What is genocide?

The term ‘genocide’ was first used in 1933, in a paper presented to the League of Nations by the Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin. He devised the concept in response to the atrocities perpetrated against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1918.

On 11 December 1946 the General Assembly of the United Nations resolved that genocide was a crime under international law.  This was approved and ratified as a Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on 9 December 1948.  The Convention defines genocide as:
‘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 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

A number of specific actions have been deemed to be punishable under the Convention. These are:

  • genocide
  • conspiracy to commit genocide
  • direct and public incitement to commit genocide
  • attempt to commit genocide
  • complicity in genocide
Actions do not need to lead to deaths to be considered to be acts of genocide – causing serious bodily or mental harm or the deprivation of resources such as clean water, food, shelter or medical services can be regarded as inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction.  Causing serious bodily or mental harm includes the infliction of widespread torture, rape and sexual violence.  It is also a criminal offence to plan or incite genocide – even before the killing starts.  This recognises that genocide does not just happen.  There is always a path that leads to genocide.

Atrocities against the Armenians

Between 1915 and 1918, the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire were systematically persecuted, deported from their homes and murdered.  Following the Balkan War and start of the First World War, Armenian men, women and children were expelled and exterminated in an attempt to destroy their very existence.  The campaign was waged against Armenians following a period of deterioration in relations between ethnic groups in the Empire and a number of political and financial upheavals.
It is unknown exactly how many Armenians were murdered in this period but estimates range from 1.3 million to 1.9 million.  In 1933, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, was so motivated by the lack of recognition and awareness of the crimes in Armenia which occurred only a few years before, that he presented a paper to the League of Nations.  The paper outlined a way in which the International Community could condemn the crimes and atrocities in the Ottoman Empire, and provide a basis to prosecute the perpetrators behind such crimes.  It wasn’t until 1946 that the UN recognised the term genocide and affirmed the cause that Lemkin had dedicated his life to.  To date, the 1946 convention is still used to recognise the actions of a state-sponsored attempt to destroy a particular group of its people.   
If you would like to find out more about the atrocities in Armenia we recommend a number of books on our bibliography and you may find the Fergal Keane documentary in our film reviews of interest.  As part of a film for HMD 2011, we recorded the Untold Story of Astrid Aghajanian whose mother saved her from murder in Armenia by hiding beneath the bodies of those who had already been killed.   

The path to genocide

Genocide never just happens. There is always a set of circumstances which occur or which are created to build the climate in which genocide can take place.
Gregory H Stanton, President of Genocide Watch developed the 10 stages of genocide which explains the different stages which lead to genocide. At each of the earlier stages there is an opportunity for members of the community or the International Community to halt the stages and stop genocide before it happens. Click on the image below to download a PDF version.