What is genocide?

A Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, first devised the concept of genocide in response to atrocities perpetrated against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, which took place between 1915 and 1923.

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.

Dr James Smith speaks about the definition of genocide in one of our podcasts.

Atrocities against the Armenians and the development of the term 'genocide'

Between 1915 and 1923, the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire were systematically persecuted, deported from their homes and murdered. Following the Balkan Wars 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. Raphael Lemkin was so motivated by the lack of recognition and awareness of the crimes in Armenia that in 1933 he presented a paper to the League of Nations about the Crime of barbarity. The paper outlined a way in which the International Community could condemn the crimes and atrocities in the Ottoman Empire, and provided a basis to prosecute the perpetrators behind such crimes. This later evolved into the crime of genocide, with the term being recognised by the UN in a convention in 1946.

From 1946 onwards, the term genocide has been used to recognise the actions of a state-sponsored attempt to destroy a particular group of its people.

Find out more:

Read more about Raphael Lemkin.

Watch 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.