Genocide is a term that was coined in 1944 by a Polish lawyer of Jewish heritage, Raphael Lemkin, to describe the atrocities that had been committed by Hitler’s Nazi Germany regime before and during the Second World War. According to Lemkin, the English language did not have an existing word that adequately covered the true magnitude of the Nazi Germany regime’s crimes against humanity. The actual word ‘genocide’ is a fusion of the Greek word ‘geno’ which could be loosely translated to mean either family, race or tribe; and the Latin word ‘cide’ which means to kill (Jones 6).

The term gained recognition when it was adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 1946, which officially recognized under international law, genocide as a crime. However, they did not define it then. It was two years later that the United Nations General Assembly, with the assistance of Raphael Lemkin, finally defined genocide. Their definition, under the 1948 United Nations Conference on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), defined genocide as ‘any act committed with intent to destroy a national, racial or religious group.’ Such acts included killing, harming psychologically or physiologically, preventing births within the group as well as removing children forcibly from the group to be reassigned elsewhere (Lippman 1). This definition of the term genocide stood until 2008 when the United Nations Security Council voted to include rape and other forms of sexual violence among the acts that constitute a genocide (if subjected to a group as defined earlier and in a large enough scale).

While the United Nation’s definition of genocide is widely used as the global standard when it comes to defining genocide as a crime, it has come under heavy criticism from several quarters. One of its biggest criticisms is its restrictiveness in defining the group that has to be affected for an atrocity to qualify as genocide. The UN definition recognizes only national, religious and racial groupings as the targets of genocide while conspicuously not recognizing political and social groupings (Powell 529). This has largely been attributed to the Soviet president at the time of the drafting of the CPPCG, Joseph Stalin, who felt that the inclusion of political groups in the definition of the crime of genocide would expose his country’s past activities to the charge (Strauss 356). This particular criticism has resulted to two major movements

  • the first one proposes the changing of the UN definition of genocide to a more inclusive definition such as Chalk and Jonassohn’s which states that a genocide is “a form of one sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and its members are defined by the perpetrator” (42).
  • The second one proposes the recognition of a separate crime, known as ‘politicide’ to cover the persecution of a political group.

The magnitude of the crime of genocide is responsible to its contested definition and the debate is far from being over. However, for the purpose of this paper, the UN recognized CPPCG definition will be used.


As already explained, there is still much to be contested on the actual definition of the crime of genocide, as a result very few actual cases of genocide are not under one form of controversy or the other, with the accused party usually contesting the classification of a particular atrocity as‘genocide’. This applies to some of the cases listed below.

  1. a)   The Nazi Regime Holocaust

Very few (if any) historians of repute deny the classification of the atrocities committed by the Nazi Third Reich as an act of genocide. As already established earlier in the paper, the actual term ‘genocide’ was specifically coined to describe the horrors perpetrated by Hitler’s regime.

While the holocaust is mostly remembered for its relentless persecution of the Jewish people, millions of others were also targeted including: Eastern European (mostly Soviet) Slavic people, homosexuals, the Romani (gypsy) tribes, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the disabled as well as political dissidents of the regime. Some estimates estimate the total number of deaths caused by the Nazi regime to total up to 17 million people (Lang 26).

The sheer organization of the genocide was chillingly meticulous, with all departments within the government contributing to the logistics of systematically identifying, arresting, sorting, transporting and executing the targeted groups.

  1. b)   Rwandan Massacre

The mass murder of Tutsi and moderate Hutus in the 100-day period between April 7th and July 15th in the year 1994 is another atrocity that is synonymous with the term ‘genocide’. The targeting was done purely on an ethnic basis, thus ‘qualifying’ to be categorized as genocide under the United Nations CPPCG definition. The final figure of the total deaths during this genocide varies between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people (Lemarchand 401). Millions more were displaced, fleeing to neighboring countries, including Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

  1. c)   Cambodia

When the Cambodian civil war ended in 1975, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge militantly communist regime was in power. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge carried out a systematic; two pronged mass murder campaign (Kiernan 33). The first category to be targeted was the ethnic minorities, such as the: Vietnamese, Chinese, Thais and Chans. The second category to be targeted was the so-called ‘ideologically non-conforming’ group such as former government officials, Buddhist monks, city-dwellers and secular intellectuals. The number of deaths during this genocide is estimated to be between 2 and 2.5 million and the Cambodian genocide is considered only second to the holocaust in terms of magnitude and severity.

  1. d)   Darfur

Perhaps the most publicized atrocity in modern times, the Darfur crisis in Sudan has already made history by giving the country’s president, Omar El Bashir the dubious honor of being the first sitting head of state to have an arrest warrant issued against him from the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The numbers are not conclusive, but reports list the death toll to range within the half a million mark.

The conflict is largely racially motivated with the predominantly Arab government killing and displacing the oppressed black minority in the region. The conflict also carries some religious undertones. This is still a running, unresolved conflict, and the terms ‘genocide’ has not yet been applied to it by the United Nations but former United States Secretary of State, Collin Powell, termed it a genocide in a speech at the United States Senate (Apsel 19). The terms has also been used extensively in the media and the conflict seems to satisfy the requirements (large in scale, targeting by perpetrators being done on a racial and possible religious basis) to be categorized as a genocide.


Looking at the given examples of genocide, and others not discussed, a pattern can be established of a number of situations that seem to create an environment through which the seeds of genocide can develop. The two major conditions that have been observed are:

  1. a)   A Non-Democratic system of government

More often than not, this government is headed by a dictator (Rummel 24). In all the given examples in this paper of atrocities that happened within the 20th and 21st centuries, none of them was carried out by a democratically elected government, and most of them were dictator led; Germany had Hitler, Cambodia had Pol Pot, Darfur still has President Omar El Bashir. The only exception is Rwanda, which had just lost its democratically elected president a day before the mass killings started.

While this does not mean that all governments that do not employ a democracy model are headed with certainty towards genocide, the checks and balances on the people in power offered by democracy greatly reduces the chances of such an occurrence to happen.

  1. b)   Socio-Economic tension

Usually, genocide is preceded with a period of socio economic bleakness that is then attributed (more often than not, unjustly) on a particular group, which is then targeted during the genocide. In Nazi Germany, the economy was suffering from the events of the First World War and the great depression and the government found Jews to be the perfect scapegoat to pin all their problems on. In Cambodia, the country had just been ravaged by a civil war and the new regime’s communist policies were causing more harm than good (Hinton 11).


There are dozens more factors that make a country prone to a genocide situation but the three listed above are the primary conditions that have been observed. In every situation at least one of them, or a combination, has been noted.


There are two main ways: either the prevention of a developing situation or through the punishment of the perpetrators of genocide to serve as a deterrent to would be perpetrators.

  1. a)   Prevention

This is, in theory, the most obvious solution; but the intricacies of foreign policy dealings make it almost impossible to implement. IN an ideal world, once the signs of an impending genocide are spotted, then prompt intervention by the international community should be carried out (whether diplomatic or military intervention as the situation requires).

However, in our current world, the process of respecting each nation’s sovereignty requires a lot of bureaucratic delicacy and maneuvering which takes a lot of much needed time and the resulting intervention, if any, never arrives in time. A case in point is the currently developing situation in Syria.

  1. b)   Transparent and Efficient Justice System

At the moment, in the aftermath of genocide, there are two major avenues for the afflicted to get justice.

  • The first method is through the setting up of a national or regional independent tribunal to deal with the cases (as was done in the Germany Nuremberg trials and with the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda).
  • The second method is through the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

Both methods have their merits and demerits. In the tribunal option, the benefits is that a local based method has a better chance of putting perpetrators across all levels of participation, from the leaders to the followers, under trial. The disadvantage is that most of them are riddled with accusations of bias and conflict of interest, such as the Rwandan system.

The international Criminal Court seems to offer a bit more objectivity in terms of lacking any bias but it only deals with the top level perpetrators, letting the ‘ground level’ offenders off the hook (unless a parallel local process is run to deal with them)

The ideal system would be a combination of the two, with the local tribunal dealing with ‘low-level’ participants and the ICC dealing with the more prominent leaders.



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