With the possible exception of the Holocaust, the definition and application of the term ‘genocide’ has been fraught with controversy. In fact, since the term was legally codified by the United Nations in 1948 as they approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, only two cases have been determined to have constituted genocide. These are the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia in 1995.
In her book Human Rights and Wrongs: Slavery, Terror, Genocide, researcher Helen Fein has drawn on a range of historical documents to estimate the actual numbers of people killed in genocide in the last century. As you can see from the table below, more people have died in genocides than are accounted for by the two existing cases confirmed by the international courts and tribunals.
Table source: Centre on Law and Globalization
The defining factor in determining genocide is whether the offending party had the intention to destroy a group of people in whole or in part on the basis that they were simply part of that group.
That is why, for example, despite the number of deaths in Cambodia, the ECCC have been unable to establish genocide as they cannot prove that there was an intention to destroy any specific group. Where there were instances of the slaughter of ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslim minorities, charges of genocide were brought against Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan and former first lady Ieng Thirith.
Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo
You will note that the table above includes the Rwandan genocide which is considered to have taken place over one hundred days between April and July 1994. It does not include the decade of systematic rape that is documented to have taken place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between 1994 and 2003 (and in fact, still continues to this day). The situation in the Congo is directly linked to the Rwandan situation but is considered separately.
Herero and Namaqua Genocide and the Gukurahundi
Bizarrely enough, the table leaves off the Gukurahundi which was the deliberate and systematic attempt by Robert Mugabe and his government to destroy the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s.
Also not included (as the period it analyses begins in 1915) is the first genocide of the 20th Century, the Herero and Namaqua genocide which took place between 1904 and 1907.
Image credit: “Auschwitz I Camp - Arbeit Macht Frei - Detail of Main Gate - Oswiecim, Poland” – Adam Jones (source)