What Is Genocide?

A Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, first devised the concept of genocide in response to atrocities perpetrated against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, which took place between 1915 and 1923.

On 11 December 1946 the General Assembly of the United Nations resolved that genocide was a crime under international law. This was approved and ratified as a Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on 9 December 1948.

The Convention defines genocide as:

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

  • killing members of the group
  • 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 wholeor in part
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

A number of specific actions have been deemed to be punishable under the Convention. These are:

  • genocide
  • conspiracy to commit genocide
  • direct and public incitement to commit genocide
  • attempt to commit genocide
  • complicity in genocide

Actions do not need to lead to deaths to be considered to be acts of genocide – causing serious bodily or mental harm or the deprivation of resources such as clean water, food, shelter or medical services can be regarded as inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction. Causing serious bodily or mental harm includes the infliction of widespread torture, rape and sexual violence. It is also a criminal offence to plan or incite genocide – even before the killing starts. This recognises that genocide does not just happen. There is always a path that leads to genocide.

Genocide is a complex legal term, and a full criminal trial in an international court is necessary to determine what is and is not genocide. This is partly because genocide is not only the act of murdering or persecuting many people, but it is defined as a crime where there is intent to destroy a group – which is difficult to prove, particularly in retrospect.