What is genocide?

In 1933, the lawyer Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, urged the League of Nations to recognize mass atrocities against a particular group as an international crime. He cited mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I and other events in history. He was ignored. A few years later, the Nazi regime murdered more than six million Jews, including Lemkin’s own family. In 1943, Lemkin created a new word to describe such mass killing. He combined the Greek and Latin words, ‘geno’ (race or tribe) and ‘cide’ (killing). He proposed the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, approved in 1948.

Genocide does not only involve direct violence. It can involve creating conditions – such as starvation – that will kill people. It is usually committed by a government or a group of individuals with political and military power. The 1948 Convention has universal character because it confirms principles that are so fundamental that no nation may ignore them.

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:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

From Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

When is genocide possible?

Genocide is possible when the messages of hate from would-be perpetrators go unchallenged and when the people at risk fall outside the awareness – and/or the sense of moral obligation – of anyone who could help to ensure their protection. International decision-makers are likely to be quite well-informed about what is happening, but need pressure from constituencies – the public and the media – to encourage them to prioritise and to give them the leverage to act. The public doesn’t know what the media doesn’t tell it. And the media doesn’t cover if it’s difficult and no-one is interested. This can lend itself to a vicious cycle of isolation for the victims. Often much more important than international factors, though, are the constituencies of the decision-makers responsible for perpetrating mass atrocities. If the population or group they depend on to sustain their power does not accept their hate propaganda, and acts instead in accordance with basic human values, this can significantly impede or even halt the course of a genocide.


Breaking the mould

Aegis CEO Dr James Smith explains how Aegis uses peace education to break the thread that can lead to mass atrocities.

Genocide never happens by chance. It takes time to plan and organise. The warning signs are always there. Acting on them is vital if genocide is to be prevented, because its success depends on the inaction of people, organisations and governments capable of preventing or mitigating it. An ideology of exclusion. Minorities are at increased risk in an angry, frightened society looking for people to blame for economic crisis, political instability or war. Competition over resources, along with patterns of historical abuse or grievance, also heighten the danger. These conditions can foster the growth of exclusionary ideology; a set of ideas about the superiority of the majority, linked to hatred for a minority seen as a threat to security and success. The role of government. Extreme exclusion is almost always initiated by a dictatorship, using a perceived threat from the excluded group to unite the country behind it. However, democracy can give way to genocidal dictatorship, as it did in Weimar Germany in the 1930s and Rwanda in the 1960s. Propaganda. A group can’t be excluded from society without society’s acceptance. Genocidal propaganda aids that process. It stereotypes and dehumanises the target group’s members, reducing them to demons or beasts and promoting conspiracy theories about them. Print, broadcast or digital media may be set up to spread genocidal propaganda. In the run-up to genocide itself, it may be used to directly incite mass murder. Identification. Once society accepts exclusion of a group, practical steps follow. Group identity is fluid, so it has to be crudely simplified for its members to be isolated effectively. Commonly done through use of identification documents, it can extend to enforcement of badges on clothing, or it can be generalised to the point of assigning group identity to all people living in a particular geographic area. Social, economic and political exclusion. Having been singled out, members of a targetted minority may be partially or totally excluded from involvement in education, politics, employment, or the use of public services. Crimes against them may go unpunished. Their citizenship may be denied. They may be subjected to forced labour. As exclusion deepens, so does the risk of ethnic cleansing or genocide. Flight abroad. Any steps to exclude a minority may trigger flight abroad. A sharp increase or high numbers of refugees from a particular group in any country should always give rise to questions about the cause of their flight. It can be an early warning of the potential for mass atrocities or genocide. Paramilitary groups. Militias or paramilitary youth movements can promote exclusionary ideology and frighten political opponents. They may also play a major part in genocide itself. Their separation from government offers a degree of deniability. High unemployment can boost their rapid expansion. The Janjaweed in Darfur, the Interahamwe in Rwanda and a range of paramilitary groups in Bosnia were all involved in systematic mass murder. Disarmament. Particularly in societies where arms are widely available, disarmament of the excluded group – and armament of those who hate them – can lead to ethnic cleansing by attrition, or become a stepping-stone to full-scale genocide. Resistance. Armed opposition groups often emerge in an environment that is already genocidal. Full-scale genocide is then easier to mask as ‘counter-insurgency’ or ‘civil war’. In such situations, negotiations – which may be prioritised by the international community – are doomed unless international protection is provided for the target minority, perpetrators of mass atrocities are held to account, and the factors driving exclusion are addressed. Physical exclusion. Completion of ethnic cleansing or genocide often involves forced displacement of members of the target minority from their homes. They may be concentrated in locations where they can be easily controlled, or dispersed into a hostile natural environment, such as a desert, with little or no food or water. Total genocide. Sometimes a regime is not satisfied with partial destruction. It wants to ensure total annihilation. Nazi Germany achieved this by creating death camps in Poland for Europe’s Jews. Rwanda’s genocidaires achieved it by turning all territory under their control into a killing zone. Denial vs Memory. During and after mass murder, perpetrators seek to destroy the evidence, deny it, minimise it, or pretend it was something else; self defence, civil war or counter-insurgency. Since recognising the crime of genocide undermines ideas used to justify exclusion of the victims in the first place, would-be perpetrators the World over have an interest in genocide denial.
Over the past century, more than 200 million people died as a result of state-sponsored mass murder. In every generation, on every continent and in all societies, people have been targeted for annihilation simply because of who they were or what they believed.

In this section of our website we look at just some of the major instances of genocide and mass atrocities which have taken place since the early 1900s. This includes the slaughter of the Hereros in German Southwest Africa (now Namibia) in the early 1900s; the Armenian Genocide; the Rape of Nanking, and subsequent mass murder of Chinese civilians by Japanese forces; the Holocaust; the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; the Bosnian war; the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda; and the ongoing mass atrocities in Darfur, Sudan.

So much of the World seems to be in crisis so much of the time, it can be difficult pin-pointing where mass atrocities are most likely to occur next. As of 2013 some 17 countries were on Barbara Harff’s risk assessment for genocide – and the picture subsequently worsened with the emergence of groups like the so-called Islamic State.

The prevention of genocide and mass atrocities is a global mission, but Aegis does not currently have resources or capacity to address every situation relevant to that mission. We therefore have to make carefully considered strategic decisions about where to focus our efforts – taking particular account of where we have the most significant opportunities to facilitate meaningful change.

At present we are therefore focussed on extending our peacebuilding work from Rwanda to three other countries in proximity: Kenya, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. We also continue to monitor the situation in Sudan, which has been a focus of much of Aegis’ research and campaigning work since 2005.

Survivor testimony is at the heart of Aegis.
History comes to life through the first-hand testimony of survivors. Facts are revealed, stories told and lost lives restored to meaning.
The story-telling process is vitally important to survivors’ psychology – it helps to lift the emotional burden of the past. As a historical record, testimony reminds current and future generations of the reality of genocide, and is a reminder that it must never happen again.
Testimony is also crucial as evidence in the trials of perpetrators, bringing justice both for survivors and those who have perished.
In crisis situations, testimony from those at imminent risk can be used to help raise awareness in the international community that action must be taken – now.
If we are to understand the causes, circumstances and consequences of genocide, we must listen to the people involved.
Genocide Archive Rwanda

“If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”

Sign at the Ntarama Church genocide site, Rwanda, where approximately 5,000 men, women and children were murdered in 1994.

Over 250 million victims of mass murder in the 20th Century
Over 250 million die from smallpox during the 20th Century
When a vaccine was created which could wipe out smallpox
Years from having the means to using them to end smallpox
Genocide prevention via peacebuilding possible internationally

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