What is Genocide?


United Nations, New York: Mr. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word 'Genocide'.

United Nations, New York: Mr. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word ‘Genocide’.

Genocide is a term used to describe violence against members of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group with the intent to destroy it “in whole or in part.”

A Polish-Jewish lawyer who fled the Nazi-occupation of Poland and arrived in the US in 1941, Raphael Lemkin coined the term Genocide in his work “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe” in reference to the horrific acts committed by the Nazis against the Jewish people in the Second World War.  Having lost over 40 members of his family to the Nazis, Lemkin set out to come up with a term to develop international law in the hope of preventing and punishing such atrocities against innocent people.

In 1944, Lemkin coined the term “Genocide” by combining the Greek word “Genos” –meaning race, tribe with the Latin suffix “cide” (to kill).

As a boy, Lemkin had been horrified when he learned of the Armenian Massacre of 1915.

In 1945, with Lemkin’s efforts the term genocide was included in the Charter of the International Military Tribunal set up by the victorious Allied powers to prosecute top Nazi officials in Nuremberg, Germany. The tribunal indicted and tried the officials for crimes against humanity which included persecution on racial, religious or political grounds as well as inhumane acts committed against civilians including genocide.

In 1948, the UN approved its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCH), which defined genocide as any number of acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, or religious group .”

The Convention defines Genocide as an international crime, which signatory nations undertake to prevent and punish. According to the Convention, Genocide is one of the following acts:

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.

After the adoption of the convention some scholars have suggested other more inclusive definitions.

In 1959 Pieter Drost, a legal scholar defined Genocide as “The deliberate destruction of physical life of individual human beings by reason of their membership of any human collectivity as such.”

Israel Charny, the Editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide in two volumes, suggests that “Genocide in the generic sense is the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military action against the military forces of an avowed enemy, under conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims.”

The UN convention does not include the killing of the members of political groups in the definition of Genocide, but many genocide scholars argued for the inclusion of that point in the definition. The prominent Genocide scholar and sociologist Leo Cuper noted that in the contemporary world, political differences are at least as significant a basis for massacre and annihilation as racial, national, ethnic or religious differences. In response to the omission of political groups from the Convention definition of Genocide, Ted Gurr and Barbara Harff have coined the new term Politicide.

An international treaty signed by some 120 countries in 1998 established the International Court (ICC) which has jurisdiction to prosecute crimes of Genocide.