Genocide Essay

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History is replete with instances of genocide— the intentional elimination of a minority group. Throughout time, states have resorted to the mass killing of people in order to secure their own position. Examples include the 1915 Armenian genocide, the 1988 Kurdish genocide, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and most notably, the Holocaust of 1939 to 1945, among many others. Historically, most episodes of genocide were ignored by other nations and the perpetrators were not held accountable for their actions. This lack of an international response was most likely linked to the notion of national sovereignty, a concept commonly interpreted to mean that a state could not be held accountable for its actions by other states.

Even after the United Nations (UN) Genocide Convention was ratified in 1950, little attention was paid to the agreements made in the convention when faced with genocide. The world was mired in the Cold War and communism was seen by the United States and much of the world as the predominant threat. The interest in genocide generated by World War II and the Holocaust quickly faded. Thus, the study of genocide came to an abrupt halt and it stayed in limbo for several years. During this period there were episodes of crimes against humanity that might have risen to the level of genocide. However, no signatory nation to the Genocide Convention raised any concern over these instances. Examples include the Soviet Union’s Gulag camps and the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge.

Defining Genocide

In any examination of genocide it must be decided how the word genocide is to be defined. The definitional debate over the word genocide is important because many governments and scholars, instead of fighting genocide, often become trapped in an argument over whether certain acts are “technically” genocide. While the definition of acts of genocide is crucial to any legal response it is less vital to international intervention because even if the acts fail to meet the legal criteria of genocide, most often it is still a crime against humanity, which has a broader definition. The term genocide was created by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944. Lemkin formed the word genocide by combining the Greek word genos meaning race or tribe and the Latin word cide meaning killing. For Lemkin, genocide is the annihilation of a national group; the killings may be directed at individuals, but the broader purpose is to eliminate the entire group to which that person belongs. The UN with the aid of Lemkin formed an official definition of genocide in its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, 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, and (5) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. This definition has been attacked almost from its inception as being too weak and requiring too strict of an intent requirement in order for genocide to have been committed legally. The main attack on the UN definition is the exclusion of political groups and social groups. By excluding political groups from the UN definition several episodes of mass violence cannot be considered genocide. The exclusion of social groups means that the elimination of homosexuals, the mentally ill, and the mentally retarded by the Nazis would not be punishable as genocide.

Social scientists have created their own definitions of genocide by focusing more on the intentional elimination of a group, regardless of the reason for targeting the group. Broadening the definition of genocide often covers political and social groups but may dilute its severity if applied too broadly. The ongoing debate over how to define genocide is crucial to the field of genocide studies because it involves more than just semantics. The definitional debate highlights the immaturity of the field as a whole.

Disciplines of Genocide

Genocide is a topic that cuts across many different fields of study. Scholars from law, psychology, political science, sociology, and criminology have analyzed genocide. These various fields offer distinct views of genocide as a phenomenon. The legal field is concerned with the legal challenges involved in the enforcement of the UN Convention on Genocide and finding justice after genocide occurs. Legal scholars have focused their research on three main issues in the prosecution and enforcement of genocide statutes—intent (a specific intent to eliminate an entire group), sovereign immunity (a nation’s right to be free of interference from other nations), and universal jurisdiction (the ability to try a defendant in any country).

Psychology uses individual-based variables such as personality traits and disorders and cognitive characteristics to analyze individual behavior during genocide. Some psychologists argue that people are willing to override their inhibition to harm others when there is an authority figure present. Obedience to power has a strong influence on people’s behavior. Political scientists are concerned with the effect of genocide on a state’s political structure and vice versa. Political scientists have analyzed and supported the idea that genocide is a crime committed by the state. The political structure of the state is a contributing factor in genocide worldwide; the political nature of genocide cannot be ignored. Sociologists’ main objective is to analyze genocide as a social event and to understand the structural and cultural factors involved in genocide. Sociologists have focused their attention on the concepts of ethnic conflict and the social norm of violence (including groupthink) to examine genocide. Criminology and criminal justice often ignored genocide, leaving it to other disciplines, but that has been changing recently with more attention to genocide as an international crime. No one field can claim dominion over genocide; there are too many prisms that can be used to study the topic. Taken separately these fields offer useful information on a single dimension of genocide. However, taken together these studies greatly expand the understanding and possible response to genocide.

Preventing Genocide

Understanding how genocide emerges may influence the ability to prevent future genocides. For the most part, nations hesitate to intervene in another country’s affairs, even when genocide is involved. The UN is often assumed to have the power to intervene, but that can be stalled or prevented by a select few countries on the Security Council. Until nations around the world accept a responsibility to protect people outside of their own borders, genocide may not be preventable.

While no formula can predict genocide, there are many warning signs of impending violence. Being alert to these signals and responding with appropriate force, when necessary, may be the best way to prevent genocide. Unfortunately, few countries are interested in engaging militarily when genocide is occurring. This false barrier inhibits the preservation of life. For example, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 lasted 100 days. During this time, the UN failed to respond strongly or with adequate force to stop the killing. Due to reluctant nations not willing to intervene, nearly 800,000 people died in three months. With hindsight, many countries have apologized for not acting quicker, but the outcome still remains that people were being slaughtered while politicians debated the issues.

Since the political debacle that revolves around genocide creates delays, several grassroots organizations have arisen in an attempt to prevent genocide where possible or organize a nation’s polity to force their representatives to act. Lacking the constraints of politics, these organizations champion for intervention when needed, including militarily.

Punishing Genocide

Article VI of the UN Convention on Genocide provides that persons charged with genocide can be tried in the state where the act was committed or by an international court. Until 1994 there were no trials for genocide and the convention went unenforced. In 1994 the UN established the first international tribunals with jurisdiction over genocide—the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

Both the ICTY and ICTR were given the power to prosecute individuals accused of committing genocide in the civil war in Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda, respectively. The decisions from these courts created the first convictions for genocide under the UN Convention. The evolving law of genocide comes primarily from the ICTY and ICTR.

The purpose behind punishing genocide is multilayered. The courts hope to deter future genocides, assign blame for the prior bad acts, incapacitate offenders, and offer peace and justice to the victims. These goals can compete with each other, making it difficult to parcel out the specific rationale behind the punishments delivered. The statutes of the ICTY and ICTR do not permit the use of the death penalty; life imprisonment is the harshest possible punishment available. The lack of a death penalty has been controversial because both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda allowed for the death penalty in their nation’s criminal code. When determining sentences, the court is also to consider mitigating and aggravating factors; however, no definition of these terms is supplied. With several trial chambers holding court on multiple cases at the same time this can lead to disparate sentences for conviction of the most serious crimes known to the world.

Mitigating factors considered include age of the defendant, health, and level of participation. An older defendant with poor health was likely to receive a lighter punishment regardless of his conviction for genocide. Also, assistance given to the prosecutor’s office in other cases is grounds for reducing a sentence. While this may have positive effects on the success rate of the tribunal, it does not appease victims who see their attacker receive a slap on the wrist for killing their entire family. The use of mitigating factors, while common in criminal law, takes on a different dimension when the crimes are of such a serious nature.

Aggravating factors often included the level of violence used and the seriousness of the offense. When dealing with crimes against humanity and genocide though, it is difficult to rank seriousness of the offense—all of the offenses are of the very highest seriousness. Other aggravating factors include abuse of power or authority, thereby punishing state officials more harshly than average citizens. As genocide is almost always planned by state officials it is logical to punish them more harshly than others. Sentencing ranges at the ICTY have been between three and 46 years in prison with few life sentences. Sentencing ranges at the ICTR have been between 12 years and life imprisonment. Wide variations can be seen in the sentences at both tribunals. As the use of ad hoc tribunals like the ICTY and ICTR begins to vanish, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will have jurisdiction over genocide cases and ideally will create a uniform system of sentencing.


  1. Alvarez, Alex. Genocidal Crimes. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  2. Chalk, Frank and Kurt Jonassohn. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.
  3. Goldhagen, Daniel J. Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. New York: Public Affairs, 2009.
  4. Kiernan, Ben. Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination From Sparta to Darfur. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
  5. Power, S. “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Harper, 2002.
  6. Spencer, Philip. Genocide Since 1945. New York: Routledge, 2012.

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