The language of genocide

1 May 2014 | ResolutionPossible


The word probably conjures up images of incomprehensible brutality, of lives violently cut short, families torn apart, communities and nations left in tatters.

One of the most famous photos of a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide, 1994

One of the most famous photos of a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide, 1994. [Image via ‘Hysterias in history’ on]

You’re less likely to picture crisply suited professionals meticulously poring over semantics, but this scene is as much a part of ‘genocide’ as the ugly, messy tragedy itself.

What’s in a name?

You may question the importance placed on something so apparently trivial as the name of an act or event, with academics, politicians and lawyers nit-picking over the boundary of where, when and how mass murder becomes the ultimate human crime.

However, inconsistency in the definition of genocide not only creates confusion in historical accounts, it also has significant political and legal implications.

Looking at the last century, for instance, some assert that there was only one act of genocide while others argue that there were a minimum of three events:

  • The killing of between 1 and 1.5 million of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915.
  • The Holocaust, during which more than 6,000,000 Jews were killed
  • The killing of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994

Here’s the legal definition of ‘genocide’:

“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; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

— Article 2, The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948 

Defining an event as genocide under international law makes the country in question and the international community as a whole responsible to take action against the aggressors.

The UN treaty has been controversial, heavily criticised for its narrow definition and difficulty to apply, and more specifically for:

  • Excluding targeted political and social groups
  • Limiting genocide to direct acts against people, and therefore excluding acts against the environment which sustains them or their cultural distinctiveness
  • Difficulty in proving intention beyond reasonable doubt
  • Hesitancy of UN member states to intervene – as evidenced by the case of Rwanda in 1994
  • Difficulty in defining, measuring, or establishing how many deaths are required to justify the status of genocide

So, it’s not just the definition that is complicated, but also the act of applying the definition to an event (which firstly requires an acknowledgement of the situation), which then requires action by sovereign states (usually intervention, and often controversial and unwelcomed).

This highlights a key problem with genocide: a lack of willingness to apply the label, with all its implications, to a war crime. The reluctance of the international community to define what was happening in Rwanda as genocide meant the atrocities were allowed to continue without intervention. This contributed in part to the development of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), a principle enshrined in Article 1 of the Genocide convention which embodies the principle of sovereignty as a State’s responsibility over the welfare of its people, rather than the traditional definition which saw sovereignty as a protection from foreign intervention.

Under this principle, the international community (through the United Nations) has a responsibility to protect populations from genocide and other war crimes (such as crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing).

Briefly, this means that all member states are prepared to take collective action through the Security Council and in accordance with the Charter. But this has conceptual, institutional, and political challenges.

Res Poss Asks:

As a citizen of a UN member state country:
How do you feel about the obligation of UN member states to intervene in foreign affairs under the Responsibility to Protect?

Consider the use of our resources, for example, military resources or the aid budget

Contributing writer/researcher: Megan Setchell 

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