What is genocide?

The term ‘genocide’ was first used in 1933, in a paper presented to the League of Nations by the Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin. He devised the concept in response to the atrocities perpetrated against the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire, between 1915 and 1918.
On 11 December 1946, following the realisation of the extent of the Holocaust, the General Assembly of the United Nations resolved that genocide was a crime under international law. This was approved and ratified as a Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide on 9 December 1948. 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:
  • 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

A number of specific actions have been deemed to be punishable under the convention. These are:

  • Genocide
  • Conspiracy to commit genocide
  • Direct and public incitement to commit genocide
  • Attempt to commit genocide
  • Complicity in genocide
Actions do not need to lead to deaths to be considered to be acts of genocide – causing serious bodily or mental harm or the deprivation of resources such as clean water, food, shelter or medical services can be regarded as inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction. Causing serious bodily or mental harm includes the infliction of widespread torture, rape and sexual violence. It is also a criminal offence to plan or incite genocide – even before the killing starts. This recognises that genocide does not just happen. There is always a path that leads to genocide.

Atrocities against the Armenians and how they brought genocide to the forefront of public perception 

'Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?' - Adolf Hitler told commanding officers in August 1939 while the Nazis were making preparations to annilihate Europe's Jewish population, suggesting that he too believed that the world would quickly forget the atrocities he and his party were planning to commit. 
Between 1915 and 1918, the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire were systematically persecuted, deported from their homes and murdered. Following the Balkan War and start of the First World War, Armenian men, women and children were expelled and exterminated in an attempt to destroy their very existence. The campaign was waged against Armenians following a period of deterioration in relations between ethnic groups in the Ottoman Empire and a number of political and financial upheavals.
Armenian civilians being marched to a prison by Ottoman soldiers to a prison in April 1915 (credit: Project SAVE) 
It is unknown exactly how many Armenians were murdered in this period but estimates range from 1.3 million to 1.9 million. In 1933, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, was so motivated by the lack of recognition and awareness of the crimes in Armenia, which only occurred only a few years before, that he presented a paper to the League of Nations. The paper outlined a way in which the international community could condemn the crimes and atrocities in the Ottoman Empire, and provide a basis to prosecute the perpetrators behind such crimes. It wasn’t until 1946 that the UN recognised the term genocide and affirmed the cause that Lemkin had dedicated his life to. To date, the 1946 convention is still used to recognise the actions of a state-sponsored attempt to destroy a particular group of people.   
If you would like to find out more about the atrocities in Armenia we recommend a number of books in our bibliography and you may find the BBC documentary The Betrayed, which you can watch on YouTube, of interest. As part of a film for HMD 2011, we recorded the Untold Story of Astrid Aghajanian whose mother saved her from murder in Armenia by hiding beneath the bodies of those who had already been killed.   

The path to genocide

Genocide never just happens. There is always a set of circumstances which occur or which are created to build the climate in which genocide can take place.
Gregory H Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, developed the ten stages of genocide which explains the different stages which lead to genocide. At each of the earlier stages there is an opportunity for members of the community or the International Community to halt the stages and stop genocide before it happens.
The stages are:
  1. Classification - The differences between people are not respected. There’s a division of ‘us’ and ‘them’ which can be carried out using stereotypes, or excluding people who are perceived to be different.
  2. Symbolisation - This is a visual manifestation of hatred. Jews in Nazi Europe were forced to wear yellow stars to show that they were ‘different’.
  3. Discrimination - The dominant group denies civil rights or even citizenship to identified groups. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of their German citizenship, made it illegal for them to do many jobs or to marry German non-Jews. 
  4. Dehumanisation - Those perceived as ‘different’ are treated with no form of human rights or personal dignity. During the Genocdie in Rwanda, Tutsis were referred to as ‘cockroaches’; the Nazis referred to Jews as ‘vermin’.
  5. Organisation - Genocides are always planned. Regimes of hatred often train those who go on to carry out the destruction of a people.  
  6. Polarisation - Propaganda begins to be spread by hate groups. The Nazis used the newspaper Der Stürmer to spread and incite messages of hate about Jewish people.
  7. Preparation - Perpetrators plan the genocide. They often use euphemisms such as the Nazis' phrase 'The Final Solution' to cloak their intentions. They create fear of the victim group, building up armies and weapons. 
  8. Persecution - Victims are identified because of their ethnicity or religion and death lists are drawn up. People are sometimes segregated into ghettos, deported or starved and property is often expropriated. Genocidal massacres begin. 
  9. Extermination - The hate group murders their identified victims in a deliberate and systematic campaign of violence. Millions of lives have been destroyed or changed beyond recognition through genocide.
  10. Denial - The perpetrators or later generations deny the existence of any crime.
You can download a poster explaining the ten stages of genocide that can be printed and handed out.