ORIGIN OF THE TERM “GENOCIDE”
The term “genocide” did not exist prior to 1944. It is a very specific term, referring to violent crimes committed against a group with the intent to destroy the existence of the group. Human rights, as laid out in the US Bill of Rights or the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, concern the rights of individuals.
In 1944, a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959) sought to describe Nazi policies of systematic murder, including the destruction of European Jews. He formed the word genocide by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with -cide, from the Latin word for killing. In proposing this new word, Lemkin had in mind “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” The next year, the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg, Germany, charged top Nazi officials with “crimes against humanity.” The word genocide was included in the indictment, but as a descriptive, not legal, term.
THE CRIME OF GENOCIDE
On December 9, 1948, in the shadow of the Holocaust and in no small part due to the tireless efforts of Lemkin himself, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention establishes genocide as an international crime, which signatory nations “undertake to prevent and punish.” It defines genocide as:
[A]ny 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 on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The specific “intent to destroy” particular groups is unique to genocide. A closely related category of international law, crimes against humanity, is defined as widespread or systematic attacks against civilians.
While many cases of group-targeted violence have occurred throughout history and even since the convention came into effect, the legal and international development of the term genocide is concentrated into two distinct historical periods: the time from its coining until its acceptance as international law (1944–48) and the time of its activation with the establishment of international criminal tribunals to prosecute persons responsible for committing it (1991–98). Preventing genocide, the other major obligation of the convention, remains a challenge that nations and individuals continue to face.