Genocide is a term used to describe violence against members of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group with the intent to destroy the entire group. The word came into general usage only after World War II when the full extent of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime against European Jews during that conflict became known. In 1948, the United Nations declared genocide to be an international crime; the term would later be applied to the horrific acts of violence committed during conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the African country of Rwanda in the 1990s.

What is Genocide?

The word “genocide” owes its existence to Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who fled the Nazi occupation of Poland and arrived in the United States in 1941. As a boy, Lemkin had been horrified when he learned of the Turkish massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I.

Lemkin later set out to come up with a term to describe Nazi crimes against European Jews during World War II and to enter that term into the world of international law in the hopes of preventing and punishing such horrific crimes against innocent people.

In 1944, he coined the term “genocide” by combining genos, the Greek word for race or tribe, with the Latin suffix cide (“to kill”).

Nuremberg Trials

In 1945, thanks in no small part to Lemkin’s efforts, “genocide” was included in the charter of the International Military Tribunal set up by the victorious Allied powers in Nuremberg, Germany.

The tribunal indicted and tried top Nazi officials for “crimes against humanity,” which included persecution on racial, religious or political grounds as well as inhumane acts committed against civilians (including genocide).

After the Nuremberg trials revealed the horrible extent of Nazi crimes, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution in 1946 making the crime of genocide punishable under international law.

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The Genocide Convention

In 1948, the United Nations approved its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), which defined genocide as any of a number of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

This included killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, inflicting conditions of life intended to bring about the group’s demise, imposing measures intended to prevent births (i.e., forced sterilization) or forcibly removing the group’s children.

Genocide’s “intent to destroy” separates it from other crimes of humanity such as ethnic cleansing, which aims at forcibly expelling a group from a geographic area (by killing, forced deportation and other methods).

The convention entered into force in 1951 and has since been ratified by more than 130 countries. Though the United States was one of the convention’s original signatories, the U.S. Senate did not ratify it until 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed it over strong opposition by those who felt it would limit U.S. sovereignty.

Though the CPPCG established an awareness that the evils of genocide existed, its actual effectiveness in stopping such crimes remained to be seen: Not one country invoked the convention from 1975 to 1979 when the Khmer Rouge regime killed some 1.7 million people in Cambodia (a country that had ratified the CPPCG in 1950).

Bosnian Genocide

In 1992, the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia, and Bosnian Serb leaders targeted both Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians for atrocious crimes. This resulted in the Bosnian Genocide and the deaths of some 100,000 people by 1995.

In 1993, the U.N. Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, in the Netherlands; it was the first international tribunal since Nuremberg and the first to have the mandate to prosecute the crime of genocide.

In its more than 20 years of operation, the ICTY indicted 161 individuals of crimes committed during the Balkan wars. Among the prominent leaders indicted were the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and the former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic.

While Milosevic died in prison in 2006 before his lengthy trial concluded, the ICTY convicted Karadzic of war crimes in 2016 and sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

And in 2017, in its final major prosecution, the ICTY found Mladic—known as the “Butcher of Bosnia” for his role in the wartime atrocities, including the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebenica in July 1995—guilty of genocide and other crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to life in prison.

Rwanda Genocide

From April to mid-July 1994, members of the Hutu majority in Rwanda murdered some 500,000 to 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority, with horrifying brutality and speed. As with the former Yugoslavia, the international community did little to stop the Rwandan Genocide while it was occurring, but that fall the U.N. expanded the mandate of the ICTY to include the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), located in Tanzania.

The Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals helped clarify exactly what types of actions could be classified as genocidal, as well as how criminal responsibility for these actions should be established. In 1998, the ICTR set the important precedent that systematic rape is in fact a crime of genocide; it also handed down the first conviction for genocide after a trial, that of the mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba.

The International Criminal Court (ICC)

An international statute signed in Rome in 1998 expanded the CCPG’s definition of genocide and applied it to times of both war and peace. The statute also established the International Criminal Court (ICC), which began sittings in 2002 at The Hague (without the participation of the U.S., China or Russia).

Since then, the ICC has dealt with cases against leaders in the Congo and in Sudan, where brutal acts committed since 2003 by the janjawid militia against civilians in the western region of Darfur have been condemned by numerous international officials (including former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell) as genocide.

Debate continues over the ICC’s rightful jurisdiction, as well as its ability to determine what exactly constitutes genocidal actions. For example, in the case of Darfur, some have argued that it is impossible to prove the intent to eradicate the existence of certain groups, as opposed to displacing them from disputed territory.

Despite such ongoing issues, the establishment of the ICC at the dawn of the 21st century reflected a growing international consensus behind efforts to prevent and punish the horrors of genocide.