The Definition Debacle (or, The Many Meanings of Genocide)

By Michelle

11 December 1948 United Nations, New York: Mr. Ales Bebler (Yugoslavia), signing of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

It’s a more exciting debate than you think. Not excited? Ok, then it’s an incredibly important debate with significant ramifications on (the theoretical possibility of) international response to genocide. Read on.

The International Legal Definition

Following Raphael Lemkin’s footsteps, the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (or the UN Convention on Genocide, UNCG) 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.

The purpose of the UNCG is to provide a legal framework for the identification and prosecution of genocidal actors, and is now shared by Article 6 of the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court in 2002.

The Genocide Convention, like all UN documents, is the result of a process of a political process, and thus its definition of genocide-specifically, its conscious omissions of political and social groups-is itself a political comprise. Indeed, earlier drafts of the document reveal the inclusion of linguistic and political groups-including, importantly, the destruction of a group based on the “political opinion of its members” -as well as consideration of “cultural” genocide, such as systematic forced exile and the destruction of cultural artifacts.

The eventual omission of political groups came at the insistence of the Soviet delegation, which ostensibly did not want its own purges to fall under the new definition. A French representative argued for the inclusion of political groups, noting that “even if crimes of genocide were committed for racial or religious reasons in the past, it is clear that the motivation for such crimes in future will be mainly political.”

Not as Easy as it Looks

Although the UNCG definition was shaped in an atmosphere of political negotiation, re-examinations of the definition are no less difficult or complicated. Many scholars have proffered expanded, more inclusive definitions of genocide, while others are more restrictive. For example:

  • Israel Charny asserts the need to include all instances of mass killing in the definition of genocide in order to subvert political attempts to exclude particular events;
  • Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn add that the group is “defined by the perpetrator”
  • Tony Barta includes anonymous systemic forces, or structural violence, in the definition as well.

Disagreements also often arise over the historical nature of genocide. Some see genocide as a peculiarly modern phenomenon, an invention (or dysfunction) of the twentieth century, while others argue that targeted group annihilation has occurred many times throughout human history.


Establishing set criteria for genocide is exceedingly difficult. Different definitions have different uses and goals: Legal definitions are intended for prosecution, while scholarly definitions intended for research and analysis, and any definition can convey a particular agenda on the part of the “definer.'”

In any case, for any definition, the intent of the perpetrators of genocide is absolutely essential:

The desire is to annihilate a particular group of people.

This motivation differentiates genocide from other forms of mass killing, which have different goals (reprisals, for example) and lack an ideology that promotes the complete destruction of a population. The inclusion of all mass killings in the definition of genocide, though offered with good intentions, is thus counter-productive to understanding the nature of genocide-a definition needs some degree of specificity in order to accurately portray the situation at hand.

This is not to say that non-genocidal mass killing isn’t bad, or isn’t as bad-it’s just a categorically different phenomenon.

My Two Cents

While mass killing may not be the only genocidal method, I am of the firm opinion that direct and intentional physical destruction of a group deserves special recognition under the heading “genocide.” I agree whole-heartedly with Frank Chalk, who states, “Systemic variables facilitate genocide, but it is people who kill.”

From my own view, and for the purposes of this space, I tend to adhere to the definition offered by Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, in their book The History and Sociology of Genocide, who refer to genocide as

“a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator.”

I also agree with Chalk and Jonassohn’s separation of ethnocide and genocide, as the mass murder of a group is a different phenomenon from the extinction of a culture through assimilation, and must be dealt with as such.

Genocide is unique in that it targets people for annihilation purely by reason of their being a member of a particular group.  Physical destruction is seen as necessary because the defining characteristics of the target group are seen as immutable, and thus its members are beyond any hope for reform. Identifying characteristics that are otherwise flexible become inherent and unchangeable in the minds of the perpetrator, and thus assume a degree of permanence in the genocidal ideology.



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