21 MayRecognitionWhat is genocide?

What is genocide?

The term “genocide” was first proposed by Raphael Lemkin in 1943 who combined the Greek word genos (race or tribe) with the Latin word cide (to kill). Lemkin sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of the European Jews, and he 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."

According to Lemkin, the expression “mass murder” was an inadequate description of Nazi policies of systematic murder. It was inadequate because it failed to account for the motive for the crime, which arose solely from “racial, national or religious” considerations and had nothing to do with the conduct of the war. War crimes had been defined for the first time in 1907 in The Hague Convention, but the crime of genocide required a separate definition as this was “not only a crime against the rules of war, but a crime against humanity itself” affecting not just the individual or nation in question, but humanity as a whole.

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. Moreover, the principle of "crimes against humanity" as applied during the Nuremberg Trials for atrocities Nazi war criminals committed against both their own and other nation's citizens, was limited in scope, applying only to crimes committed during an international conflict.

The Charter of the International Military Tribunal defined crimes against humanity as "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated." The definition of crimes against humanity was further refined during the process of drafting the Rome Statute (1998) which created the International Criminal Court.

On December 9, 1948, 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 “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

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

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The former secretary-general of Medecins Sans Frontieres, Alain Destexhe, says that “Genocide is distinguishable from all other crimes by the motivation behind it. Genocide is a crime on a different scale to all other crimes against humanity and implies an intention to completely exterminate the chosen group. Genocide is therefore both the gravest and greatest of the crimes against humanity."

In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established and the Rome Statute provides for the ICC to have jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.

Since genocide is "the gravest and greatest of the crimes against humanity", those who have committed the crime use a variety of tactics to deny their cirmes. Israel Charny* outlines the tactics of denial as follows:

1. Question and minimize the statistics.

2. Attack the motivations of the truth-tellers.

3. Claim that the deaths were inadvertent.

4. Emphasize the strangeness of the victims.

5. Rationalize the deaths as the result of tribal conflict.

6. Blame “out of control” forces for committing the killings.

7. Avoid antagonizing the genocidists, who might walk out of “the peace process.”

8. Justify denial in favor of current economic interests.

9. Claim that the victims are receiving good treatment.

10. Claim that what is going on doesn’t fit the definition of genocide.

11. Blame the victims.

Genocide is the world's most important human rights problem. It is possible to prevent new genocides in the future only if those committed in the past are recognized, and only if the rights of people subjected to genocide are respected and reinstalled. Recognition of the past crimes is necessary to build a political will that can prevent and stop genocide.

* Israel Charny, "Templates for Gross Denial of a Known Genocide: A Manual", in The Encyclopedia of Genocide, Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 1999, p. 168.