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The crime of destroying or conspiring to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
Genocide can be committed in a number of ways, including killing members of a group or causing them serious mental or bodily harm, deliberately inflicting conditions that will bring about a group's physical destruction, imposing measures on a group to prevent births, and forcefully transferring children from one group to another.
Genocide is a modern term. Coined in 1944 by Polish scholar of International Law Raphael Lemkin, the word is a combination of the Greek genos (race) with the Latin cide (killing). In his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Lemkin offered the definition of "a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves" (Lemkin 1944, 79). The book studied in particular detail the methodology of the Nazi German genocide against European Jews, among whom were his parents. Later, he served as an advisor to both the U.S. War Department and the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi leaders for War Crimes. He dedicated his life to the development of international conventions against genocide.
The contemporary archetype of modern genocide is the Holocaust, in which German Nazis starved, tortured, and executed an estimated six million European Jews, as well as millions of other ethnic and social minorities, as part of an effort to develop a master Aryan race. Immediately upon coming to power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis began a systematic effort to eliminate Jews from economic life. The Nazis defined persons with three or four Jewish grandparents as being Jewish, regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliation with the Jewish community. Those with one or two Jewish grandparents were known as Mischlinge, or mixedbreeds. As non-Aryans, Jews and Mischlinge lost their jobs and their Aryan clients, and were forced to liquidate or sell their businesses.
With the onset of World War II in 1939, the Germans occupied the western half of Poland, forcing nearly two million Jews to move into crowded, captive ghettos. Many of these Jews died of starvation and disease. In 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Nazis dispatched 3,000 troops to kill Soviet Jews on the spot, most often by shooting them in ditches or ravines on the outskirts of cities and towns. Meanwhile, the Nazis began to organize what they termed a final solution to the Jewish question in Europe. German Jews were required to wear a yellow star stitched on their clothing and were deported to ghettos in Poland and the Soviet Union. Death camps equipped with massive gas chambers were constructed at several sites in occupied Poland, and large crematories were built to incinerate the bodies. Ultimately, the Nazis transported millions of Jews to concentration camps, in crowded freight trains. Many did not survive the journey. Once at the death camps, many more died from starvation, disease, shooting, or routine gassings, before Allied forces liberated the survivors and forced the Nazis to surrender in 1945.
Following the exterminations of World War II, the United Nations passed a resolution in an effort to prevent such atrocities in the future. Known as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (78 U.N.T.S. 278 [Dec. 9, 1948]), the resolution recognized genocide as an international crime and provided for its punishment. Proposed and partially formulated by Lemkin, who had lobbied nations tirelessly for its adoption, the convention also criminalized conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempted genocide, and complicity in genocide. Its definition of genocide specified that a person must intend to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Thus, casualties of war are not necessarily victims of genocide, even if they are all of the same national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. The convention requires signatory nations to enact laws to punish those found guilty of genocide, and allows any signatory state to ask the United Nations to help prevent and suppress acts of genocide. The convention was, by itself, ineffective. Article XI of the convention requires the United Nations' member countries to ratify the document, which many did not do for nearly 50 years. The United States did not ratify the convention until 1988. Before doing so, it conditioned its obligations on certain understandings: (1) that the phrase intent to destroy in the convention's definition of genocide means "a Specific Intent to destroy"; (2) that the term mental harm used in the convention as an example of a genocidal tactic, means "permanent impairment of mental faculties through drugs or torture"; (3) that an agreement to grant Extradition, which is part of the convention, extends only to acts recognized as criminal under both the country requesting extradition and the country to which the request is made; and (4) that acts in the course of armed conflict or war do not constitute genocide unless they are performed with the specific intent to destroy a group of people.
On November 4, 1988, the United States passed the Genocide Implementation Act of 1987 (18 U.S.C.A. § 1091 ). This act created "a new federal offense that prohibits the commission of acts with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group; and to provide adequate penalties for such acts" (S. Rep. No. 333, 100th Cong., 2d Sess. 1 , reprinted in 1988 U.S.C.C.A.N. 4156).
In 1990 the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) (8 U.S.C.A. § 1182), a comprehensive reform of immigration laws. As part of this reform, Congress mandated that Aliens guilty of genocide are excluded from entry into the United States, or deported when discovered. However, the INA lacks a clear definition of genocide, referring only to the U.N. convention drafted more than 40 years earlier.
The unclear definition of genocide makes its prevention and punishment difficult. Whether massive, and often barbaric, loss of life within ethnic, national, religious, or racial groups rises to the crime of genocide—or is simply an unpleasant by-product of war—is open to debate. Until international trials in the late 1990s, the Holocaust of Nazi Germany was the only example recognized throughout the international community as genocide.
Apart from the Holocaust, there have been a number of other events that at least some commentators have described as genocide. These include the devastation of numerous Native American tribes through battles with European settlers and exposure to their diseases; the killing of some 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks during and after World War I; the deaths of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979; the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians during the Vietnam War; the deaths of more than 20,000 Christian Orthodox Serbs, Muslims, and Roman Catholic Croats in "ethnic cleansing" arising out of the civil war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina during the early 1990s; and the deaths of more than one million Rwandan civilians in ethnic clashes between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples, also during the early 1990s.
During the 1990s, the United Nations Security Council twice convened international tribunals to prosecute genocide and other flagrant humanitarian violations. The International Criminal Tribunals for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and Rwanda (ICTR) were convened in 1993 in the Hague, the Netherlands, and in 1995 in Arusha, Tanzania, respectively. As the first courts of their type since World War II, their work, which sought to fix personal responsibility for mass murder, continued into the new millennium.
Given the vast scope and complicated nature of trying crimes of genocide, neither body has moved swiftly. By 2003, the ICTR had indicted 52 people and had completed nine trials stemming from the Rwanda slaughter, while also becoming the first international court in history to hand down a conviction for genocide. By comparison, the ICTY had indicted 87 people and had concluded 23 trials. During 2002, worldwide attention focused upon the opening of the ICTY's long-awaited trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, accused of ordering atrocities in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo at various times between 1991 and 2001. Arrested after flouting the tribunal's indictment for two years, Milosevic's delivery to the Hague in 2001 made him the highest-ranking European leader since the Nazi era to face trial for war crimes.
Humanitarians, politicians, and international legal scholars are struggling to find an effective way to prevent and punish genocide. Many have called for revising the genocide convention to better meet the needs of the current political, social, and economic environment, by creating a broader definition of genocide and establishing procedural guidelines. Still others have proposed international military intervention in order to prevent or stop genocide.
BBC News. 2003. "The Charges Against Milosevic." BBC News World Edition (February 20). Available online at <news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1402790.stm> (accessed November 12, 2003).
Chrisopoulos, Paul. J. 1995. "Giving Meaning to the Term 'Genocide' as It Applies to U.S. Immigration Policy." Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Journal (October).
Heidenrich, John G. 2001. "The Father of 'Genocide'—and Its Biggest Foe." Christian Science Monitor (June 27).
Kennicott, Philip. 2002."Nearly Nine Decades After the Massacres, a Battle Still Rages to Define 'Genocide'." The Washington Post (November 24).
Lemkin, Raphael. 1944. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation—Analysis of Government—Proposals for Redress. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Available online at <www.prevent genocide.org/lemkin/AxisRule1944-1.htm> (accessed November 20, 2003).
Yacoubian, George S., Jr. 2003. "Evaluating the Efficacy of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia." World Affairs 165 (January 1).