What Defines a Genocide?

(Last Updated On: February 3, 2020)

What Defines a Genocide?

The internet is making us increasingly aware of human rights violations all over the world. But genocides and impending genocides are pretty complicated cans of worms–as well as being some pretty serious allegations. In this post we’ll explore what exactly defines a genocide.

What Defines a Genocide? A Textbook Definition

If you take the dictionary definition of genocide, you get the “deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” The etymology comes from the Greek prefix “geno,” referring to race, and the suffix “-cide” referring to killing. Quite literally, “genocide” means “killer of races.”

The term “genocide” didn’t enter the English lexicon until WWII. For that we credit Raphael Lemkin, an author who left Warsaw in 1939 after German occupation. He made his way to the United States in 1941, publishing Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in 1944. In his book, Lemkin defines and outlines the first definitions of genocide. It would be Lemkin’s definition of genocide that would form the bases for the Nuremberg Trials

More On Lemkin

Despite being instrumental in the Nuremberg Trials’ operation, Lemkin was sorely disappointed–and for a lot of valid reasons. For starters, “genocide” had yet to be legally considered criminal, and as such many Nazi leaders were charged broadly with “crimes against humanity.” Only a few were punished directly for the Holocaust itself. Plus, the Nuremberg Trials didn’t focus on helping or giving reparations to those persecuted. You know, the Jewish people. 

The long short for Lemkin was that the “Allies decided a case in Nuremberg against a past Hitler–but refused to envisage future Hitlers.” So came his quest to make genocide an international crime, something Lemkin accomplished in 1948 when the UN declared it just that. 

The United Nations and Genocide

So yes, as we implied, the UN had a whole convention about genocide and there were treaties signed–coming into force in 1951. You can read the entire treaty here.

We’ll do quick rundown of the treaty articles, wherein the first article simply says that genocide is a crime that other nations should strive to prevent and also punish. 

Genocide at the time was defined as committing acts aimed to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Key note that you may have noticed, and Lemkin criticized the UN for, they did not include political groups. 

The outlined acts were, in case you were wondering, the following:

  • Killing members of those groups
  • Causing serious bodily harm to those groups
  • Inflicting life conditions “calculated to bring about [the groups’] physical destruction in whole or in part”
  • Preventing births within the persecuted group
  • Transferring children of the group to another group

Genocide became punishable not only as an act, but conspiring to commit or inciting it, as well as attempts to commit genocide. The UN also declared complicity in genocide as punishable as well. So that’s a pretty big step in the right direction at least.

There are some definitions of who can commit genocide, which basically includes everyone. There are articles defining the convention itself, like how many nations have to be in attendance and how ratification of the articles would work. 

Under these articles, no real punishments are actually laid out, simply that an offending nation be held to tribunal in the state the genocide was committed. Which is probably why people joke about the UN having all bark and no bite.

Genocide and Stages

Today, genocide is often defined by Dr. Gregory H. Stanton’s 10 stages. These stages aren’t really like steps on a ladder. While you’ll be able to see how they flow into one another, they don’t exactly have to be mutually exclusive. 

1. Classification

There becomes a clear “us vs. them” mentality towards the persecuted group.

2. Symbolization

Once you get an “us vs. them” there come symbols. Think slurs, forcing the persecuted to wear specific symbols. 

3. Discrimination

At this point, things get passed into law. The persecuted lose access to rights they once may have had. For example Nazis stripped the Jewish of their citizenship and employment rights.

4. Dehumanization

This one is exactly what it sounds like. The persecuted are seen as subhuman, hate speech and government-sponsored propaganda vilifies them and blames them for the nation’s issues. You know, blaming them for disrupting the job market, stuff like that.

5. Organization

Whether state-sponsored or not, plans for extermination begin to fester. If there is a war, civilian deaths are not distinguished between combatants. The state will turn a blind eye to violence against the persecuted as they not-so-subtly facilitate that violence. You know, like by sending weapons over and stuff.

6. Polarization

At this point, speaking out for the persecuted is silenced as propaganda ramps up further. At this point there effectively exist only two groups, those who are persecuting and those who are persecuted. Moderates are considered “traitors,” and also become persecuted, through arrest, or killings.

7. Preparation

Whispers and news of a genocidal plan comes to fruition. During the Holocaust this was the “final solution.” The perpetrating group frames their actions as an “ethnic cleansing” or “purifying” operation. Genocidal actions are framed as self defense and in the name of protecting the state.

8. Persecution

Members of the persecuted group are identified systematically. The killings and sterilization we outlined as the UNs definition of genocide come about. This is often considered the tipping point–the perpetrating state watches the international community. If there is no international outcry it essentially becomes a green light.

9. Extermination

This is where we get mass killings in a cold and systematic manner. Concentration camps become death camps, with the goal of completely destroying the targeted group. Some genocides are done piecemeal, like how only educated people were executed in Burundi

10. Denial

This stage often underpins and follows a genocide. All evidence of the genocide is erased, and those who would acknowledge the genocide are silenced. Throughout the genocide, there will also be denial, as that’s the only way to actually execute a genocide. But we didn’t really have to go into that. 

Genocide Today

Sadly, genocide is not gone from this world today. The list of countries at risk or currently executing a genocide is far longer than any of us would like. Suffice to say, it’s longer than one

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.