Genocide is a term devised by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish legal academic in his 1944 book, titled ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’, and was later adopted by the United Nations in 19484. Previous to the time of Lemkin, there were few international crimes, and he believed that this category of crime should be defined by the serious violation of human rights on a large scale3. Lemkin derived the term genocide from two separate words3. The first, genos, is an ancient Greek term meaning race, nation or tribe3. The second, cide, means to kill in Latin3. Lemkin’s original definition of genocide consists of two parts: “in the first should include every action infringing upon the life, liberty, corporal integrity, economic existence, and order of the inhabitants when committed because they belong to a national, religious, or racial group; and in the second, every policy aiming at the destruction or the aggrandizement of one such group to the prejudice or detriment of another”3. An updated and simplified version of this definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is: “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic group or national group”3.
The term genocide became most commonly associated with the Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War, an attempt to completely exterminate Jews from Europe2,4. The horror of this event has inevitably given the term great emotional and symbolic meaning3. This has lead to the use of other terms such as ‘crime against humanity’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ in its place, when describing crimes which are severe but perhaps are not considered to be fully comparable to the Holocaust 3. In contrast, many will argue that the definition of genocide is too restricted and carefully used3. In the present 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG),(as defined in Article 2) genocide encompasses any of the following actions paired with the intent to eliminate, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group:
- killing members of the group
- causing serious bodily damage/ 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
Within this definition, there is debate to whether the witchcraft purges in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, or the bombing of Hiroshima were genocides due to the resulting large scale deaths4. The 20th century has however become host to some definitive and barbaric genocides, clearly displaying the phenomenon of an ethnic group being defined and portrayed as less than human, paired with bureaucratic authorities able and willing to administer death on a large scale4. Three prominent genocides of the 20th century (in addition to the Holocaust) include the attack on the Herero people by German colonists in Southwest Africa (modern day Nambia) in 1904, often considered a precursor to the Nazi Holocaust, the massacre of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish regime in 1915 and the attempt to exterminate the Tutsi population by Hutu extremists in 19943. It should be noted that in the first two cases there is significant resistance from the perpetrators (the Germans and Turks respectively) to the definition of these events as genocides3.
The 1948 Genocide Convention marked the unanimous adoption of ‘The Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide’ by the United Nations National Assembly3. The definition of genocide, set out in Article 2, is narrow when compared to the broader definition of “crimes against humanity”, which can encompass any atrocity against a civilian population3. This convention did not only define genocide, but imposed obligations upon states involved to punish those responsible3. Regardless of the debates and controversy concerning the scope and definition of the term genocide, it has lead to the recognition and subsequent prevention of atrocities committed towards a nation’s own population due to hateful, racist and supremacist attitudes and ideologies.
1. "Articles I-IX of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide." Institute for the Study of Genocide. http://www.instituteforthestudyofgenocide.org/references/def_convention.html (accessed October 24, 2012).
2. "genocide." In , .(, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Oct. 2012, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20111018160126416
3. Schabas, William A.. "Genocide." In Encyclopedia of Human Rights, Oxford University Press. (, n.d.). Retrieved 11 Nov. 2012, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/ 10.1093/acref/9780195334029.001.0001/acref-9780195334029-e-104
4. Scott, John, inasdf and Gordon Marshall. "genocide." In A Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford University Press. (, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Oct. 2012, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/ view/10.1093/acref/9780199533008.001.0001/acref-9780199533008-e-917