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 What is Genocide?

The word 'genocide' was coined by Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), a Jewish Polish lawyer, following the Nazi destruction of the Jews of Europe. He used a combination of Greek and Latin words: geno (race or tribe) and cide (killing). Lemkin was describing "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."

On December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust, and due in large part to Lemkin’s efforts, 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 says:

    genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

    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.

Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court shares this definition, as do the Statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

The defining characteristic which separates the crime of genocide from other ordinary crimes is the special intent, or dolus specialis, to destroy all or part of a group. As the ICTY stated in 1999 in Jelisic, "Genocide is characterised by two legal ingredients according to the terms of Article 4 of the Statute: [1] the material element of the offence, constituted by one or several acts enumerated in paragraph 2 of Article 4; [2] the mens rea of the offence, consisting of the special intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." Theoretically, then, the murder of a single person could constitute an attempt at genocide if the aggressor's intent was to kill that person as part of larger plan to destroy a group.

The phrase "in whole or in part" has been the subject of much discussion. In the 2001 Krstic case, the ICTY found that the mass killing of approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica constituted genocide. Reflecting on the meaning of "in part," the tribunal stated: "[T]he part must be a substantial part of that group. The aim of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups, and the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole." They concluded that while the number of individuals targeted is the "necessary and important starting point," one must also consider the number of victims in relation to the overall size of the entire group, as well as the prominence or importance of the targeted individuals within the entire group. In Krstic it was found that even though only Muslim men in one town were targeted, the number of victims was large and their significance was such that, to a certain extent, they represented the wider Bosnian Muslim community.

In 1998, the ICTR in Akayesu (the first ever conviction for genocide) found that acts of sexual violence may "constitute genocide in the same way as any other act as long as they were committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular group, targeted as such". The systematic rape, humiliation and mutilation that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 "resulted in the physical and psychological destruction of Tutsi women, their families and communities." Subsequent ICTR cases such as Kayishema, Musema and Rutaganda found that sexual violence satisfies the definitional requirements of "causing serious bodily or 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" and "imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group."

The Aegis Trust has collected these other definitions of genocide:

"a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator."

Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn,
The History and Sociology of Genocide, 1990

"the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings ... under conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims."

Israel Charny
in George Andreopoulos (ed), Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions, 1994

"sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim."

Helen Fein,
Genocide: A Sociological Perspective, 1993/1990

"the promotion and execution of policies by a state or its agents which result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a group ...[when] the victimized groups are defined primarily in terms of their communal characteristics, i.e., ethnicity, religion or nationality."

Barbara Harff and Ted Gurr
‘Toward empirical theory of genocides and politicides,' International Studies Quarterly, 37:3, 1988

“Genocide is not extreme war or conflict; it is extreme exclusion. Exclusion may start with name-calling, but may end with a group of people being excluded from a society to the point where they are destroyed.”

James M. Smith speaking to the London Assembly, January 2006

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