The Genocide Convention
Last Updated September 18, 2006
What is the Genocide Convention?
Officially called the "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide," it was passed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948 and came into effect in January 1951.
The convention says that "genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war is a crime under international law" which the parties to the convention "undertake to punish and prevent."
It defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" by:
- 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.
How did the term "genocide" come about?
The Genocide Convention came about largely through the efforts of one man, Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin is also credited with coining the term "genocide." Lemkin was a Polish Jew who first began to warn the world about Adolf Hitler's plans to attack Jews in Europe as early as 1933.
He was largely ignored and in 1939, after the Nazis invaded Poland, he was forced to flee to the United States. When he tried to warn U.S. government officials about the Holocaust he was again ignored, with officials maintaining that his claims of what was happening in German-occupied Europe were "rumours."
Then Lemkin was inspired by a speech by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that described what Germany was doing in Europe as "a crime without a name." In 1944, he published a long, scholarly account of what was then known about the Holocaust, including copies of Hitler's anti-Jewish decrees. It was called Axis Rule.
In the book Lemkin introduced a new word "genocide" describing a crime that went beyond murder to the annihilation of a people. Within a week of publication of the book, the Roosevelt administration released a statement that it now had evidence to "substantiate" the facts of the Holocaust. Then the news media plucked the term "genocide" from the book reviews and began using it in news coverage.
The Genocide Convention
In the years after the Second World War, the new United Nations began work to update what are called "the laws and customs of war." While negotiators worked to update the Geneva Conventions that set the rules for warfare, Lemkin began a major lobbying effort at the UN to create a law that would outlaw if not prevent new attempts to wipe out a people.
A year after the war, in December 1946, and after a debate over whether to use the narrow term "extermination" or Lemkin's wider "genocide," the UN passed a resolution calling for a new convention, and the secretary general asked Lemkin to write the first draft.
It took almost two years of debate for the United Nations to agree on a definition, but on Dec. 9, 1948, before the Cold War began to split the organization, the General Assembly unanimously adopted the Genocide Convention.
Lemkin then turned his energy to making sure that the convention was ratified. By Oct. 16, 1950, 20 countries had ratified and the Genocide Convention became international law. Canada ratified the convention on Jan. 12, 1951.
There was one key exception. The United States initially refused to ratify the convention, arguing, as it does now against the International Criminal Court, that it might be unfairly used to target Americans. The convention fell off the American agenda until one senator, William Proxmire, pushed over the years to have it ratified. He made 3,211 speeches before he was partially successful.
One reason the convention was ratified by the Americans was that then president Ronald Reagan was embarrassed by the controversy over his visit to a German war cemetery that contained the remains of members of the Waffen SS; after the visit the Reagan administration pushed the ratification to mollify critics.
The U.S. Senate finally ratified the convention in 1986, 40 years after it was first drafted, but, as Samantha Power says in her book The Problem from Hell, it was "so laden with caveats that it carried next to no force," restrictions pushed by conservative senators such as Jesse Helms, Orrin Hatch and Richard Lugar. It officially became U.S. law in November 1988.
Enforcing the convention from Saddam to Sudan
So far, the Genocide Convention has had the opposite effect to what Lemkin intended. Power and other critics point out the convention does not give governments the numbers of dead or displaced required to constitute genocide, so they have used the wording of the convention to avoid enforcing it.
The slaughter in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge had occurred before the U.S. ratified the convention, but a year after the ratification, in March 1987, Iraq's Saddam Hussein began a campaign against the Kurds, which included poison gas attacks and the displacement of thousands. Although the United States now calls the campaign genocide, it didn't at the time because officially there was not enough proof that Saddam was committing genocide against the Kurds.
The U.S. and other nations used similar arguments in both Rwanda and Bosnia, saying there was not enough information, or that what was going on did not fit the legal definition of genocide. The Clinton administration, which was wary of intervention after the collapse of the U.S. mission in Somalia, had a deliberate policy of avoiding use of the term genocide in references to Rwanda, even though 800,000 people were killed in the first 100 days of the civil war.
On Sept. 2, 1998, a Rwandan mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, became the first man convicted of genocide by an international tribunal for directing and inciting local mobs to rape and murder Tutsis. Even in that case, there were legal arguments whether or not what happened in Rwanda was genocide. The tribunal eventually ruled that any "stable group" that was targeted could be subject to genocide, a definition that did not satisfy most critics even though it did narrow the options for politicians who wanted to avoid using the term.
Will Darfur be different?
On Sept. 9, 2004, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the Senate foreign relations committee to testify about the killing and displacement of people in the western region of Sudan known as Darfur.
Powell told the senators that an investigation by U.S. officials had found a "pattern of atrocities: Killings, rapes, burning of villages committed by Jinjaweed [militias] and government forces against non-Arab villagers… [were] a co-ordinated effort, not just random violence." He then said "the evidence leads us to the conclusion, the United States to the conclusion, that genocide has occurred and may still be occurring in Darfur."
Powell went on to say: "So let us not be too preoccupied with this designation. These people are in desperate need and we must help them. Call it civil war, call it ethnic cleansing, call it genocide, call it 'none of the above.' The reality is the same. There are people in Darfur who desperately need the help of the international community."
But Powell did not offer intervention by the United States, which may not be possible with much of the U.S. army tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying "no new action is dictated by this determination. We have been doing everything we can to get the Sudanese government to act responsibly."
He then said it was up to the African Union to intervene in Darfur and provide enough troops to monitor the situation.
Reports from Abroad
- Letters from Africa
- David McGuffin
- Sudan profile from The Hour
- Real Video runs 2:00
- Government of Sudan
- Sudanese Media Centre
- UNICEF: Darfur
- African Studies Center: Sudan
- Theodora.com: About Sudan
- Genocide Convention (Human Rights Watch)
- Genocide Convention (United Nations)
- Colin Powell's statement on genocide in Darfur
- Documenting Atrocities in Darfur (U.S. State Dept. investigation)
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