Only in recent history has international law evolved to define and punish mass violence against civilians. Now well-established as the legal foundation for civilian protection against mass atrocities, two categories of international law that seek to criminalize genocide and crimes against humanity were developed in response to World War II and the Holocaust.
Below you will find a series of approachable articles and resources, including podcasts and eyewitness testimonies, that describe the evolving international framework for preventing and punishing genocide and crimes against humanity.
At the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg (1945-1946), legal teams from Allied nations prosecuted Nazi German leaders for attacks on civilians under the rubric of crimes against humanity, a formerly undefined general principle that became codified into enforceable law for the very first time. The IMT limited it in scope, however, to crimes committed in the context of international armed conflict.
Due in large parts to the efforts of Holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was unanimously adopted on December 9, 1948. The Convention established genocide as an international crime in times of both war and peace. The Convention’s definition of genocide is, however, strictly limited by the perpetrator’s “intent to destroy in whole or in part;” the characterization of the victim group; and the acts committed.
Although mass atrocities occurred in the decades following ratification, the Genocide Convention went unused and therefore untested. Not until the 1990s did the obligations of the Convention gain potency, spurred on by several international developments: the growth of professional human rights organizations with experience utilizing international legal tools to combat human rights abuses; the end of the Cold War, which enabled greater consensus in UN Security Council; and the persistence of extreme violence targeted against entire civilian groups, most notably in the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda.
In response, new mechanisms were created to hold individuals criminally responsible for violations of international laws of war, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994. On July 17, 1998, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was permanently established through treaty, which no longer limited crimes against humanity to the context of armed conflict. And, for the first time, an established forum for disputes between states, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), addressed countries’ obligations to prevent genocide.
Law grows through the setting of precedents. In other words, how judges apply the law helps determine what the law means. Through the judgments of these tribunals and courts, international law on genocide and crimes against humanity evolves, deepening our understanding of the crimes and our capacity to respond.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly voted unanimously to create the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. But how has the definition of genocide -- crafted through diplomatic negotiation -- become meaningful against real threats to civilian groups?
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is the first permanent judicial body set up to try individuals for the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
Watch testimony from some of the individuals who played significant roles in helping to develop international law on genocide and crimes against humanity. Alongside the testimony, view pieces of related evidence from our Museum’s collection and beyond.
Raphael Lemkin: A Polish-Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin fled Poland in 1939 and arrived in the U.S. where he introduced the word genocide and worked tirelessly on lobbying for the creation of a convention against genocide at the United Nations.
Senator William Proxmire: Between 1967 and 1986, Senator William Proxmire delivered 3,211 speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate arguing for the U.S. to sign the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Stephen Rapp: Appointed by President Obama in 2009 as the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen Rapp served as prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda from 2001 to 2006.
Diane Orentlicher, Deputy in the Office of War Crimes Issues in the U.S. Department of State: Orentlicher discusses how the Obama Administration is reengaging with the International Criminal Court.
International law expert William Schabas: Schabas discusses the decision of the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court to request an arrest warrant for President Bashir of Sudan.
Respected historian, author, and politican Michael Ignatieff: Ignatieff describes the history behind Raphael Lemkin’s important work naming the crime of genocide.
Speakers Series: To access our complete online archive of expert analysis on international law, filter by the theme “justice.”
Visit our pages again for updates, as international law on genocide and crimes against humanity continually grows.