The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
The Genocide Convention of 1948 makes it a crime to commit certain acts “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” The Convention lists five acts that can amount to genocide including “killing members of the group,” acts that would cause serious physical or mental harm to the group, and other acts that relate to the ability to have children so as to threaten the group’s future or existence. A person who performs these acts with the intent to destroy one of the groups listed above has committed a crime, regardless of whether they are the leader of a country or an ordinary citizen. Most countries have passed laws that incorporate the obligations of the Genocide Convention. In accepting these obligations, countries recognize genocide as a serious crime that they will try to prevent and punish. Nonetheless, many cases of group-targeted violence have occurred throughout history, even since the Genocide Convention came into effect.
Learn more about the history and meaning of the word “genocide” and the US government's decisions to declare that genocide has occurred.
The Rome Statute
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, mass atrocities continued to occur around the world. While the Genocide Convention of 1948 recognized the crime of genocide, and obliged states to work to prevent and punish the crime, it did not establish a permanent, international forum that could hear cases against people who had been accused of genocide or similar crimes. It was not until the 1990s that the United Nations Security Council set up two specialized tribunals for this very purpose: to try individuals accused of committing mass atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda.
In the late 1990s, interest grew in establishing a permanent, international court to try perpetrators of mass atrocities. Ben Ferencz and others who worked to create such a court hoped that it would deter future atrocity crimes and ensure that these crimes would no longer go unpunished.
In 1998, 120 countries signed the Rome Statute (PDF) to establish the International Criminal Court. In 2002 the treaty came into force when 60 countries had ratified it. The Statute gave the Court the power to try individuals for the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed after 2002 in cases where it has jurisdiction. These crimes were selected because they are considered to be the most serious international crimes of concern to the entire international community and thus deserving of international prosecution.