Raphael Lemkin (1900-59), a Jewish lawyer from Poland who wrote extensively about international law and crimes against humanity, coined the term genocide in his most famous work, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In his extensive analysis of German rule during the Holocaust, Lemkin derived the term genocide from the Greek root for tribe or nation (genos) and the Latin root for killing (-cide). Predating his creation of the term was Lemkin’s work on earlier forms of genocide, such as the Armenian genocide during World War I and the mass murder of Assyrians in Iraq in the 1930s.
Lemkin not only contributed a conceptual understanding of genocide but also campaigned for its criminalization at the international level. His definition of genocide provided a legal basis for the Nuremburg trials. Furthermore, his work helped inspire the United Nations to establish, on December 9, 1948, the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which became effective on January 12, 1951, with passage of Resolution 260. Article 2 defines genocide as certain “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The convention delineates these acts of genocide as killing members of a group or causing them serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions of life on the group that are calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
This legal definition thus classified the crime of genocide in three distinct parts: actions, intent, and victimization. The first of these include murder, causing serious harm, creating conditions for the destruction of a particular group, preventing the biological reproduction of a particular group, or removing children from the group, the latter two aimed at destroying the group’s continued existence. The second part of the UN definition, intent, is controversial, as legal scholars point out that intent is typically difficult to prove and therefore hard to prosecute. Most often, proof of a perpetrator’s intent lies in the terms of a political program aimed at systematic brutality against the group in question. The third element in the definition, racial, ethnic, or religious group victimization, makes genocide distinct from other kinds of murder and brutality.
Initial debates over the UN convention’s definition of genocide were intensely political, and the definition itself remains widely criticized, especially for its failure to include political and social groups. The first draft of the convention included political groups, but the USSR contested its inclusion and ultimately prevailed. Moreover, whereas Lemkin’s definition of genocide included the intentional destruction of cultures and political groups, the UN definition did not.
The destruction of a group’s cultural identity is commonly called cultural genocide or ethnocide. During the genocide in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the term ethnic cleansing entered into popular parlance, but it remains undefined in legal terms. For example, while often used to describe genocide, it may also involve mass deportation without mass murder. Native Americans endured both ethnic cleansing and ethnocide during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ethnic cleansing policies forced native populations onto reservations, while white Americans seized millions of acres of their land. By the late 19th century, the federal government instituted a now-discontinued policy of forced assimilation, with the ultimate goal of eradicating native cultures and societies.
Some scholars classify genocides in terms of their history and the reasons for such action. Instrumental genocide refers to mass murder aimed at achieving specific goals, a motivation often associated with premodern genocides. Ideological genocide, on the other hand, refers to situations in which mass murder operates as an end in itself. It is often associated with more modern instances of genocide, including those based on religious or ethnic fundamentalism. The most infamous example of genocide involved the mass killing of Jews, so-called Gypsies, Communists, and other groups based on the Nazis’ extreme nationalism and claims to racial superiority. As many scholars have noted, although the Nazis were not the first to engage in genocidal activity, the Holocaust was unprecedented in terms of its modern, distinctly nationalist and industrial character.
Other modern examples include the Cambodian genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, which took place between 1975 and 1979 as part of Pol Pot’s pro-Communist purge. Much of the population was forced into labor camps or killed. This genocide, among the most deadly of the 20th century, resulted in the deaths of nearly one fourth of the nation’s population (1.7 out of approximately 7 million). The Rwandan genocide, occurring over a mere 100 days (April to July 1994), provides a more recent example of ideological genocide. In Rwanda, extremist members of the country’s Hutu majority attempted to wipe out the Tutsi minority and succeeded in killing an estimated three fourths (850,000) of the country’s Tutsi population. The Rwandan genocide presents an extreme instance of a remarkably large number of people killed in such a short period of time.
In terms of prosecution, the UN convention— presently accepted by 135 nations—obligates its signatories to take actions to prevent genocide and punish those involved in it. The UN convention states that violators can be tried in courts in the country where the acts in question occurred or by international tribunal. In the 1990s, the UN Security Council created ad hoc tribunals to try international crimes, specifically the genocides in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In 2002, the International Criminal Court was established to try such cases, thereby making genocide subject to universal legal standards. The convention’s historical significance lies in its role as a foundation for an international system of human rights legislation and enforcement. Despite the UN’s success in trying war criminals involved in genocidal activity, the international community remains concerned about the continued development of policies and strategies to prevent genocide and adequately provide for its victims.
- Chalk, Frank and Kurt Jonassohn. 1990. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies.
- New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Fein, Helen. 1999. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London: Sage.
- 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. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1968. On Genocide. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Totten, Samuel, William S. Parsons, and Israel W. Charny, eds. 1995. Genocide in the Twentieth Century: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. New York: Garland.