Srebrenica Srebrenica Mass Grave [photo source]

The primary purpose of this post will be to explore the legal definition of the term “genocide”.  In a later post, I shall discuss problems, limitations and criticisms of the current definition of genocide and try to find out why it is so rarely applied to conflicts around the world.

The term “genocide” did not exist prior to 1944.  The term was coined by a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin as he sought to describe the systematic nature of the Nazi policies and their intention to destroy the European Jews.  He formed the word by combining the Greek word geno- meaning race or tribe and the Latin word –cide meaning killing. 

The term was codified legally by the United Nations in 1948 as they approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.  The act of genocide was thus criminalised in times of both war and peace.
The convention defines genocide as follows:

“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”

- UN General Assembly Resolution 260

Breaches of the Genocide Convention

Did you know that since the creation of the Genocide Convention in 1948, international tribunals have determined only two cases to constitute genocide?

  • Rwandan Genocide: This refers to the genocide that took place in Rwanda in April 1994.  The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is currently prosecuting cases in connection with crimes committed during the genocide.
  • Bosnian Genocide: This refers to the genocide committed in Srebrenica in 1995 by the Serb forces.  There have been attempts to broaden this definition to include crimes of ethnic cleansing committed during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War but this was rejected by the International Court of Justice in February 2007.  The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is currently prosecuting cases in connection with the Srebrenica genocide.
Contentious Cases

This list may in fact be longer but my research has shown that there are two cases currently being discussed which might constitute genocide:

  • Darfur / Sudan: United States Secretary of State Colin Powell  declared the conflict in Darfur to constitute a genocide in September 2004.  However, the United Nations Security Council-sponsored International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur stated that "the Government of the Sudan has not pursued a policy of genocide.” This was met with dismay but it is important to note that the report further went on to state that despite not meeting the definition of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity were nevertheless taking place and were just as serious.  Despite this, the International Criminal Court has filed charges against Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and three others. I’ll try to find out more about this in the near future.
  • Croatian Genocide Case: The Croatian government waited until the close of the Bosnian Genocide Case before bringing an application to the International Court of Justice to apply the Genocide Convention against the Serbian government.  The Serbian government announced their intention for a counter-suit and in January 2009, the ICJ gave them a deadline of 22 March 2010 to file their Counter-Memorial.

At a later stage I will discuss the problems, limitations and criticisms of the current definition of genocide and an analysis of the reasoning to not classing certain events as genocide (for example, Cambodia).

About Mandy Southgate

Mandy Southgate is an accountant living and working in London. She is passionate about world events such as genocide and apartheid and has a desire to understand how these events continue to occur in the modern world. With a focus on the 20th and 21st centuries, A Passion to Understand reflects her continuing research and reading on these topics.
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  1. "Did you know that since the creation of the Genocide Convention in 1948, international tribunals have determined only two cases to constitute genocide?"

    I did know that. Startling few. Which shows how impossible it is to implement the convention...

  2. Hi sweetiepie! I think it is the level of intention and the desire to wipe groups of humans off the earth which is what they are trying to preserve by making the convention so exclusive. It seems obvious that the horror of the Holocaust is reflected in this and the idea of a Final Plan continues to haunt us.

    I think it is a double edged sword though because in trying to deal with the gravity of genocide, we land up ignoring or underestimating the seriousness of events and crimes that don't quite make the mark.


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