Convention on Genocide

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The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by Resolution 260 A (III) of the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948 in Paris. One-third of the member states quickly ratified the convention, allowing it to enter into force. By contrast, in 1998 only two-thirds of the member states of the United Nations (then numbering more than two hundred) had ratified it—relatively few by comparison with other texts on human rights. Even many of the signatories expressed reservations, particularly on the definition of genocide and on penal aspects, such as the difficulties of extradition.

The two first articles go to the heart of the matter:

Article I: The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.

Article II: 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:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

This formulation was a major innovation in international law. The concept of genocide was absent from the Nuremberg trials (1945–1946), because at the time only the concept of "crimes against humanity" was recognized under international law. Article 6c of the statutes of the International Military Tribunal that convened at Nuremberg incorporated the text of the London Agreement of 8 August 1945, which added "crimes against humanity" to crimes against peace (Article 6a) and war crimes (Article 6b): "namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated." The convention of 1948, in nineteen articles, built on the declaration unanimously passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 that genocide was "a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world."

These moral and legal steps were the direct outcome of World War II. In 1941 Winston Churchill had spoken of a "crime without a name" to describe the horrors of the slaughter of Jews and others by Nazi Germany. The Polish Jewish refugee jurist Raphael Lemkin had given that crime a name in 1943. He called it genocide—compounded from the Greek genos (race) and the Latin occidere (killing)—and published it in his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944). Lemkin summarized his thoughts in different texts when he was appointed an advisor to the American justice at the Nuremberg trials, Robert Jackson.

The international legal definition of the crime of genocide is found in Articles II and III of the Convention on Genocide, which describe the mind of the genocidal agent, who manifested the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such," and the acts of the genocidal agents. Describing genocide and the perpetrators of genocides was necessary to establish the character of the crime and the criminals responsible for it. The convention allowed for consideration of past crimes, "Recognizing that at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity." This meant that retroactive legal action was possible. The notion of genocide has since been applied both to later atrocities, such as the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, and to earlier ones, such as the massacres of Armenians in 1915.

The Convention on Genocide marked the beginning of a new era in international thinking about mass crimes, largely through the creation of a new category of legal and moral analysis, the category of genocide. Each genocidal catastrophe since then has been seen in terms of its specificity—the historical context of the crimes—and its universality: the desire to eradicate a part of humanity. As Lemkin put it, "the practice is ancient, the word is new." What distinguished genocides from mass killings and ethnic cleansing throughout history is that death is no longer a means to a political end, but an end in itself. Once the possibility of wiping out entire peoples was established as a criminal reality, then the notion that genocide touches everyone at the core was chillingly persuasive.

One problem in the emergence of the term that persists is how to define genocidal intent. Most such massacres are carried out in secrecy; hence the establishment of intent is a difficult, though not impossible, matter. Similarly, there is the problem of partial genocides, the destruction of parts of groups, such as the Anatolian Armenians in 1915 but not those living near Istanbul. Does the fact that some people of a particular group were left alone diminish the force of the claim that the murder of others of the group constituted genocide?

Clearly, while the 1948 convention remains an important foundation, it may seem outmoded in a world that is ever more fragmented; and yet, its utility and significance have been confirmed since the crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda in the 1990s. While not a fully developed legal concept, genocide is a term that describes the limits of humanity and inhumanity reached in the twentieth century and beyond.

See alsoGenocide; International Law; Nuremberg War Crimes Trials; War Crimes.


Prevent Genocide International. Available at Includes texts on genocides.

Schabas, William A. Genocide in International Law. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Schaller, Dominik J., and Jürgen Zimmerer, eds. "Raphael Lemkin: The 'Founder of the United National's Genocide Convention' as a Historian of Mass Violence." Special issue, Journal of Genocide Research 7, no. 4 (2005).

Yale University. Avalon Project. "The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials." Available at

Annette Becker

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Convention on Genocide

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Convention on Genocide