Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of the Genocide Convention

Seventy years ago, the world came together and said some crimes against humanity were so heinous that they should never again be repeated. The world came together and wrote the Genocide Convention to prevent another Holocaust from occurring. On 9 December 1948, the Genocide Convention was adopted by the world. Yet, it has failed time and again leaving those who care to wonder whether “never again” really means never.

The Genocide Convention was based on the work of Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin was a lawyer of Jewish-Polish descent. He coined the word genocide which comes from the Greek word genos for “family, tribe, or race” and -cide from Latin for “killing.” Lemkin’s intention for the definition of genocide included political and cultural genocide. However, these concepts never made it into the official definition. Already, there was political maneuvering to prevent prosecution under the newly minted Genocide Convention. The Soviet Union refused to sign a version that included politicide because of their purges of political enemies in previous years. The United States balked at a version that included cultural genocide due to their treatment of indigenous peoples. In addition, genocide can take on forms other than killing according to the Genocide Convention. These include “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” and “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

Since the time of its signing, states have been using the intricacies of the definition to avoid responsibility either for their own actions, or for preventing a genocide from occurring. At the heart of the problem is the issue of intent. Countries can claim that there was no intention to destroy a people “in whole or in part” and therefore, no genocide is being committed. Often, euphemisms are used in an attempt to lessen the nature of the crime, such as “ethnic cleansing.” As a result, we have Rwanda and Bosnia to mention just a few of the genocides that have been completed while the world has argued whether genocide was truly occurring.

To date, only 149 states have ratified the Convention. This leaves 45 states that are members of the United Nations that have yet to sign. It is hard to imagine why such reluctance exists unless the remaining states are worried about prosecution for their own crimes. Notably, South Sudan has not ratified the Genocide Convention. Genocides continue to occur today as the international community stands by and debates. Victims of genocide don’t have time for the international community to come to a consensus. For example, the Rohingya are dying every day and the United Nations has agreed that “acts of genocide” are occurring. Yet the debate continues. This again seems to be maneuvering on the part of the international community to avoid their responsibilities under the Genocide Convention to punish and prevent the crime of genocide. Member states are concerned about breaching the sovereignty of another nation for fear that the same can be done the them.

Yet despite all its faults, the Genocide Convention remains a very important piece of international law. It is remarkable that so many nations could come together to agree on anything given the diversity of political systems and ideologies. This only underscores the importance of preventing genocide. Scholars have argued since its inception that the definition included in the Genocide Convention is inadequate. However, given the difficulty of having gotten nations to sign the Convention the first time, it seems highly unlikely that a second version of the Convention would be ratified by the international community.

This makes the work of the United Nations, governments, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations that much more important. Genocide follows a general pattern of development, and because of this, there are certain factors in common among genocides that can be used to predict when it is likely to occur. Organizations and scholars working on identifying such risk factors must be supported if we are to have any hope of preventing genocide in the future. The Center for Genocide Research and Education is working on identifying risk factors and creating models to help predict genocide. Please consider donating to our current fundraiser on our website. In addition, a renewed commitment is needed from the international community. Those member states that have not signed the Genocide Convention should do so immediately. Member states that have already signed the Genocide Convention should renew their commitment to prevent and punish genocide wherever it occurs. Only in this way can we make “never again” a reality.

About the author:

Christi Yoder is the Executive Director for the Center for Genocide Research and Education. Her research specializations include risk factors, sexual violence in genocide, and geographic information systems. She holds a M.A. in International Human Rights from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and is currently a Ph.D. student at Gratz College in Holocaust and Genocide Studies.