Genocide: Definition and Controversies
The definitional article included in the 1948 convention stipulates:
The critical element is the presence of an "intent to destroy", which can be either "in whole or in part", groups defined in terms of nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. Thus, the imposition of restrictions during the nineteen-sixties and seventies on reproduction in India, through forced sterilization in many instances, or the continuing restrictions in China, do not constitute genocidal policies as the intent is to restrict the size of groups, not to destroy existing groups in whole or in part. Policies implemented during the Third Reich respecting Jewish, Roma and Sinti groups, on the other hand, were quite clearly genocidal in terms of this article as there was a clearly stated policy indicating the presence of an intent to destroy them.. Members of all these groups were processed in extermination camps, were subjected to serious bodily and mental harm, and had conditions inflicted upon them intended to bring about their physical destruction, including starvation in ghettoes, and had measures applied to them intended to prevent births within the group (sterilization).
Many experts, legal and academic, consider these criteria deficient in various respects. Some consider that the criteria are insufficiently broad. For instance, it excludes the physical destruction of certain sub-groups that have regularly been the victims of extensive killing programs. Usually mentioned in this context are members of political or social classes, such as the bourgeoisie, the middle classes, the Kulaks and the intelligentsia. Also, the definition focuses on the physical destruction of the group. There have been many instances in which the group has physically survived but its cultural distinctiveness has been eradicated. A contemporary example is the destruction of Tibetan culture by the Chinese, or that of indigenous tribes in certain countries in South America, Paraguay and Brazil, for instance.
These and other deficiencies need to be understood in the context of the background to the passage of this convention. The term genocide is of recent derivation; etymologically, it combines the Greek for group, tribe-genos, with the Latin for killing-cide. In 1933, at a time when neither the extensiveness nor character of the barbarous practices subsequently carried out under the auspices of the Third Reich could have been foreseen, the jurist Raphael Lemkin submitted to the International Conference for Unification of Criminal Law a proposal to declare the destruction of racial, religious or social collectivities a crime in international law. In 1944 he published a monograph, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in which he detailed the exterminatory and other practices and policies pursued by the Third Reich and its allies. He went on to argue the case for the international regulation of the "practice of extermination of nations and ethnic groups," a practice which he referred to now as genocide. Lemkin was also instrumental in lobbying United Nations officials and representatives to secure the passage of a resolution by the General Assembly affirming that "genocide is a crime under international law which the civilized world condemns, and for the commission of which principals and accomplices are punishable." The matter was referred for consideration to the UN Economic and Social Council, their deliberations culminating with the signing of the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide (UNCG).
There are considerable disagreements among experts concerning whether a specific complex of behaviours merits the designation genocide, even leaving aside clear-cut instances of attempts at moral appropriation of the concept. There are various reasons for this. First, like any other legal instrument, it was the outcome of negotiations between parties that held conflicting views as to the proper scope of its constituent parts. On this, see the analysis by Leo Kuper in his Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981, Chapter 2. Although Article IX allows for disputes between parties to be adjudicated by the International Court of Justice, because accusations of genocide are invariable made by one state against another, this has never occurred. Consequently, there is no body of international law to clarify the parameters of the convention.
A second reason for uncertainty as to how the concept can be fitted to particular complexes of behaviour derives from the fact that the "ideal-typical" genocidal complex that Lemkin had in mind was the destruction of European Jewry. This instance of genocide was quite clearly also uppermost in the minds of those who drafted and negotiated the UNCG. Precisely because this particular instance was so central to the genesis of the UNCG, its application to other situations has been problematic. It is quite clear that the programs devised by the Nazi regime for the Final Solution of the Jewish Question lie at the extreme of any continuum of types of mass violence aimed at inflicting significant loss on members of particular groups, whether these be religious, national, ethnical or racial. Although the massacre of Armenians by the Turks during World War I, the destruction of the intelligentsia and others by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during 1975-1978, and the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s share some elements with the Nazi genocidal program, there are also important differences that call into question whether they meet the criteria specified by Article II of the UNCG.
[Source: S D Stein. "Genocide." In E Cashmore (ed.). Dictionary of Race and Ethnic Relations. Fourth Edition. London: Routledge, 1996]
Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 10/01/07 09:45:02
©S D Stein
Faculty of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences