What is Genocide?

After the Holocaust, the United Nations created a new term — genocide — and defined it as any of the following actions committed with intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group:

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, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Ralphael Lemkin and Creation of the word “Genocide”

In 1944, a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin sought to create a new term to describe Nazi policies of the systematic murder of Jewish people. Lemkin used the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing) to come up with the new word, “genocide.”

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that “affirmed” that genocide was a crime under international law, but did not provide a legal definition of the crime. Two years later, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which legally defined the crime of genocide for the first time.

Fifty years later, the UN Security Council took on further responsibilities around civilian protection against acts of genocide. Resolution 1674, adopted on April 28, 2006, “reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. With the adoption of the Resolution, Council committed itself to take action to protect civilians in armed conflict.

In 2008, the U.N. Security Council expanded the definition of genocide with the passage of Resolution 1820 noting that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”

Moving beyond Definitions into Action

The passage of the Convention changed the role of the international community in responding to genocide: state’s rights no longer superseded rights of individuals. This concept was declared in Article 1 stating that genocide “is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.”

While individuals and nations may debate whether a particular mass atrocity constitutes a true genocide, we believe the most important thing is that we remember past genocides and mass atrocities, we learn from them, and we strive to make a difference — by being aware and taking action together, we can stop and prevent mass atrocities, we can end genocide.

Learn more about past genocides and mass atrocities, and what we all can do to prevent future genocides.