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Genocide is a type of atrocity in general use referring to the deliberate and systematic destruction of an ethnic, cultural or political group. The term was coined by Raphael Lemkin[?] in 1944 from the roots genos (Greek for tribe or race) and -cide (Latin for killing). Lemkin campaigned for the international outlawing of genocide, which was achieved in 1951.

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Definition of Genocide The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948 and came into effect in January 1951. It contains an internationally-recognized definition of genocide which was incorporated into the national criminal legislation of many countries, and was also adopted by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Convention (in article 2) 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:"

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The first draft of the Convention included political killings but that language was removed at the insistence of the Soviet Union. The exclusion of social and political groups as targets of genocide in this legal definition has been criticized. In common usage of the word, these target groups are often included.

Common usage also sometimes equates genocide with state-sponsored mass murder, but genocide, as defined above, does not imply mass-murder (or any murder) nor is every instance of mass-murder necessarily genocide. Neither is the involvement of a government required. The word 'genocide' is also sometimes used in a much broader sense, as in "slavery was genocide", but this usage diverges from the legal definition set by the UN.

International law All signatories to the above mentioned convention are required to prevent and punish acts of genocide, both in peace and wartime, though some barriers make this enforcement difficult. Genocide is dealt with as an international matter, by the UN, and can never be treated as an internal affair of a country. Some legal opinion holds that; as well as being illegal under conventional international law[?], genocide is a crime under customary international law[?] as well, and has been since some time during World War II or possibly earlier. Acts of genocide are generally difficult to establish, for prosecution, since intent, demonstrating a chain of accountability, has to be established.

Related concepts Genocide is also called a crime against humanity, though the initial "definition" of that concept; established during the Nuremberg trials, was restricted to acts committed during wartime or directed against the peace and would therefore not have included all acts of genocide. As mentioned above; state-sponsored mass murder is sometimes equated with genocide. The more precise term for this is democide, though it is rarely used. Genocide is a common term referring to deliberate policies promoting mass killing. The term genocide, also generally carries an ethnic connotation, though the delineation of ethnic groups is easier to frame as simply 'foreign' to the culprit party.

Cultural genocide refers to the deliberate destruction of a culture, without necessarily attaining to the full criteria of genocide. This term has been criticized as inflammatory; trying to reap political benefit from the accusation of genocide, as issues dealing with genocide are serious and severe.

Major genocides (Presented in approximate chronological order)

Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) in France can be considered as a case of genocide.

North America

Genocide of Powhatans[?] by London Virginia Company 1610 - 1622
Lord Jeffrey Amherst approved spreading smallpox among Native Americans intentionally during the Pontiacs Rebellion[?] by distributing infected blankets.
See http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/amherst/lord_jeff (http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/amherst/lord_jeff).
Indian Removal resulted in the death of many thousands of Native Americans.
See Indian Massacres, Trail of Tears, Extermination of the Pequots in 1637.

English Genocide in Scotland

Genocide in the Highland Clearances:
The Highland Clearances occurred when the Jacobite rebellion[?] failed in the 18th Century, and the traditional Clan system in Scotland subsequently broke up.

English landlords, in partnership with ex-clan chiefs, 'encouraged', sometimes forcibly, the population to move off the land, which was then given over to sheep farming. The people were accommodated in poor crofts or small farms in coastal areas where the farming or fishing could not sustain the communities, or directly put on emigration ships. Together with a failure of the potato crop in the early 19th Century, this policy resulted in starvation, deaths, and a secondary clearance, when Scots either migrated voluntarily or were forcibly evicted, many to emigrate, to join the British army, or to join the growing urban cities in Lowland Scotland. In many areas there were small and large scale massacres and violence towards the indigenous people.

In modern times this would be known as Ethnic Cleansing, or genocide.

The Congo

Genocide in the Congo, prior to its being taken over by Belgium to form the Belgian Congo
Under the rule of King Leopold II, the Congo Free State suffered a great loss of life due to criminal indifference to its native inhabitants in the pursuit of increased rubber production.

Exploitation of the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, German Southwest Africa, Rhodesia, and South Africa paled in comparison to that in what later became the Belgian Congo. The most infamous example of this is the Congo Free State. The fortunes of King Leopold II, for instance, the famed philanthropist, abolitionist, and self-appointed sovereign of the Congo Free State, (1885)?76 times larger geographically than Belgium itself, and those of the multinational concessionary companies under his auspices, were mainly made on the proceeds of Congolese rubber, which had historically never been mass-produced in surplus quantities. Between 1880 and 1920 the population of the Congo thus halved; over 10 million "indolent natives" unaccustomed to the bourgeois ethos of labor productivity, were the victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion induced by over-work, and disease.

Mass-murder or genocide in the Congo Free State became a cause celèbre in the last years of the 19th century, and a great embarrassment to not only the king but also to Belgium, which had portrayed itself as progressive and attentive to human rights.

Australia: Tasmania's Aboriginal population was almost entirely wiped out in the 19th century. At least some died at the hands of settlers, many died from disease inadvertantly introduced by those settlers, and internal conflicts also occurred. The relative effects of those and other factors is a subject of strong historical and political debate, including whether it constituted genocide.

Some have argued that the removal of Aboriginal children from their families by the Australian government constituted genocide. See Stolen Generation

German genocide in Southwest Africa (1904 - 1907)

In 1985, the United Nation's Whitaker Report recognized the German attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of Southwest Africa as one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the twentieth century. In total, some 65,000 Herero (80 percent of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50 percent of the total Nama population) were killed. Characteristic of this genocide was death by starvation and the poisoning of wells for the Herero and Nama populations that were trapped in the Namib desert[?].

Many historians have stressed the the historic importance of these autrocities, tracing the evolution from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Hitler, from Southwest Africa to Auschwitz.

Armenian (1915-1923) genocide by the Young Turk[?] government

Approximately 0.6-1.5 millions Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were killed [2]. The Turkish government officially denies that there was any genocide, claiming that most of the Armenian deaths resulted from armed conflict, disease and famine during the turmoil of World War.
See also: Armenian Genocide

Nazi genocide before and during World War II (1933-1945).

Holocaust: approximately 11 million people killed, of which 6 million were Jews. [1]
Genocide also targeted at Gypsies (see Porajmos) and Slavs. Approximately 21 million Soviets, among them 7 million civilians, were killed in "Operation Barbarossa", the invasion of the Soviet Union. Civilians were rounded up and burned or shot in many cities conquered by the Nazis. Since the Slavs were considered "sub-human", this was ethnically targeted mass murder.
Nazis also killed other groups, such as those suffering from birth defects, mental retardation[?] or insanity; homosexuals, prostitutes and communists, as part of a wider mass murder.

Soviet Union

Ukrainians - Claims of 5 million civilians starved to death for refusing to cooperate with "collective farming" rules.
Some argue that genocide took the form of man-made famines in 1932-33, particularly in Ukraine. Collectivization led to a drop in the already low productivity of Russian farming, which did not regain the NEP level until 1940, or allowing for the further disasters of World War II, 1950. These statistics, and the actual existence of these famines is debated though. Some argue that the famines were generally a hoax. That collectivization was not responsible for millions of deaths and the actual number of people who died of starvation was much lower and due to other causes. The 1932 dust bowl crisis which occurred not only in the USA, but also in India and the USSR, is commonly cited as one explanation.

Some have claimed that Stalin was planning a purge of elite Jews following the so-called "Doctor's Plot". These claims, though well publicized, have never been proven.

Note: Many historians dismiss reports of Soviet genocide, as in Ukraine, as anti-soviet propaganda. Some historians have argued that the millions of civilian killings done by the Soviet government should not be called "genocide" since the motivation for the murders is outside of the legal definition of genocide. No ethnic groups or classes, they argue, were targeted in particular. Sometimes the term politicide is instead used to describe targeted Soviet killings of particular ideological and political groups.

Japanese genocide before and during World War II (1920s-1945).

Nanjing Massacre: Some authorities claimed 300,000 people killed during the three months following the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese. Genocide targeted at Chinese at other places of China: Manchuria, the Wan Bao Hill Incident[?], Xiangyang[?].

Unit 731 conducted biological and chemical warfare experiments on living human

Smaller scale Genocide also targeted at Koreans, Filipinos, Dutch, Vietnamese, Indonesians and Burmese.

  • Chinese genocide before and during World War II

People's Republic of China

Some political groups, such as the Free Tibet movement[?], have claimed that the government of the People's Republic of China has committed genocide by killing members of several minority ethnic groups, including Uighurs, Tibetans and others during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Most scholars argue that this is not a case of genocide but simple famine, because while minority ethnic groups died, so did members of the majority Han Chinese, and at no time has the PRC government undertaken policies specifically to kill minority groups. Famine has been a cyclical, reoccurring phenonmenon in Chinese history for thousands of years.

China states that these charges help to indoctrinate impressionable youths in the Free Tibet movement and other groups with anti-China agendas.


In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor with the quiet approval of the USA, and its subjugation of that nation involved the deaths of thousands of civilians which has been estimated to be, in proportionate numbers, worse than the killings committed by the contemporary Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia.

Cambodia (1975-1979)

Murdered between 900,000 and 2 million of its civilians after the Vietnam War.
Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, murdered many other groups as part of a wider campaign of mass murder, such as intellectuals and professionals. An ennemy of Vietnam and the USSR, aided by the United Stated and Maoist China.
Groups that were target of genocide during Pol Pot's rule:

Sudan (1983)

The US government's Sudan Peace Act of October 21, 2002 accused Sudan of genocide for killing more than 2 million civilians in the south during an ongoing civil war since 1983.


In 1988, Iraq used Sarin to kill the population of a Kurd village.

Bosnia (1992-1995)

Organized ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Muslims) throughout the period.
More than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in July 1995. See also History of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Rwanda (April 1994)

Roughly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutus. See History of Rwanda.

[1] Figures from R. J. Rummel, "Death by Government".
[2] Figure from Britannica

Further Reading

  • Problem from Hell America's Failure to Prevent Genocide</cite>, Samantha Power, Basic Books, 2002, hardcover, 640 pages, ISBN 0465061508

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