Genocide is a type of atrocity. In general usage, the term refers to the deliberate and systematic destruction of an ethnic, cultural or political group. The word was coined by Polish Jew Raphael Lemkin in 1944 from the roots genos (Greek for tribe or race) and -cide (Latin for killing). Lemkin campaigned for the international outlawing of genocide, which was achieved in 1951.

Table of contents
1 Definition of Genocide
2 International law
3 Related concepts
4 Some alleged genocides in history
5 Further Reading
6 External links

Definition of Genocide

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948 and came into effect in January 1951. It contains an internationally-recognized definition of genocide which was incorporated into the national criminal legislation of many countries, and was also adopted by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Convention (in article 2) 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:"
(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 first draft of the Convention included political killings but that language was removed at the insistence of the Soviet Union. The exclusion of social and political groups as targets of genocide in this legal definition has been criticized. In common usage of the word, these target groups are often included.

Common usage also sometimes equates genocide with state-sponsored mass murder, but genocide, as defined above, does not imply mass-murder (or any murder) nor is every instance of mass-murder necessarily genocide. Neither is the involvement of a government required. The word 'genocide' is also sometimes used in a much broader sense, as in "slavery was genocide", but this usage diverges from the legal definition set by the UN.

International law

All signatories to the above mentioned convention are required to prevent and punish acts of genocide, both in peace and wartime, though some barriers make this enforcement difficult. Genocide is dealt with as an international matter, by the UN, and can never be treated as an internal affair of a country. It is commonly accepted that, at least since World War II, genocide has been illegal under customary international law as a peremptory norm, as well as under conventional international law. Acts of genocide are generally difficult to establish, for prosecution, since intent, demonstrating a chain of accountability, has to be established.

Related concepts

Genocide is also called a crime against humanity, though the initial "definition" of that concept; established during the Nuremberg trials, was restricted to acts committed during wartime or directed against the peace and would therefore not have included all acts of genocide. As mentioned above, state-sponsored mass murder is sometimes equated with genocide. Democide has been suggested as a more precise term for this, but it is rarely used. Genocide is a common term referring to deliberate policies promoting mass killing. The term genocide also generally carries an ethnic connotation, though the delineation of ethnic groups is easier to frame as simply 'foreign' to the culprit party.

Cultural genocide refers to the deliberate destruction of a culture, without necessarily attaining to the full criteria of genocide. This term has been criticized as inflammatory; trying to reap political benefit from the accusation of genocide, as issues dealing with genocide are serious and severe.

Some alleged genocides in history

(Presented in approximate chronological order)

Determining what historical events constitute a genocide and which are merely criminal or inhuman behavior is not a clearcut matter. Furthermore, in nearly every case where accusations of genocide have circulated, partisans of various sides have fiercely disputed the interpretation and details of the event, often to the point of promoting wildly different versions of the facts. An accusation of genocide is certainly not taken lightly and will almost always be controversial. The following list of alleged genocides should be understood in this context and not regarded as the final word on these subjects.


(Albigensian Crusade 1209-1229) can be considered as a case of genocide. It was carried out against the Cathar people, militarily and by use of the Inquisition.

North America

Genocide of Powhatans by London Virginia Company 1610 - 1622
Lord Jeffrey Amherst approved spreading smallpox among Native Americans intentionally during the Pontiac's Rebellion by distributing infected blankets.
Indian Removal resulted in the death of many thousands of Native Americans.
See Indian Massacres, Trail of Tears, Extermination of the Pequots in 1637.

The Congo

Genocide in the Congo Free State, prior to its being taken over by Belgium to form the Belgian Congo
Under the rule of King Leopold II, the Congo Free State suffered a great loss of life due to criminal indifference to its native inhabitants in the pursuit of increased rubber production.

Exploitation of the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, German Southwest Africa, Rhodesia, and South Africa paled in comparison to that in what later became the Belgian Congo. The most infamous example of this is the Congo Free State.

King Leopold II (of Belgium) was a famed philanthropist, abolitionist, and self-appointed sovereign of the Congo Free State, 76 times larger geographically than Belgium itself.

His fortunes, and those of the multinational concessionary companies under his auspices, were mainly made on the proceeds of Congolese rubber, which had historically never been mass-produced in surplus quantities.

Between 1880 and 1920 the population of the Congo halved; over 10 million "indolent natives" unaccustomed to the bourgeois ethos of labor productivity, were the victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion induced by over-work, and disease.

Mass-murder or genocide in the Congo Free State became a cause celèbre in the last years of the 19th century, and a great embarrassment to not only the King but also to Belgium, which had portrayed itself as progressive and attentive to human rights.


Tasmania's Aboriginal population was almost entirely wiped out in the 19th century. At least some died at the hands of settlers, many died from disease inadvertently introduced by those settlers, and internal conflicts also occurred. The relative effects of those and other factors is a subject of strong historical and political debate, including whether they constituted genocide.

Some have argued that the removal of Aboriginal children from their families by the Australian government constituted genocide. See Stolen Generation


Genocide in the Highland Clearances: The Highland Clearances can be traced to the consequences of the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in the 18th Century. The revenge of the English dealt a huge blow to the culture of the Highland people and the traditional Clan system in the Highlands of Scotland subsequently broke up. After the Battle of Culloden in 1746 the chiefs were impoverished, the language of the people (Gaelic) was proscribed and the wearing of tartan was forbidden.
From about 1792, estate landlords, some absentee, in partnership with impoverished ex-clan chiefs, 'encouraged', sometimes forcibly, the population to move off the land, which was then given over to sheep farming. The people were accommodated in poor crofts or small farms in coastal areas where the farming or fishing could not sustain the communities, or directly put on emigration ships. Together with a failure of the potato crop in the 19th Century, this policy resulted in starvation, deaths, and a secondary clearance, when Scots either migrated voluntarily or were forcibly evicted, many to emigrate, to join the British army, or to join the growing cities, like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, in Lowland Scotland. In many areas there were small and large scale massacres and violence towards the indigenous people.

As in the Australian example above, there are conflicting views about whether the process of change was genocide: there were social and historical factors at work, including the onset of industrialisation, development of a rational approach to economics, and moves to larger scale agriculture. The Clearances could be argued to be an inevitable collision between the economics of "improved" land use and an almost feudal way of life led by Gaelss who did not, for the most part, speak English.

Other people feel that what developed does meet the central definition of genocide (see Eric Richard The Highland Clearances Barlinn Books (2000), for an acknowledgement of both sides of this argument), involving the calculated destruction for economic as well as political reasons of groups leading a way of life which no longer "fitted in".

Highlanders were also seen as a threat to the established British Government, and there was already alarm about the French Revolution. In the context of centuries of resistance and intermittent intrusion from Scotland, some feel this was a further impetus to destroy the traditional way of life and to suppress any resistance to the changes that were taking place.

German genocide

in Southwest Africa (1904 - 1907)

In 1985, the United Nation's Whitaker Report recognized the German attempt to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples of Southwest Africa as one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the twentieth century. In total, some 65,000 Herero (80 percent of the total Herero population), and 10,000 Nama (50 percent of the total Nama population) were killed or perished. Characteristic of this genocide was death by starvation and the poisoning of wells for the Herero and Nama populations that were trapped in the Namib desert. The responsible German general was Lothar von Trotha

Many historians have stressed the historic importance of these atrocities, tracing the evolution from Kaiser Wilhelm II to Hitler, from Southwest Africa to Auschwitz.

German Nazi genocide before and during World War II (1933-1945).
Holocaust: approximately 11 million people killed, of which 6 million were Jews. [1]
Genocide also targeted at Gypsies (see Porajmos) and Slavs. Approximately 21 million Soviets, among them 7 million civilians, were killed in "Operation Barbarossa", the invasion of the Soviet Union. Civilians were rounded up and burned or shot in many cities conquered by the Nazis. Since the Slavs were considered "sub-human", this was ethnically targeted mass murder.
Nazis also killed other groups, such as those suffering from birth defects, mental retardation or insanity; homosexuals, prostitutes and communists, as part of a wider mass murder.


1915-1923) genocide by the Young Turk government
Approximately 0.6-1.5 millions Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were killed [2]. The Turkish government officially denies that there was any genocide, claiming that most of the Armenian deaths resulted from armed conflict, disease and famine during the turmoil of World War.
See also: Armenian Genocide

Soviet Union

Ukrainians - Claims of 5 million civilians starved to death for refusing to cooperate with "collective farming" rules.
Some argue that genocide took the form of man-made famines in 1932-33, particularly in Ukraine. Collectivization led to a drop in the already low productivity of Russian farming, which did not regain the NEP level until 1940, or allowing for the further disasters of World War II, 1950. The dispute includes, if the collectivization was responsible for famine and the actual number of victims.

Soviets targeted also following groups: Polish minority in Soviet Union,Crimean Tatars, Don Cossacks, Chechens, Volga Germans, Kalmyks, Meskhetians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Orthodox priests


genocide before and during World War II (1920s-1945).
Nanjing Massacre: Some authorities claimed 300,000 people killed during the three months following the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese. Genocide targeted at Chinese at other places of China: Manchuria, the Wan Bao Hill Incident, Xiangyang, and the Rape of Nanking.

Unit 731 conducted biological and chemical warfare experiments on living humans

Smaller scale Genocide also targeted at Koreans, Filipinos, Dutch, Vietnamese, Indonesians and Burmese.

People's Republic of China

Some political groups, such as the Free Tibet movement, have claimed that the government of the People's Republic of China has committed genocide by killing members of several minority ethnic groups, including Uighurs, Tibetans and others during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Most scholars argue that this is not a case of genocide but simple famine, because while minority ethnic groups died, so did members of the majority Han Chinese, and at no time has the PRC government undertaken policies specifically to kill minority groups. Famine has been a cyclical, reoccurring phenonmenon in Chinese history for thousands of years.

China states that these charges help to indoctrinate impressionable youths in the Free Tibet movement and other groups with anti-China agendas.


In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor with the quiet approval of the USA, and its subjugation of that nation involved the deaths of thousands of civilians which has been estimated to be, in proportionate numbers, worse than the killings committed by the contemporary Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia.


Murdered between 900,000 and 2 million of its civilians after the Vietnam War.
Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, murdered many other groups as part of a wider campaign of mass murder, such as intellectuals and professionals. Some people view the Western democracies and Communist China as complicit in the encouragemnt and support of the Khmer Rouge.
Groups that were target of genocide during Pol Pot's rule:

  • Chinese (200 thousands)
  • Vietnamese (150 thousands)
  • Buddhist monks (40-60 thousands)
  • Thai (12 thousands)


The US government's Sudan Peace Act of October 21, 2002 accused Sudan of genocide for killing more than 2 million civilians in the south during an ongoing civil war since 1983.


There exist six major crime periods:
1983 attacks on Kurds;
  • 1988 campaign against Kurds;
  • Chemical weapons attacks on Kurds 1986-88 (: Saddam Hussein's forces allegedly used Sarin to kill the population of a Kurd village. Some analysts, however, insist this atrocity was committed by Iran. See Halabja poison gas attack for a full discussion);
  • The 1991 crushing of a southern Shi'ite revolt;
  • 1991 crushing of Kurdish insurrection;
  • Crimes against all sectors of the population during the entire period of Baath rule.

  • Bosnia

    Organized ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks throughout the period.
    More than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica in July 1995. See also History of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


    (April 1994)
    Roughly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutus. See History of Rwanda.


    (February-March 2002)
    About 800 or more than 2000 people (views differ on the numbers of victims), mostly Muslims, were killed throughout Gujarat, a state in India, during the 2002 Gujarat violence. This is considered by some people to satisfy the international legal definition of genocide, with the Sangh Parivar considered responsible for the systematic nature of the killings, while others consider the killings to have been spontaneous and uncontrolled.

    [1] Figures from R. J. Rummel, "Death by Government".
    [2] Figure from Britannica

    Further Reading

    • Problem from Hell America's Failure to Prevent Genocide, Samantha Power, Basic Books, 2002, hardcover, 640 pages, ISBN 0465061508
    • Eric Richard, The Highland Clearances, Barlinn Books, 2000
    • See Genocide and Democracy in Cambodia: The Khmer Rouge, the U.N., and the International Community, Edited by Ben Kiernan. 335 pp. (1993).

    External links