Why Learn About Genocide?


Prepared by Amy Fagin

GENOCIDE: One Essential Question Every Student Should Ask.

Why is genocide important to study?

Five Important Reasons to Study Genocide

a. Exploring the history of genocide can provide insight into the origins of social behaviors which lead up to mass murder: i.e.: prejudices; stereotypes; racisms; religious hatreds; ethnic hatreds and discriminations which, if tolerated as acceptable within a group can, in certain situations, lead up to and result in genocide.

b. To attempt to understand why genocide is perpetrated: Genocide has been perpetrated at least as long as humans have been recording history. It remains a social pathology which continues to claim victims to the present day. To explore “why” genocide has occurred can elucidate the conditions of economy, political groups and social customs which could have contributed to the polarization of different groups within a region. One can further determine the roles that natural resources, despotism, ideology or retribution play in forming the catalysts of mass destruction of groups.

c. A course of study in genocide can initiate a deeper understanding of human rights and their violations around the world: This course of study can also initiate understanding of personal responsibilities and the dangers of remaining silent; apathetic or indifferent to the suffering or witnessing of violence to others.

d. Study of the history of genocide can be understood within the context of international law and how it has evolved this past century: Study of the development of international criminal law and human rights can further the growth of international institutions dedicated to prevention and punishment of these crimes against humanity.

e. Prevention through education: Every human being has the potential to violate another person. Grappling with “why” genocide occurs enables insightful perspective, and comparative analysis of prejudicial behaviors around the world and how the individual participates either as a perpetrator; bystander or victim.

5 Essential Issues Every Student Should Understand


1. Genocide: The Origin of the Term and Raphael Lemkin

“No history of genocide would be complete without acknowledgment of the significant efforts and accomplishments of Raphael Lemkin (1900 – 1959).” Samuel Totten Teaching About Genocide 2004. Lemkin, a Polish, Jewish international lawyer lost his family in the Holocaust and coined the term genocide from the Greek term genos (meaning “race” or “group”) and the Latin ending:…cide (meaning killing). In his youth, the Armenian genocide had a profound effect on his conscience. In his own words: “Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual? I didn’t know all the answers, but I felt that a law against this type of racial or religious murder must be adopted by the world.” Lemkin’s work and influence in drafting international law which would “outlaw the destruction of national, racial, and religious groups” led to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which was adopted on December 9, 1948.

2. UN Convention on Genocide and the Ambiguities with the Definition

The UN Convention’s definition of genocide is outlined as the following: Genocide means any of the following acts committed with the 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.

One of the key, arguable problems with the UN Convention’s definition regards the exclusion of political and social groups from criminal implications of these actions. This exclusion has caused much debate and criticism among scholars and governments

Another point of contention in this legal definition is the use of the word “intent”. As opposed to “motive”, the word “intent” diffuses the criteria under which a motive can be established.

3. Case Studies and What We Can Learn from Understanding a Specific or Comparative Case of Genocide.

A descriptive breakdown of how genocide unfolds can help to determine the fault lines along which a society has polarized so that efforts toward restoration of the health of the community can be determined. Questions such as the following are important to consider when studying a specific or comparative genocide: What is the general background of the society (its economic, cultural or political atmosphere) and what emerging violence has been perpetrated? Who are the perpetrators and their collaborators, who are the victims, rescuers and bystanders? What “plan” was implemented to commit mass murder and what were the means and results? What has transpired since the atrocity to the survivors? Have there been trials, tribunals transitional justice or punishment of the criminals? Is there denial? What are the long range repercussions? Finally, can exploring these components of a mass atrocity lead to prevention in “at risk” areas of the world?

4. Development of Human Rights Laws and International Criminal Law

Human Rights concerns only entered into an era of international accountability with the end of World War II. The overwhelming evidence of Nazi crimes and the implementation of mass murder as state policy was a blatant violation of articles 3 and 6 of the “Atlantic Charter” (1941, where it is declared that all people have a right to self- determination and freedom from fear in their own lands). A plan for the “Trial of European War Criminals” formulated into a legal document with the laws and procedures known as the “London Charter” which was issued on August 8, 1945. The trials were held in Nuremberg, Germany and are commonly known as the “Nuremberg Trials”. Held before the “International Military Tribunal”, three sets of trials ensued. The first of these the “Trial of the Major War Criminals” tried 22 of the most important captured leaders of Nazi Germany, the second set of trials included the “Doctors’ Trial” and “Judges’ Trial”. The “Subsequent Trials” tried surviving members of military, political and economic leadership of Nazi Germany.

The “Nuremberg Trials” directly influenced the development of international criminal law in the following areas:

The trials served as a model for the UN Genocide Convention of 1948 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 as well as the International Law Commission’s report “Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Judgment of the Tribunal”.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMFTE) (also known as the Tokyo War Crimes Trials.) was a second monumental international tribunal to address the mass crimes perpetrated by the leaders of Japan who had planned and directed the war. Based on the model charter set by the Nuremberg Trials the IMFTE was established by special proclamation issued by General MacArthur on January 19, 1946.

The Nuremberg Trials and Tokyo War Crimes Trials initiated a prompt movement for the establishment of a permanent international criminal court.

5. Development of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Transitional Justice Initiatives

The Ad Hoc trials of the “International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ITCY) in 1993 and the “International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda” (in 1994) were established by the UN Security Council to try the leaders of the mass killings for these two genocides. At this same time the International Law Commission commenced preparatory work for a permanent “International Criminal Court”. Following years of negotiations the UN General Assembly convened a 5 week diplomatic conference in Rome in June 1998, commonly known as “The Rome Statute” to “finalize and adopt a convention on the establishment of an international criminal court”. The ICC hosted its inaugural session of the court on March 1, 2003. The court issued its first arrest warrants on July 8, 2005. As of August 2010, 113 countries have joined the court, including nearly all of Europe and South America, and roughly half the countries of Africa. 35 sovereign nations have signed but not ratified the Rome Statute. Three of these states – Israel, the United States and Sudan – have “unsigned” the Rome Statute, indicating that they no longer intend to become states parties, and, as such, have no legal obligations arising from their signature of the stature.

The field of transitional justice is relatively new, emerging in the wake of the cold war. Transitional Justice is often defined as the process of redressing past wrongs committed in states shifting from a violent, authoritarian past toward a more liberal, democratic future. It is linked to a set of practices (prosecutions, truth commissions, memorialization, lustration and vetting, reparation, amnesties and pardons). Alexander Hinton: Transitional Justice / Global Mechanisms and Local Realities after Genocide and Mass Violence 2010. Frictions in transitional justice methods often emerge out of the local realities vs. the global construct of systems designed to address mass atrocity crimes.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for your excellent blog, it is alawys an essential read.I have just read your article on the Genocide Convention, which was very interesting. I have just a few thoughts though. I agree that the process of defining genocide was not arbitrary, since, the exclusion of economic, political and social groups did produce a great deal of debate during the drafting process. However, I thought that the decision to exclude these groups was, in part, a political concession to protect certain leaders from liability?Also, my problem with the logic of the definition of genocide in the Convention is that different people murdered in the same atrocity are not treated in the same way. For example, a trade unionist killed in a concentration camp alongside a Jewish person would not be considered a victim of genocide, even though the wrong done to them is equally horrific. To take a more recent example, like the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, a large number of victims do not fall under the definition of the Convention as they were intellectuals or members of political groups. This would have caused a great deal of confusion if DK leaders had been prosecuted for genocide, as the court would have overlooked the murder of people from these groups, so denying their families justice. Thanks once again.Alex