Genocide is the worst crime that humanity can commit. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, coined the word in 1944 to describe what he saw was happening in Nazi Germany. He combined the word genos, which is Greek for race/tribe, and cide, which is Latin for killing. In 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide (pdf) adopted Lemkin’s definition and officially defined 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.” In 1951 the Convention was made a law. However, the United Nations failed to include other forms of genocide, such as politicides, demicides, cultural genocides, and man-made famines. To date, only 140 out of nearly 200 countries have signed the Convention.
Genocide is not a 20th century phenomenon. Numerous genocides have occurred throughout history and a majority of those were committed by European settlers. Some examples are the Spanish conquest of the New World from 1492-1600, the Native American genocide from 1600-1776, and the Australian genocide of the Aborigines in the 19th century. The Holocaust was not even the first genocide of the 20th century. The first genocide of the 20th century was the Herero genocide from 1904-1908. The Armenian genocide soon followed from 1915-1923, the Ukrainian genocide (Holodomor) from 1932-1933, and the Manchurian genocide of 1937.
The Holocaust is unique in 20th century genocides because for the first time, an entire people was specifically targeted across international borders, the enormous casualty count, and the factory-like killing methods used. Additionally, the Jews were not the only persecuted groups; Roma-Sinti, homosexuals, the handicapped, Poles, Slavs, Communists, Socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the targeted groups as well.
Since the Holocaust there has been at least 50 genocides, politicides, or democides around the world. Some examples are China from 1959-1961, Bangladesh in 1971, Burundi in 1972, East Timor from 1975-1999, Cambodia from 1975-1979, Guatemala from 1981-1983, Iraq in 1988, Bosnia from 1992-1995, Rwanda in 1994, North Korea from 1994-present, and Darfur from 2004-present.
In order to help explain how and why genocides occur, Dr. Gregory Stanton presented the US State Department in 1996 with his Eight Stages of Genocide: Classification, Symbolization, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Preparation, Extermination, and Denial. He argued that these stages can be predicted and prevented but that they are not linear and each one does not have to be present for a genocide to occur. These stages also continue to operate through the genocide.
Stanton’s presentation to the State Department was a message to governments that they need to interfere and attempt to prevent the genocide even if the government or nation has no political or economic interest. It was a general call for people to help defend people. Thus far governments are unwilling to interfere in foreign countries’ internal matters. This then, is where non-governmental and non-profit organizations have stepped in. Organizations such as Save Darfur, Stop Genocide Now and Change.org are paving the way to interfere in genocides, aid displaced persons, and hunt down perpetrators.
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