The first thing to note is that genocide has been around for a long time. While genocide and other forms of mass atrocity are often regarded as a distinctly modern phenomenon, the reality is that mass atrocity has plagued our species since antiquity – it is conceptually present, if not explicitly named, in our understanding of the Assyrian Empire, the Peloponnesian Wars, the Old Testament, and the Third Punic War, among countless other events and periods. What is confusing about this is that while genocide, as we call and understand it today, has been going on for a very long time, the word ‘genocide’ is relatively new.

Raphel Lemkin – a victim of the Holocaust, and participent of the Nuremburg trails – first used the word genocide in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. He wrote:

By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)…. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify 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. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group” (80).

A couple of years later, in 1948, two incredibly important documents were released by the United Nations. You’ve probably heard of them: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and The Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The Genocide Convention (or the UNGC, as I affectionately refer to it) defines genocide in Article II. 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:

(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.

As you can see, this definition is extremely different from Lemkin’s conception of genocide! Why is this? The United Nations website tells us this:

 … the definition of genocide set out in article II is a much-reduced version of the text prepared by the Secretariat experts, who had divided genocide into three categories, physical, biological and cultural genocide. The Sixth Committee voted to exclude cultural genocide from the scope of the Convention, although it subsequently agreed to an exception to this general rule, allowing “forcible transfer of children from one group to another” as a punishable act. The drafters also voted down, by a very substantial margin, an amendment that sought to add a sixth punishable act to article II. It would have enabled prosecution for imposing “measures intended to oblige members of a group to abandon their homes in order to escape the threat of subsequent ill-treatment”.

Essentially, as with most outputs of the UN, compromises had to be made between drafters of the committee, which meant that some things were left out and some things were defined very narrowly. The result of this is that the “official” definition (and we’ll talk about why this definition, despite its flaws is important) has faced a lot of criticism, and a lot of alternatives have been offered by the academic community.

In Part 2, we’ll look at the main critiques of the UNGC definition, and some alternatives presented by academics.

In Part 3, we’ll look at the ways in which the word ‘genocide’ is used (and not used) by different groups – states, the media, perpetrators, and victim groups.

In Part 4, we’ll look at why it’s important to have one definition of genocide, and why it’s also important to look beyond definitions.

Neekoo Collett is a political science student from the University of Alberta. Her research focuses on “factors of restraint” and the situation of Baha’is in Iran, as well as the politics of genocide language and the proposed Crimes Against Humanity Convention. You can find her eating cake, applying for graduate programmes, and watching documentaries about the Amish when she should be studying. 

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