Past Genocides and Mass Atrocities

credit: Johan van Elk (c)

In the past 150 years, tens of millions of men, women and children have lost their lives in genocide or mass atrocities. Millions have been tortured, raped or forced from their homes.

The past genocides and mass atrocities described below represent just some of the historic examples that serve to remind us what’s at stake if we let genocide happen again. We must learn, remember and take action to end genocide once and for all.


Beginning in 1915, ethnic Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire were rounded up, deported and executed on orders of the government. The combination of massacres, forced deportation marches and deaths due to disease in concentration camps is estimated to have killed more than 1 million ethnic Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks between 1915 and 1923.

The Holocaust

After coming to power in 1933, the Nazi Party implemented a highly organized strategy of persecution and murder. Their targets were the so-called “undesirables”: Jews, Slavs, Roma, the disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals, as well as political and religious dissidents.

The Nazis began with stripping citizenship from German Jews on the basis of their religious identity. Shortly thereafter, in November 1938, the organized pogrom of Kristallnacht marked the beginning of mass deportations of German Jews to concentration camps. As the Nazis conquered large areas of Europe, Jews and others in Nazi-controlled areas were also deported to camps. When the German Army invaded the Soviet Union, it soon gave rise to mobile killing squads operating throughout Eastern Europe and Russia, which killed more than one million Jews and tens of thousands of other civilians. The construction of extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkanau, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno and Sobibor led to the Nazis’ killing of 2.7 million Jews and others through the use of cyanide gas, summary executions and medical experimentation. Poor living conditions in non-extermination camps led to the deaths of millions more. It is estimated that six million Jews, two out of every three living in Europe, and another 5 million people had been killed by 1945.


When the Khmer Rouge took control of the Cambodian government in 1975, they declared the beginning of a new age dedicated to a peasant-oriented society. Instead, after outlawing education, religion, healthcare and technology, the Khmer Rouge ordered the evacuation of Cambodia’s cities and forced these residents to labor without adequate food or rest. Those who were unable to keep up were often summarily executed. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge began to target suspected political dissidents. These citizens, including doctors, teachers and those suspected of being educated were singled out for torture at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. In four years, between 1.7 and 2 million Cambodians died in the Khmer Rouge’s ‘Killing Fields.’


Beginning in 1991, Yugoslavia began to break up along ethnic lines as political leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic began to use nationalist sentiment as a political tool. While Slovenian independence was relatively bloodless, Croatia’s declaration sparked a civil war between the province and the Yugoslav government. Troops from the mostly Serb Yugoslav army entered Croatian territory and committed widespread human rights abuses, including the siege of Vukovar and the shelling of Dubrovnik.

In 1992, the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) also declared independence and the region quickly became the central theater of fighting between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). During the wars in the former Yugoslavia, all belligerents committed abuses against the civilians.  Soldiers and paramilitaries used rape, torture, forcible displacement, and summary executions to “ethnically cleanse” areas under their control. The actions of Serbian units, including the Bosnian Serb army and paramilitaries, were particularly notorious for committing atrocities, including the massacres at Foca, Tuzla, Visegrad, and Srebrenica. At Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb forces under General Radko Mladic overran a U.N. safe-area and executed at least 7,500 Bosniak men and boys who were sheltering with Dutch peacekeeping troops.

Due to the nature of the attacks on civilians during the Bosnian and Croatian wars, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 1993. This tribunal is tasked with prosecuting offenders who contributed to the deaths of at least 96,000 people.


Civil war broke out in Rwanda in 1990, further exacerbating tensions between the Tutsi minority and Hutu majority. Although a peace agreement was reached in 1992, political negotiations continued. In 1994, as he returned from the latest round of talks in neighboring Tanzania, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down outside of the country’s capital, Kigali. Habyarimana’s death provided the spark for an organized campaign of violence against Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians across the country. Despite the efforts of United Nations peacekeepers, extremist Hutu groups killed between 800,000 and 1 million people across the country in only 100 days. In 1994, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), dedicated to bringing those responsible for the genocide to justice. While slow-moving, the ICTR has determined that the widespread rapes committed during the Rwandan genocide may also be considered an act of torture and genocide on their own.

Atrocities Against Native Americans

For hundreds of years a mixture of colonial conflict, disease, specific atrocities and policies of discrimination has devastated the Native American population. In the course of this time, it is estimated that over nine million Natives died from violent conflict or disease. For too long this history has been under-recognized and too little discussed.

Today there are over 500 Native American tribes in the United States, each with a distinct culture, way of life and history. Even today, Native Americans face large challenges to cope with the disadvantages history has left them and ongoing cases of discrimination.

Learn more.