Defining Genocide

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff


by Borgna Brunner



from the Greek genos, meaning race; and the Latin suffix -cidium, meaning killing

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After learning the extent of Nazi atrocities against the Jews in World War II, Winston Churchill called it "a crime that has no name." Despite history's numerous precedents, the word genocide did not exist until legal scholar Raphael Lemkin originated the term in 1943. As as an internationally sanctioned, legal definition, genocide was not accepted until 1951.

Naming the Crime

As a consequence of the Nuremberg trials, in which top Nazi leaders were tried for "crimes against humanity," the United Nations drew up a treaty defining and criminalizing genocide. Called The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, it was adopted by the General Assembly on December 9, 1948, and came into effect on January 12, 1951.

The U.N. Treaty

The treaty defines genocide as the destruction of "a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group." Whereas the Nuremberg trials were conducted by an international military tribunal and specified that "crimes against humanity" related to war crimes, the 1951 U.N. Treaty encompasses war and peace:

Article I
The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.

Article II
In the present Convention, 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.

Cambodia and the Balkans

Although a number of countries signed the treaty "with reservation," it is ironic that two countries who have been accused of genocide—Cambodia and Yugoslavia—signed the treaty unequivocally.

Cambodia's horrific crimes, however, do not technically fit the legal definition: the mass extermination of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge was actually the systematic massacre by a government of its own people. In the case of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims, the distinction between genocide and other war crimes has grown less clear cut. The individuals indicted thus far for humanitarian crimes against Bosnian civilians have been accused of numerous combinations of the following:

  • Grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (Article 2);
  • Violations of the laws or customs of war (Article 3);
  • Genocide (Article 4);
  • Crimes against humanity (Article 5).

The First Conviction

The first conviction by an international court for genocide occurred on September 2, 1998, in Rwanda. Jean-Paul Akayesu, Hutu mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity.

This precedent-setting case became the first to interpret the 1951 treaty: "There was an intention to wipe out the Tutsi group in its entirety, since even newborn babies were not spared." At the end of 1998, three individuals had been convicted of genocide, including the former prime minister of Rwanda.

The first European conviction for genocide was handed down in August 2001. Radislav Krstic, a Bosnian Serb general, was found guilty of genocide for killing up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebenica in 1995. The summary of the verdict maintained that Bosnian Serb forces deliberately set about murdering all the men of Srebenica: "the result was inevitable—the destruction of the Bosnian Muslim people in Srebenica . . . What was ethnic cleansing became genocide."

In 2001, the trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic began (and continues today). He was originally charged with crimes against humanity in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Later, charges of genocide were added to the indictment.

Armenian Genocide

Most historians concur that the greatest unacknowledged genocide in recent history was the massacre of the Armenians in 1894, 1896, and 1915—it was still "a crime that has no name."


But in the case of Rwanda, although the crime had a name, it remained deliberately unspoken until too late. According to the 1951 treaty, the acknowledgment of genocide comes with the responsibility "to prevent and to punish" it. Both the U.N. and the U.S. intentionally avoided the term genocide to justify their inaction until the slaughter of Tutsis had abated. (For an excellent discussion of the U.N. and U.S.'s artful dodging of the term, see Frontline's documentary on the subject.)


After the Sudanese government crushed a small-scale rebellion in Darfur in Feb. 2003, it permitted pro-government Arab militias called Janjaweed to carry out massacres against black villagers and rebels in the region. The UN has called it the world's worst humanitarian disaster. Widely divergent casualty statistics have been cited: as of May 2005, the death toll has been reported as ranging from 70,000 to as much as 400,000.

The United States was the first to label the killing genocide. In Sept. 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "This was a coordinated effort, not just random violence." As a signatory to the 1948 Genocide Convention, the United States is committed to preventing and punishing genocide, but a finding of genocide does not actually impose specific obligations on the United States. Legal scholar Hurst Hannum of Tuft University explained, "That Powell has said this is politically significant . . . It doesn't trigger any legal consequences . . . [but] there will certainly be more of a push for something to be done." A UN report in February 2005 concluded that there was no definitive evidence of genocide in Darfur, but that the Janjaweed were carrying out "no less serious and heinous" crimes.

Much of the international community has vowed never to repeat the global-scale moral failure of Rwanda. But worldwide outrage, combined with several toothless UN resolutions and the deployment of sorely inadequate African peacekeeping forces, have been the extent of the international response to Sudan's crisis.



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