Nations Member States in 1948 led to the creation of the Genocide Convention, which represents a compromise among the participating countries. The definition of genocide is consistent in both the convention and the one found in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 6). While some countries have incorporated genocide as a criminal offense in their domestic laws, others have not yet taken this step.

In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), which defined the crime of genocide for the first time.

“Genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings; such denial of the right of existence shocks the conscience of mankind, results in great losses to humanity in the form of cultural and other contributions represented by these human groups, and is contrary to moral law and the spirit and aims of the United Nations. Many instances of such crimes of genocide have occurred when racial, religious, political, and other groups have been destroyed, entirely or in part.”

— UN Resolution 96(1), 11 December 1946

This convention accepted genocide as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.” Preventing genocide, the other major obligation of the convention, remains a challenge that nations, institutions, and individuals continue to face.