What is genocide?

The term 'genocide' was first used in 1944 by the lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe Nazi Germany's policies towards Jewish and other populations during the Second World War. Lemkin derived the name from the ancient Greek word genos (race, kin) and the Latin word cide (killing).

It was not until 1948 that the new United Nations developed a legal definition for genocide in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which is still binding today. In the Convention, genocide is defined as any act commited with intent to destroy, whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group including:

  • killing members of the group;
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Since this definition has been established, atrocity crimes in several countries have been classified as genocides:

The Armenian Genocide

After the overthrowing of the Ottoman sultan in 1909, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by a new political party known as the 'Young Turks', with ambitions to turn their country into a strong, modern actor in the region. Yet this highly nationalistic approach of the new government was also exclusionary of the multi-ethnic society of the Ottoman Empire of the time, which was exacerbated by the Ottomans entering the First World War in alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary.

Armenians, Greeks and other ethnicities living in the Ottoman Empire, already persecuted under the regime of the Young Turks, came under suspicion of lending support to the Allied powers. From 1915 to 1923, groups of these ethnicities were forcibly rounded up and systematically deported or executed. The displacement and systematic killings resulted in an estimated 1.5 million deaths. The lack of recognition of the genocide by Turkey is a continuing point of contention between Armenia and Turkey to this day.

The Holocaust

Starting in 1933 with their rise to power in Germany, the Nazi Party under the leadership of Adolf Hitler began the systematic persecution of Jews and other ethnic, social and religious minorities under the ideals of forming a racially pure Germany. Social and political ostracisation soon turned into incarceration, where populations of Jews and other minorities were forced into labour camps and ghettos within Nazi Germany or in the territory it occupied. 

As the Second World War was being fought, the Nazis enacted the 'Final Solution', executing millions of people through the use of poison gas, medical experimentation or exposure and starvation. 6 million Jews and large numbers of other minority groups were killed in the Holocaust, with many survivors permanently displaced from their homes at the end of 1945. The Holocaust's ongoing legacy as the largest genocide in the 20th century has influenced the formulation of definitions of atrocity crimes in international law and the subsequent adoption of the R2P prinicple. 


From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia undertook widespread purges of political, ethnic, religious and social groups in an effort to turn the country into a communist, agrarian utopia. Doctors, teachers, monks, artists, journalists and those deemed to be rich were forced, as enemies of the regime, to work in labour camps. The damage caused throughout Cambodia by U.S. bombing runs in neighbouring Vietnam meant those of a pro-Western disposition, or were suspected of having such, were included in the purges.

Conditions in the labour camps were horrendous, and those that could no longer work under these conditions were taken to what became known as 'killing fields' and executed. They were subsequently buried in mass graves all over the country. 1.7 to 2 million people are estimated to have been murdered under the Khmer Rouge. The establishment in 2003 of the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, to prosecute those responsbile for the genocide, is but the first step towards Cambodia finding true reconciliation.


Over 100 days in 1994, Rwanda would experience a rate of systematic murders that would outpace the Holocaust, as members of the Hutu ethnicity brutally killed an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and their Hutu sympathisers. Since its colonisation under Belgium, the population of Rwanda has been split into three main ethnicities: the majority Hutu group, the Tutsi minority and a very small percentage of Twa. Under Belgian rule, the Tutsis were placed in positions of responsibility thoughout Rwandan society. The end of colonial rule and the outbreak of civil war in 1990 exacerbated tensions between the two main groups and in 1994 this morphed into systematic killings by Hutu forces.

As reports of the violence surfaced in diplomatic and media channels, the wider world did nothing to stop the bloodshed. Not until the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front was able to wrest control from the Hutus did the violence finally stop. Rwanda and the international community to this day is still feeling the effects of the genocide on its collective memory. 


After the end of the Second World War, the federation of Yugoslavia had, under the leadership of President Tito, managed to group six ethnically and religiously diverse countries together into one politically cohesive unit. Yet with the death of Tito in 1980 and the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade later, the federation fell apart along ethnic lines. Slovenia, Croatia and afterwards Bosnia and Herzegovina all declared independence from the Serbian-dominated federation. From 1992 to 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina was the centre of ethnic conflict between Serbian and Bosnian forces in the former federation.

Despite UN peacekeepers having a presence in the region, Serbian forces carried out the massacre of 8000 Bosnian men and boys in the town of Srebrenica and subsequently buried them in mass graves. The women and girls were allowed to leave, but many were subject to rape, torture and other forms of abuse over the course of the conflict. The atrocities committed in Bosnia remain the worst in Europe since the Holocaust.