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Genocide has emerged as one of the most important problems facing the international community. It stands alone in terms of the human suffering, loss, and death it engenders as well as the destruction of homes, property, and even cultures. Research suggests that during the 20th century, genocide and related crimes have killed more than four times as many people as all the international and civil wars combined. During the second half of the last century the pace and lethality of genocidal crimes increased dramatically and the world was witness to genocides in such places as Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda. The new century is not starting out well if the genocide in the Darfur region of the Sudan is any indication. Since 2003 the Sudanese government has organized militia groups known as the Janjaweed to kill, terrorize, and displace thousands of members of non-Arabic tribes in the Darfur.
The term genocide was originally coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944. He created it from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing). The word, therefore, is intended to describe the destruction of a group of people. While this might seem fairly clear, a great deal of confusion surrounds the meaning of the word genocide. One reason for this problem is that it is often difficult to distinguish between genocide and other forms of atrocities such as war crimes and human rights violations. Genocide, it is important to point out, is usually perpetrated during the middle of an ongoing conflict such as a civil war, and it is often hard to distinguish between massacres that are considered war crimes and others that might be part of a genocide. Unfortunately, international law defines these crimes broadly, with a great deal of conceptual overlap and ambiguity. Torture and medical experimentation, for example, are specifically listed as war crimes, yet both also occur frequently during genocides. During the Holocaust, for example, many infamous experiments were performed on unwilling victims. Do we consider these to be war crimes or genocide? In the same vein, do we merely perceive genocide as a type of human rights violation, or do we see it as a distinct and separate type of phenomenon? Additionally, because it is such a powerful and emotion-laden word, genocide has also often been used by social commentators and activists to describe such things as integration, bisexuality, urban sprawl, and family planning, which often serves to further muddy the waters regarding the nature of genocide.
These definitional difficulties do not mean, however, that genocide cannot be accurately defined. According to the United Nations (UN) Genocide Convention of 1948, genocide is defined as follows:
Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as: (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.
This definition makes clear that genocide is about destroying entire populations. Mass killings and massacres, as horrible as they are, do not rise to the level of genocide unless they are part of a larger program intended to destroy a group. In other words, genocide is a systematic attempt to exterminate an entire population group. According to the UN definition, genocide is also more than just murder, and can include a variety of policies and behaviors, many of which are not immediately lethal. Forcing sterilization, imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group, and sending children to boarding schools where they are forbidden to speak their language or practice their beliefs are all potentially genocidal. Although these practices do not involve overt acts of violence against individuals, they are, nonetheless, considered genocide because their intent is to destroy a group. While the individuals are left alive, the ties that bind them together as a people are obliterated.
According to the convention document, genocide can only occur against national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. This means that destroying other types of collectives does not count as genocide. Political parties, for example, are a type of group that is excluded from the official UN definition of genocide because it was suggested that they did not have the same permanence and stability as the listed groups. This is a problem since many examples of mass crimes may have all the hallmarks of genocide, but may not be defined as such because the targeted group does not fit into one of the listed categories.
Defining genocide is one thing, trying to explain such violence is quite another. Genocide is a group’s attempt to achieve a specific goal or goals. The group may consider their plans rational, but theirs is a flawed rationality since the decision-making process is typically influenced by various nationalistic and racial ideologies, historic perceptions of injustice and persecution, a desire for revenge, and a host of other emotive issues. Genocides are therefore not completely objective and rational because old hatreds and prejudices often guide the thinking processes of leaders intent on gaining or achieving some ambition.
Generally speaking, a number of motivations have been identified as providing the rationale for genocide. Helen Fein, a leading scholar of genocide, suggests four types of genocide in terms of motivation: (1) developmental, (2) despotic, (3) ideological, and (4) retributive.
Developmental genocides are those in which the targeted groups are seen as an impediment to the colonization and/or exploitation of a given geographic area. This happens most often against Indigenous peoples who may be perceived as being in the way of progress. In Central and South America, for example, many Native peoples have been subjected to genocide as various nations have attempted to remove them from land found to be rich in oil and valuable minerals.
Despotic genocides, on the other hand, involve situations in which a government uses genocide as a weapon against rivals for political power. The violence of the Stalinist Soviet Union fits into this category since Stalin and his henchmen tried to eliminate members of various political, economic, and national groups because they were perceived to be a threat to the consolidation of power.
Ideological genocide refers to the attempted destruction of a population because of a belief system. The Nazis and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, for example, perpetrated their excesses in the name of building a better society. The Nazis saw themselves as revolutionaries who would create a new Germany of wealth, prosperity, and order based on notions of racial hygiene and purity, and they attempted to eliminate from the nation everyone who was seen as an obstacle to achieving this new social order. Similarly, the Khmer Rouge wanted to return Cambodia to a historic and mythic era of greatness when the ethnic Khmer empire ruled the region. The Khmer Rouge attempted to achieve this through the destruction of all corrupting and oppositional influences within Cambodian society.
The last category of Fein’s typology concerns retributive genocides. These are perpetrated by one group against another engaged in a struggle for political and social power. The Rwandan genocide is illustrative of this type since the Hutu government instigated the genocide against the Tutsi population partially because it was trying to maintain power during a civil war.
Fein’s typology of genocide indicates that genocides are perpetrated for ostensibly rational, if reprehensible, reasons. Ultimately, genocide occurs because governmental officials decide that it is the solution to a real or perceived problem and is the preferred method to achieve a variety of political, economic, and/or social goals. While it may appear to be completely unjustified and irrational to outsiders and the larger world community, to those officials advocating the destructive policies of genocide, it makes perfect sense.
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- Apsel, J. (Ed.). (2005). Darfur: Genocide before our eyes. New York: Institute for the Study of Genocide.
- Churchill, W. (1997). A little matter of genocide: Holocaust and denial in the Americas 1492 to the present. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
- Fein, H. (1993). Genocide: A sociological perspective. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- LeBlanc, L. J. (1991). The United States and the Genocide Convention. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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- Valentino, B. A. (2004). Final solutions: Mass killing and genocide in the 20th century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Weitz, E. D. (2003). A century of genocide: Utopias of race and nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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