Genocide 101: What is Genocide?

In order to become a successful advocate against genocide, one must have a concrete understanding of what the crime of “genocide” is. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, first coined the term in 1944 when discussing the systematic destruction of minority groups under the Nazis. This mass killing, known as the Holocaust, claimed around 12 million lives from 1933 until 1945 and is one of the most widely known genocides. However, the Holocaust is far from being the first or last genocide in human history. While the exact number of genocides occurring before the Holocaust is unknown, there are accounts of mass killing campaigns in nations such as Australia, Haiti, and the Philippines occurring in the 19th and early 20th centuries and which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. After the Holocaust, there have been between 13 and 28 genocides, occurring all over the globe, that have claimed an estimated 18 million lives.

But what exactly is a genocide?

The United Nations defines the crime of genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. (United Nations

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1948)

While the previous actions indicate those that constitute the crime of genocide, political scientists and historians have denoted further characteristics of genocide that go beyond the basic definition of the crime. These characteristics help to further clarify the differences between genocide and other instances of mass killings. Such characteristics are:

Mostly non-combatants

Most of the victims need to be non-combatant or civilian, showing a will on behalf of the perpetrator to exterminate/wipe out a given population. In many cases, rebel groups comprised of a single ethnic group or religion have been targeted but in the vast majority of cases, the targeting of homogeneous rebel groups is done in tandem with targeting civilians of the same ethnic group (i.e. in Sri Lanka and Darfur).

High death toll

Genocides are identified by their elevated death tolls. Single acts of murder that can be used as fear tactics are not telling of a greater desire for extermination. Genocides, on the other hand, demonstrate higher death tolls which show a genuine desire for extermination on behalf of the perpetrator.

Protracted Campaign

The campaign of violence is usually, but not always, six months or longer. Genocides are made unique by the fact that they are not simply single massacres or brief instances of ethnic violence, but are calculated campaigns of extermination and oppression. Some genocides do take place within a short time period (for example, the Rwandan genocide occurred in 100 days), whereas some genocides are long, extended campaigns that can last for years (for example, the Guatemalan genocide was over 30 years long).

Knowing these characteristics is important for two reasons. First, it can help to identify past conflicts that are genocides, highlighting their importance and significance. Second, it helps to identify burgeoning conflicts as genocides so early advocacy can help stop them while in still their early stages.