Genocide, crime in international law that, according to the 1948 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, is defined 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 whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.

The enshrinement of genocide in international law does not, however, mean that the definition of the crime is agreed upon among scholars or politicians. Accordingly, while there are only a few historical instances which it is unanimously agreed constitute genocide, including the Nazi “final solution of the Jewish question” (see Holocaust) and the 1994 Rwandan killing of up to 1 million Tutsis by a Hutu-dominated regime (see Rwandan Genocide), many more cases arguably qualify in the eyes of various important authorities. Nor, as a rule, has the implicit determination of the UN to prevent and punish genocide resulted either in deterring the perpetration of the crime or in concrete steps to intervene. Punishment has, however, occurred in a few instances of genocide as a result of the creation of ad hoc international criminal tribunals in the 1990s, while the advent of the International Criminal Court in 2002 signals the potential to bring more perpetrators to justice.


The term “genocide”, combining the Greek genos (“race” or “tribe”) with the Latin cide (“to kill”), was coined by the Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin during World War II. Though the immediate context was the Nazi occupation of Europe, and, as part of that, the “final solution”, Lemkin was not solely concerned with the murder of 6 million Jews, at least 200,000 Roma (Gypsies), and many millions of civilians of the Slavic countries. He viewed the crime of genocide as being as old as recorded history, and wrote extensively on cases of group destruction from classical antiquity, through the Middle Ages and early modern periods, and in Europe’s colonies in the Americas, Africa, and Australasia.

Lemkin’s interest in the subject was undoubtedly shaped by the experience of ethnic minorities in the increasingly intolerant political atmosphere of central and eastern Europe in the early 20th century, but it was also stimulated by the mass deportation and murder of at least 1 million of the Armenian Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. (While successive Turkish governments deny that the actions of their predecessor Ottoman regime constitute genocide, most independent scholars, Lemkin included, regard them as such.)

The UN definition that Lemkin was so important in establishing is the only legal definition in existence. Nevertheless, the definition is open to wide interpretation and contains the seeds of a number of controversies. First, owing to the convention´s stipulation about proving not only that widespread killing among a group has taken place, but also that the killing was committed with accompanying intent to destroy the group “as such” and “in whole or in part”, gaining convictions for genocide as such is not always straightforward, even when there is sufficient evidence to convict for the perpetration of any given act of mass murder. Following on from this, the second point of controversy in the UN definition is the difficulty of determining how big in absolute or proportional terms the part of the group that the perpetrator intends or intended to destroy needs to be in order for the action to qualify as genocidal.

A third point of controversy involves the five acts enumerated as ways of perpetrating genocide. Only one of these involves outright, direct murder, so is it, therefore, possible to have a crime of genocide that does not involve direct murder at all (or involves only a relatively low level of direct murder), as with, for instance, the forced removal of Australian Aboriginal children from their parents and their placement in white families (see Aborigines); or the undermining of the cultural foundations of a group’s existence by measures such as the removal of the people from their ancestral lands, bans on minority languages, or the destruction of libraries and other cultural centres?

A fourth point of controversy involves the types of groups described as potential victims of genocide. Political groups, for example, are absent from the list of national, ethnical, racial, or religious groups, and yet political groups, often very broadly defined, have been targeted across modern history in episodes that many historians would consider tantamount to genocide. Examples of this phenomenon include the Stalinist attack on the kulak (rich peasant) population of the USSR from 1929, or the assault by the Khmer Rouge on the urban and bourgeois populations of Cambodia in 1975-1978 (the main element of a programme of mass murder that accounted for approximately 1.7 million people, or approximately 20 percent of the country’s population).

One of the reasons for the absence of political groups from the convention’s list is the fact that some of the signatory states were concerned about their own records of and a potential for crushing political opposition being brought under scrutiny. This illustrates that the UN definition was itself the product of political compromise, which in turn helps explain why many scholars are not satisfied with it. More generally, because of the many controversies over the definition, it is impossible to provide a satisfactory list of historical cases of genocide. At the same time, it would be possible to make a strong case for the presence of genocide in so many instances that detailing each of those would take prohibitively long.

The Cambodian Genocide


Every genocide has its own blend of motivations, deriving from the particular history and circumstances of the society in which it occurs. Racism or religious hatred may be common motivations, yet the existence of prejudices alone is an insufficient explanation since many divided societies never descend into genocide.

Situations of social crisis may often precipitate genocide. Revolution is such a prime context, as state and social structures are reshaped according to some radical agenda, and groups deemed to be impeding the revolution are removed. War is another prime context, as military conflict enhances feelings of group solidarity but also of xenophobia and paranoia, and as the embrace of violent means in the military sphere extends itself to violent means in the social and political sphere. The sense of a state or society being under threat of its own existence may also be used to justify radical attacks on groups perceived to be threatening that existence. At the same time, the successful acquisition and consolidation of new territory by military or other means have also traditionally provided an important context for genocide, as, for instance, indigenous populations such as the Native American peoples were dispossessed and killed, or had their conditions of life destroyed, by white European settlers.

The example of the white settlers, many of whom were British subjects or American citizens, shows that it is not just totalitarian states that perpetrate genocide. The largest-scale deliberate mass murder in modern history has been conducted by Nazi Germany, the USSR under Joseph Stalin, and Maoist China, but few cultures or political systems have shown themselves immune to the destruction of other groups within or beyond their own policy. Nor state infrastructures themselves the only possible agents of genocide, as is evidenced by the instance of mass inter-group destruction in societies without recognizable state forms. In many instances in the European colonies too, it was the frontier societies of the colonialists, albeit acting with the tacit consent of their own governments, that perpetrated mass murder on their own initiative, and with their own, more local organization. Finally, as in instances of the forced displacement and killing of indigenous groups in the Amazon rainforests by developers, corporations have also been complicit in the mass destruction of both life and culture.

Cambodian Meo Soknen, 13, stands inside a small shrine full of human bones and skulls, all victims of the Khmer Rouge, near her home Tuesday, March 31, 2009, in the Kandal Steung district of Kandal province, Cambodia. Kaing Guek Eav, also know as “Duch”, the commander of the infamous Toul Sleng prison, accepted responsibility Tuesday during the second day of a UN-backed tribual for torturing and executing thousands of inmates at Toul Sleng. The small shrine, located 27 kilometers, (17 miles) south of Phnom Penh is one of many out of the way and forgotten monuments to the “Killing Fields.” (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)


The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen an increasing international concern with genocide alongside a broader interest in human rights. The Holocaust, in particular, has become central to the memorial cultures of many Western countries. Yet despite this awareness, and despite the UN’s genocide convention, the UN has not generally proven effective at intervening to prevent genocides in progress.

Action to intervene militarily in genocide under a UN mandate requires the consent of each of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Given the political divisions that have often existed between individual members, particularly, but not only, during the Cold War, gaining the unanimous agreement of the Security Council has proven difficult. At times, indeed, each of the five permanent member states has enjoyed good, protective relations with regimes suspected of perpetrating genocide, including, for instance: China and Russia with Sudan during the attacks in the early 21st century on various ethnic groups in Darfur, primarily the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa peoples, by armed militias supported by the Islamist Khartoum government; the United States with Indonesia during the state’s attack on Indonesian leftists in the 1960s and 1970s and during the occupation of East Timor (now Timor-Leste) in the 1970s and 1980s; and Britain with Iraq during the Saddam Hussein regime´s assault on the Kurds and other groups during the 1980s. Further, the evidence points to a distinct lack of will for forceful intervention by the most powerful UN member states under any circumstances. This is in large part due to the reluctance of member states to risk their own soldiers in matters not considered to be of direct national interest.

Up to the time of writing, the armed intervention in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s (tellingly by US-led NATO forces rather than the UN-mandated force technically required under international law) looks more like the exception than the rule in the limited response of the international community to genocide. Many commentators have observed that the lacklustre international response to the genocide in Sudan, as to the earlier Rwandan genocide (occurring at approximately the same time as the Yugoslavian crisis), and to the massive inter-group destruction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (see Post-Independence African Wars), suggests that the most powerful states in the UN, and the West more generally, are less concerned with the mass murder of Africans than they are of Europeans in closer cultural and physical proximity to themselves.

More progress has been made on the matter of punishment for genocide in the legal sphere than in the matter of intervention or prevention of genocide in the political-military sphere. The formation of ad hoc international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (at The Hague, in the Netherlands) and for Rwanda (at Arusha, in Tanzania), and elsewhere, and the institution of an International Criminal Court sitting permanently at The Hague, mark significant advances both in bringing perpetrators to justice and in the jurisprudence of international law. The trial at The Hague of the erstwhile president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Miloševic, from 2002-2006 was, for instance, the first trial for genocide (alongside other charges) of a former head of state. The first successful conviction before an international court for the crime of genocide came in 1998 when Jean-Paul Akayesu was found guilty for actions committed while he was mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba.

The successes and the very existence of the international courts illustrate the contemporary awareness of the significance of genocide and a determination, in principle, to punish the authors and agents of the crime. However, the question of who is brought to trial still frequently depends on the international political constellation. It is also, clearly, easier for states to lend moral and financial support to a legal venture than to lend military support for forces of intervention and occupation. Accordingly, the trial of some perpetrators of genocide may be not so much a compliment to armed intervention as a substitute for it. Whether or not this is so, the ongoing instances of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other, related crimes in today’s world suggest that the genocide convention and the international legal infrastructure have done little to deter would-be perpetrators. See also International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Contributed By:
Donald Bloxham