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The word genocide, from the Greek genos (race) and the Latin -cide (killing), was coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 to mean "the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group". This is also roughly the legal defintion adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 (see below). The original definition of genocide includes both killing of members of a group, but also other measures undertaken to end the group's collective existence, such as forced sterillization of group members or the removal of the group's children to be raised in other groups, which need not involve any killings at all.

In more recent years, however, some have taken to expand the meaning of the term to include killings on grounds other than those included in the original defintion, such as political killings. Many would argue that such an expansion is incorrect, and that other terms, such as democide, should be used instead. (See [1] for R.J. Rummel's discussion of history of the term.)

Genocide has occurred many times throughout human history.

Legal definition

Genocide is a crime under international law, under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, when it enters into force. The Convention (in article 2) defines genocide 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.

Genocide is generally recognized to be a crime of universal jurisdiction.

As well as being illegal under conventional international law, it is generally recognized that it genocide is a crime under customary international law as well, and has been since some time during World War II or possibly earlier.

The purpose of genocide

Governments commit genocide because they believe it will advance their political interests. Almost always their interests are held to be inseparable from their hold on power. Genocides are therefore attempts to strengthen a government's hold on power by eliminating and terrorizing groups that are perceived to be a threat. They are also an assertion of power that warns other potential political enemies to stay in line.

Often genocides are commited to make its citizenry more uniform. Many politicians have thought that it would be much easier to rule if everyone shared common beliefs, religion, habits, etc.

The individuals who participate in genocides may have personal motives, and it is not unlikely that many participate in the killings because they enjoy killing. But the opportunity to participate arises only if a genocide is already occuring, which can only be the case if a government believes it will serve its purposes.

Major cases of genocide

See also list of major cases of democide, which includes other cases of mass government killing.

  • Genocide by Chinese communist government.
    • The Chinese communist government killed members of many minority ethnic groups, including Uighurs, Tibetans and others.
    • The Chinese government continues to attempt to eradicate Tibetan culture by encouraging mass settlement of Han Chinese in Tibet, and by banning Tibetan religious activities.
  • Cambodia (1975-1979)
    • Groups that were target of genocide during Pol Pot's rule:
      • City dwellers
      • Chinese (200 thousands)
      • Vietnamese (150 thousands)
      • Buddhist monks (40-60 thousands)
      • Thai (12 thousands)
    • Pol Pot also murdered many other groups as part of a wider campaign of democide, such as intellectuals and professionals
  • Rwanda (April 1994)
    • Roughly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutus. See Rwanda/History.
  • Australia
    • Genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines.
    • Many argue that the removal of Aboriginal children from their families by the Australian government constituted genocide; see Stolen Generation

[1] Figures from R.J. Rummel, "Death by Government".
[2] Figure from Britannica
[3] Museum of Communism FAQ