Genocide as defined by the United Nations

19/11/2014 12:35

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

The definition of genocide provided by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide doesn’t help bring things into perspective.  It defines genocide as follows:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such:

A.     Killing members of the group;

B.     Causing 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 birth within the group;

E.     Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. ”[1]

“Killing members of a group” could be taken to imply anything from gang killings, to random shoot downs on the street. There is nothing in this definition that fully encompasses the concept of genocide in its entirety, especially when each of these sections is taken independently. The African American community in the United States claimed that the government had committed genocide against them, based on sections a, b, c, and d of this definition[2]. It is true that blacks were tortured, alienated and in some instances killed during the racial discrimination era, but the government had no intentions of wiping out the entire race of black people. This presents one of the many instances in which this definition might be misleading and limiting in preventing real genocides from happening. Although African Americans were denied the opportunity to exist in their entities as people belonging to a different group, that unfortunate period cannot be accounted for as genocide.

The apartheid era in South Africa poses another riddle. Some people claim that it was in fact genocide, because the white rulers discriminated and alienated black Africans on all fronts. However, some members of the General Assembly of the UN dismissed this as genocide, and branded it as a difference in opinion between different groups. The ambiguity of this definition makes it almost impossible to prevent genocides from happening. It could be taken to mean so many things, whilst failing to embody the issue it is meant to address.  The holocaust for example was one of the most devastating violations against human nature. Over six million people were killed, and yet, some people still dismiss it as genocide. Some scholars like Horowitz treat it as a unique event that involved total annihilation of people of a given nation[3]. So one wonders when really, we should consider certain perverse violations of human rights as genocides?  The holocaust by virtue of its uniqueness does indeed fall under the category of genocide, because the Nazis had every intention of wiping out Jews from the face of the earth. But how can we differentiate between unique violations of human rights, and genocides? What’s the drawing line between these two events? And what exactly is a unique violation of human rights? And why would it be different from genocide, if it does indeed involve killing of a group of people? It seems that certain elements of consideration are missing from this available definition of genocide that the UN has provided.

Furthermore, this definition is inadequate because when we simply define genocide as the “killing of people”, it’s not clear when exactly it would start to matter that a certain violation of human rights is actually genocide. “The challenge is to delineate the concept of genocide in its early stages so that we need not wait for death counts before concluding that genocide is occurring. Hence this section deals with life and death elements of genocidal activities: when and for what reasons do we label the killing of people genocide?[4]” Because there wouldn’t be any other way of determining if/when mass killings are in fact genocide, we might fall in the pattern of only classifying certain gruesome violations as genocide after thousands of people belonging to a particular group have already been killed. If thirty people who belong to a certain group are killed, society wouldn’t consider that to be genocide simply because those numbers are insignificant. But if say three hundred thousand people are killed, that would attract people’s attention.  This definition renders no chance of future prevention of genocide, because there would be no way of identifying and preventing genocide in its initial stages. This is precisely why there has been confusion on whether or not the Rwanda and Darfur genocides were/ are in fact genocides.  Some people would rather think of both events as tribal and religious conflicts respectively, rather than genocides.

The other part of the all too broad definition of genocide provided by the UN defines genocides as “causing bodily or mental harm to members of the group”. This again might be problematic, because it’s hard to determine what degree of mental or physical harm would constitute genocide. “It is exceptionally difficult to determine what is mental harm. Is it any form of mental dysfunction? Is it mental harm when people are hammered with propaganda intended to indoctrinate or re-educate them, leading to a partial or total reformation of their values and/or behaviour?[5]” Imagine a scenario where a group of students are captured on campus, and are tortured and beaten by a bunch of bullies. This does constitute bodily harm, but cannot be classified as genocide. Another scenario would be a science experiment that involves hooking the brains of a group of people to machines, which may result in mental harm. This again is not genocide, but this definition might mislead one to think that such isolated cases can be referred to as genocide. The definition provided by the UN is not only lacking in substance and clarity, but also makes it impossible to ever prevent and punish genocide, because of its indistinctness. 

[1] accessed on July 19th 2009 at 4:40pm.

[2] Genocide and Human Rights: A Global Anthology Edited with an introduction by Jack Nusan Porter.

[3] Genocide and Human Rights: International Legal and Political Issues by Barbara Harff

[4] Genocide and Human Rights: International Legal and Political Issues by Barbara Harff

[5] Genocide and Human Rights: International Legal and Political Issues by Barbara Harff