Genocide and Human Rights

The term “genocide” was created by the Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1944, and refers to the planned, systematic mass murder, in whole or in part, of a particular group of people. While Lemkin had studied the problem of mass killing prior to the onset of World War II, his work on the topic was intimately connected to the horrors of the Nazi holocaust, which had decimated his own family. Following much debate and a series of controversial compromises, in 1948 the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was drafted and made available for signing and ratifying by UN member states. The Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical, racial, or religious group.”

…any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Since its entry into force as an international treaty, the Genocide Convention has served, along with the emerging human rights framework, as a landmark in the ongoing effort to end mass killing and prevent populations across the globe from suffering abuse and death at the hands of perpetrators. Unfortunately genocide has continued to plague humankind, and the cry of “Never Again” has been quite ineffective in limiting massive crimes against humanity, including the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and Darfur, all of which have taken place since the early 1970s.

Abuses of human rights are endemic in genocide, and indeed, genocidal acts can be viewed as the ultimate form of human rights violations.  As detailed by the British scholar Ian Kershaw in a 1994 lecture, the Nazi regime from 1933-1945 systematically violated human rights protections of Jews, Sinti and Roma, the disabled, and many others in Germany, and later in those areas of Europe occupied by the German military during World War II. This process commenced very soon after the Nazi assumption of power in 1933.[1] Similar patterns of human rights violations have occurred in genocides which commenced following World War II, often beginning with what the eminent Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg labeled the “identification” stage – where a minority or persecuted group is labeled as a threat to the state. Their rights are then limited or restricted, and they become viewed as social pariahs. Hilberg’s remaining three stages – expropriation, concentration, and annihilation – while not necessarily occurring in a systematic sequence, are useful in examining how the basic human rights of individuals and groups are eroded so that their very humanity is called into question, and they then become likely targets for mass killing.[2]

A good example of this process is the mass killing of Cambodians by the revolutionary Khmer Rouge government in the 1970s, when targeted groups such as Buddhist monks, individuals with an education, and those with supposed “foreign” connections, were viewed as threats to the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to create an agrarian utopian state. They were identified, moved to areas outside of cities where they could be isolated (concentrated), many were often placed in forced labor programs (expropriation) and then the mass killing commenced (annihilation). Each of these stages encompasses a myriad of human rights violations, extending from the right to freedom of expression, to the right to freely practice religion, to denial of the right to education, and at the most basic level, denial of the right to life through systematic starvation, overwork, and lack of access to food, water, and health care.

Although the UN Convention on Genocide utilizes a definition that excludes the terms “political” and “social” when referring to groups who are the targets of genocidal acts, the creation of the International Tribunals in the 1990s concerning crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and for genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda represent important steps to apply the Convention in prosecutions of perpetrators, and to spur the international community to take action to bring those responsible for these horrible crimes to justice.[3] More recently the tribunal in Cambodia addressing the crimes of the Khmer Rouge has generated convictions of two former Khmer Rouge leaders, close to forty years after the Khmer Rouge took power and commenced that genocide.

Without question, the vigorous defense of human rights as enumerated in existing UN and regional human rights treaties remains the best defense against genocide, and the most powerful tool in the arsenal of groups seeking to prevent genocide’s recurrence.


Related Human Rights Instruments



[1] Ian Kershaw, “The Extinction of Human Rights in Nazi Germany.”  In Olwer Hutton, ed.,  Historical Change and Human Rights:  The Oxford Amnesty Lectures, 1994.  New York:  Basic Books, 1995, pp:  217-246.

[2] Raul Hilberg.  The Destruction of the European Jews.  New York:  Holmes and Meier, 1985.

[3] Diane F. Orentlicher, “Genocide.”  In Roy Gutman, David Rieff, and Anthony Dworkin, eds., Crimes of War 2.0.  New York:  W. W. Norton and Co., 2007:  pp. 191-195.