What is Genocide?

The most basic definition of the term “genocide” comes from the roots Raphael Lemkin used to create the word. The Greek word genos refers to a race or tribe of people while the Latin -cide means “to kill.” Just looking at the roots of Lemkin’s term, the simplest and most common definition of genocide comes forward: the killing of a group of people. It is easy to stop at this definition and many do simply because there is little time put into teaching the modern student just how intricate genocide is. Such intricacy is at the core of Genocide Studies, a field where genocide scholars strive to learn as much about the act as possible, often in order to prevent genocides from occurring.

So, if genocide is not simply the mass murder of a group of people, what is it? Under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide drafted in 1948, the crime of genocide was defined as:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The definition above from the United Nations is a good start. It shows that genocide goes far beyond simply killing a group of people off. It involves the mental and emotional torture mass atrocities can bring upon their victims. It acknowledges the role of reproduction in genocide as well as the forced assimilation of victim groups into perpetrator groups. Perhaps most importantly, it acknowledges that genocide is not just limited to targeting a race of people.

The discussion as to whether the definition put forth by the United Nations is sufficient is a lively one. The definition of genocide within the field of Genocide Studies is as varied as the scholars themselves. One common point of agreement, though, has been the need for a less specific definition. I can say with full confidence that I support that idea. While making sure to include more than a single type of group, the United Nations limits the scope of who can be a genocide victim by saying “national, ethnical, racial or religious group[s].” This precludes any group who falls outside of those confines including (but certainly not limited to) political groups and cultural groups. This is an important point to address since the wording of the UN Convention allows perpetrators to avoid the label of genocide and the international response it mandates. This was key when the Convention was drafted as the Soviet Union explicitly opposed the inclusion of pollical groups – it was and remains one of history’s most prolific perpetrators of politicide.

I do not take much issue with the acts outlined in the Convention as means of committing genocide, but like with the definition of groups, the acts outlined preclude anything outside of those actions in a “letter of the law” sense. One such example of a potential budding genocide is in the Xinjiang Province of the People’s Republic of China. In Xinjiang, many of the actions taken during the genocides of indigenous people around the world are occurring, most notably the forcible relocation of children into orphanages where the children are being indoctrinated into the Chinese culture instead of their native Uyghur culture. Similarly, adults from the Uyghur community are being incarcerated in alleged reeducation camps. While the act of indoctrinating children is mentioned explicitly in the UN Convention, that very same language precludes the indoctrination of adults. There is also no mention of forced assimilation – the forcible incorporation of a victim group into a perpetrator group – which is a common act in genocides from Armenia to indigenous genocides in the Americas and Australia.

That brings us to the overarching question here: What is genocide? Genocide is the destruction or attempted destruction of a group or groups targeted by a perpetrator group. The destruction can be physical or cultural and include any act intended to destroy in whole or in part the existence of the group.

About the author:

Marcus Steiner is the Development Director for the Center for Genocide Research and Education. His research specializations include Comparative Genocide and Geographic Information Systems. He holds a Master of Arts in History with a Global focus from Arizona State University.