6 Nov 2016

Text: Corinna / Translation: Miriam & Daniel


(Greek: genós – race, people/ lat.: caedere – to kill)

The word genocide is derived from the Greek genós (race, people) and the Latin caedere (to kill). It was coined in 1944 by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raffael Lemkin in his book ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe”. In his book, he states his fear that there was no established law that could be cited to punish those responsible for the massacre of the Armenians during the First World War. He describes his shock at the fact that an entire nation of people was murdered, whilst the people responsible were essentially exonerated. Why should the murder of millions of people be regarded as ‘less grievous’ than the murder of one individual?1


Nowadays, genocide is defined as the extermination of a group of people with specific traits, and is deemed illegal under international law. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)’s verdict in the trial of former Rwandan president, Jean Kambanda, declares genocide to be ‘the crime of all crimes’.2

After the end of the Second World War and the subsequent founding of the United Nations in 1945, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) was ratified on the 9th December 1948 after strong insistence by Lemkin. The CPPCG was established so that any future atrocities similar to the Holocaust would be prevented, and the judgement of any group who would attempt such acts could be ensured. The Convention came into effect on the 12th January 1951 and has since been ratified by 140 States.3

Article 2 of the convention 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.

#War & #Peace

Genocide can occur in both wartime and times of peace. It is a one-sided form of mass murder, where the victims are defenceless civilians. The State itself is often the perpetrator of acts of genocide, and they often deploy all possible resources towards the destruction of the targeted group.


But what motivates groups or individuals to murder thousands, even millions, of people? According to Helen Fein, there following four reasons are often the motives for genocide:

# Developmental Genocide: the perpetrator wants to gain control of a particular region for personal gain i.e. increased economic prosperity.

# Despotic Genocide: the perpetrator wants to destroy the victim group, as they are deemed to be an obstacle in the way of the perpetrator’s absolute authority and control.

# Retributive Genocide: the perpetrating group fears that its own continued existence is jeopardised by the existence of another group. The perpetrator therefore feels that it must eliminate the ‘threat’.

# Ideological Genocide: the motivation in this instance is to create a master race or utopian society, in which the victim group is deemed to have no place. A particular religion, philosophy or ideology is spread as a result.4

Social scientists Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn view Ideology as the dominant motivation for genocide, and that it will play the largest role in future events.

The perpetrator of genocide often views it as the ‘final solution’ to their problems. After ‘rational’ consideration of their social, economic and ideological problems and weighing up all other viable options, it is ultimately felt by the perpetrator that the killing of thousands of people is the sole solution.5

Given that genocide is often embedded in a wartime context, war itself is, according to Martin Shaw, a good disguise for a genocide – as it instils and legitimises violence, hatred and fear of the enemy. In times of war, the State has the ability to deploy both military and paramilitary resources not only against opposing forces, but also against defenceless civilians. In both cases the “enemy” is the direct target, regardless of whether or not they actually pose a threat. However, it is worth noting that not all wars end in genocide and, conversely, there are cases of genocide that have occurred after a war has ended.6


Internationaler Strafgerichtshof für Ruanda (1998) Gerichtsurteil vom 04.09.1998 gegen Jean Kambanda. Fallnummer ICTR 97-23-S. Abrufbar unter: http://unictr.org/Portals/0/Case/English/Kambanda/decisions/kambanda.pdf (Stand 03.06.2014)
Jones, A. (2010) Genocide – A comprehensive Introduction. 2nd edition. London and New York: Routledge.
Spencer, P. (2012) Genocide since 1945 – Making of the Contemporary World. London and New York: Routledge.
Vereinte Nationen (1948) „Übereinkommen über die Verhütung und Bestrafung des Völkermordes“. Abrufbar unter http://www.uni-marburg.de/icwc/dateien/voelkermordkonvention.pdf (Stand: 02.06.2014).

[1] Jones (2010) S. 9
[2] UN (1998) S. 7; Abs. 16
[3] Spencer, P. (2012) S. 6
[4] Spencer, P. (2012) S. 26
[5] Spencer, P. (2012) S. 26-27
[6] Spencer, P. (2012) S. 30

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