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Ethnocide concerns policies and processes designed to destroy the separate identity of a group, with or without the physical destruction of its members. This concept was developed by Raphael Lemkin as part of the definition of genocide:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be a disintegration of political and social institutions—of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed at the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed at individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group (1944, p. 79).

For Lemkin genocide had two phases: "one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor." If these two conditions are met, a genocide has, according to Lemkin's view, occurred, even if every member of the targeted group has survived the process in a physical sense. Such actions may include the destruction or removal of tangible heritage (monuments, sites, artifacts, etc.) or obliteration of intangible heritage by prohibiting cultural manifestations that do not leave physical evidence. It may also include gross abuses of human rights designed to ensure the disappearance of a group as a separate entity, such as the removal of children.

The existence of cultural remnants, such as monuments, writings, or movable objects of a type unique to that culture, may enable it to be identified and, perhaps, revived, even when all its members have apparently been annihilated or so assimilated into another culture that they no longer identify with it. Scholars have developed a spoken language from written texts (modern Hebrew) and unique basket-making techniques from a study of museum objects.


The original draft of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, prepared by the United Nations (UN) Secretariat and based on the work of Lemkin, included definitions of physical genocide, biological genocide, and cultural genocide. The latter was defined as follows:

Destroying the specific characteristics of the group by:

  • (a) forcible transfer of children to another human group; or
  • (b) forced and systematic exile of individuals representing the culture of a group; or
  • (c) prohibition of the use of the national language even in private intercourse; or
  • (d) systematic destruction of books printed in the national language or of religious works or prohibition of new publications; or
  • (e) systematic destruction of historical or religious monuments or their diversion to alien uses, destruction or dispersion of documents and objects of historical, artistic, or religious value and of objects used in religious worship.

The only provisions in the Convention as finally adopted that can be used against ethnocide are Article 2(d) (on the prevention of births) and (e) (the forcible transfer of children). Because the inclusion of cultural genocide in the Convention proved controversial and was finally rejected, some have taken the view that the present text of the Genocide Convention excludes the concept of cultural genocide. However, there is now much more awareness of both the frequent interpenetration of physical and cultural genocide, as well as the need to preserve threatened cultures. Canada and the United Kingdom were the most active in eliminating the stronger references to cultural genocide in the definition, perhaps because of assimilation policies toward Native Americans, since abandoned, still employed by Canada at the time of the Convention's drafting.

Although the courts will, in criminal prosecutions, apply the legal definition of genocide included in the Convention or in one of the other international instruments granting them such jurisdiction, as the undisputed minimum content of that crime, this does not exclude the use of Lemkin's explicit definition of cultural genocide in other contexts. It is nonetheless helpful to have a separate term for this, since popular usage has followed the limited definition in the Genocide Convention as referring only to the physical destruction of persons. Several theorists have suggested the use of ethnocide to describe the intentional destruction of social, racial, religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups. Ethnocide in that sense would include compulsory exogamy, forced pregnancy, prevention of births, removal of children, insistence on mainstream education without education in their own culture, prohibition of the use of a mother tongue, distortion of history, and discrimination in access to cultural resources. Planned compulsory assimilation, often making use of such activities, would fall within that concept. The deleterious effect of all such policies, even if thought at the time to represent enlightened humanitarianism, is the loss of creative diversity.

Historical Examples

The removal of cultural property from a defeated people and destruction of their heritage were practiced from the earliest times (e.g., the Romans' total destruction of Carthage in 146 bce) especially in conquest and as an action against minorities. Because cultural heritage has been seen as a rallying point for the self-confidence, aggressiveness, and revival of enemy communities, its destruction was used as part of successful warfare and domination (e.g., destruction of Khmer sites by Thai and Burmese forces in the thirteenth century, of the Inca and Aztec cultures by the Spanish invaders, of Korean and Chinese culture by Japan during its colonial and wartime occupations of territory in the Asian arena, of Jewish culture in Nazi Germany, of Tibetan culture by the Chinese authorities since 1951, of Croat, Muslim, and Serbian monuments during the conflicts among the former states of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia).

Policies of "assimilation" of a minority, often indigenous, people into the majority population were often applied. The methods employed included the suppression of a mother tongue, the schooling of children in the majority culture, and prohibiting the use of a Native language (e.g., the banning of Welsh, Irish, and Scots Gaelic at various periods, and forced education of Native American children in English-speaking schools in Canada and the United States). Other examples are the removal of children from their own cultural group for rearing in another (e.g., the stolen generations of children taken from their Australian Aboriginal communities for adoption by white families or placement in institutions, a practice that continued until the 1970s) and a ban on the publication and distribution of materials representing a minority culture (e.g., the burning of Armenian manuscripts in Turkey). Policies of suppression of intangible heritage have included rigorous application of the family law of the ruling majority, which has severely changed pre-existing social structures, and suppression of indigenous religious practices.

Legal Restraints

Current international laws (excluding regional agreements) in force against ethnocide include Conventions IV and IX on the laws of war adopted by the Hague peace conference in 1907. These advanced the protection of civilian property generally, but also specifically provided for the protection of buildings with religious, scientific, or charitable purposes, and historic monuments (Regulations 1907 annexed to Convention IV, especially Articles 27 and 56). The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict greatly expanded the provisions of earlier Hague conventions, whereas its Protocol, also adopted in 1954, covered the return of movable cultural property removed from occupied territory. This Convention and Protocol have been supplemented by Protocols added to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, and related to the Convention for the Protection of Victims of International and Noninternational Armed Conflicts of June 8, 1977 (Articles 53 and 85(d), Protocol I; Article 16, Protocol II). They have also been updated by a Second Protocol to the 1954 Hague Convention, adopted at the Hague in 1999.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has developed a code of protective international legislation for cultural heritage in general. In addition to the 1954 Hague Convention protecting all tangible heritage in times of conflict, the following conventions have been adopted: the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, concerned with movables in peacetime; the 1972 Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and National Heritage, addressing the protection of sites with cultural and national importance during peacetime; the 2001 Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which deals with all underwater heritage over one hundred years old, including warships; and the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. There is also a universal convention concerned with the return of cultural heritage, whether taken during peace or war: the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illicitly Exported Cultural Objects. Returns of cultural property, some of which may relate to ethnocide, may be sought under the 1970 and 1995 Conventions, but neither is retrospective. In the Netherlands an unsuccessful claim was made under the 1954 Protocol for the recovery of icons looted from a church in Northern Cyprus (Greek Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Cyprus v. Lans). Of the conventions administered by UNESCO, only the Hague Convention and its Second Protocol provide for punitive provisions, which state parties are responsible for implementing.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY; its Statute dated May 25, 1993) and the International Criminal Court (ICC; the Rome Statute dated July 17, 1998) have the jurisdiction to prosecute certain acts of ethnocide. The ICTY has filed a suit based on offenses against cultural heritage (Dubrovnik and Mostar Bridge), although the accused have not yet been handed over to the authorities. The case of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR; its Statute dated November 8, 1994) is more problematic because Rwanda was in civil, not international, conflict when ethnocide occurrred. Thus, the protection of cultural property remains a difficult task; it is usually only addressed through the law on human rights or the norms and standards of cultural heritage law established by UNESCO.

Importance of Cultural Heritage

The importance of preservation of cultures, of whatever origin, was stressed in the Preamble to the 1954 Hague Convention (paras. 2 and 3), where it is stated that "damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world." An egregious example was the Taliban's destruction of important Buddhist art in Afghanistan in March 2001. This religious art was of great importance to Buddhist communities outside that country (no Buddhists had lived in Afghanistan for centuries), and to art lovers and historians everywhere. Destruction of cultural heritage removes from the body of human knowledge unique responses to the environment that are not only culturally enriching but also may be of considerable use to future human groups. Destruction or suppression of the culture of a group no longer present in a territory, or indeed no longer extant anywhere, should be punished even when the group no longer exists, since it distorts history and limits the access of all of humanity to certain cultural resources. Ethnocide also renders the rehabilitation of traumatized communities especially difficult, since the loss of landmarks that helped the community establish its identity induces alienation and despair.

The need to identify and prevent ethnocide has greatly increased with the international community's recent recognition of the importance of cultural diversity within the context of globalization, especially in the areas of communication and culture (UNESCO's 2001 Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity; as of 2003, its convention was still being drafted). The development of a parallel new instrument to specifically address ethnocide should now be considered.


In 1621 forces of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) conquered the small Banda archipelago in present-day eastern Indonesia and largely exterminated its people. The archipelago was the only site for the cultivation of nutmeg, Myristica fragrans, that grew in groves on the lower parts of the volcanic slopes of the archipelago's five main islands. Nutmeg was enormously valued in India, the Middle East, and the West. The Banda Islands were thus at the beginning of a trade route extending halfway around the world.

Bandanese society was dominated by a wealthy commercial elite that kept slaves from neighboring islands and maintained tight control of the sale of nutmeg to foreign traders. The population of the islands numbered perhaps fifteen thousand in 1621 and for food depended on rice imported from distant Java. Although the archipelago was tiny, its steep volcanic slopes provided a refuge for the Bandanese when they were attacked from the sea. During the sixteenth century the Portuguese joined other traders at Banda, but they were never able to establish a fort on the islands and many quarrels erupted between Bandanese and Portuguese over the prices and quality of goods supplied by either side and over Portugal's efforts to gain a military foothold in the islands.

So vexatious were the Portuguese that the Bandanese welcomed rival Dutch ships in 1599. VOC troops, however, forced their way ashore, built a fort, and compelled the Bandanese to sign a treaty granting the company a monopoly on nutmeg purchases. Nevertheless, the Bandanese never submitted to the inequitable Dutch monopoly. They traded with English and other merchants and in 1609 massacred forty-six VOC employees. In 1621 the VOC Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen arrived with a fleet to conquer the islands. After an initial Dutch show of force, the Bandanese elite tried to negotiate with Coen, but he ordered forty-eight of them executed and shipped their families into slavery in Batavia (now Jakarta). The Bandanese then fled to the uplands, where Dutch troops undertook a sustained campaign of extermination for several months. Many Bandanese were killed; others starved to death or cast themselves from the cliffs near Selamma rather than surrender. A few managed to escape by boat to the Kai Islands, where a small community still remained as of 2004. Bandanese on the English-occupied island of Run were not slaughtered, but captured and enslaved. The population of the archipelago declined from 15,000 to about 1,000. The VOC directors in Amsterdam later concluded that Coen should have acted with greater moderation, but awarded him 3,000 guilders for his services.

As well as ensuring control of the nutmeg trade, the genocide perpetrated by Coen's troops cleared the way for European settlement, with which Coen hoped to consolidate Dutch power in the archipelago. The nutmeg groves were divided into perken (parks), each with about fifty trees, and allocated to European settlers as VOC tenants, while labor was supplied by slaves introduced from other parts of the archipelago. For further reading, see Hanna, Willard A. (1978). Indonesian Banda: Colonialism and Its Aftermath in the Nutmeg Islands. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues and Loth, Vincent C. (1995). "Pioneers and Perkeniers: The Banda Islands in the 17th Century." Cakalele 6:13–35. ROBERT CRIBB

Means of Prevention

Because ethnocide often follows centuries of discrimination, the latter should be regarded as an early warning system. Abuse of rights such as the rights to one's religious beliefs, to freedom of association, to control the education of children, and to use one's own language indicates the threat of ethnocide (e.g., discrimination against Albanian pupils and teachers, and the closing of Albanian educational, cultural, and scientific institutions, as well as the virtual elimination of the Albanian language, preceded violence in Kosovo). Societal pressures leading toward ethnocide should be immediately addressed, especially when enmity has historically existed between communities.

The first step is publicizing a breach of human rights and requiring compliance. A program of tolerance, based on UNESCO's 1995 Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, and encouragement of cultural diversity should also be put in place. Appreciation, particularly of traditional cultures under threat, can be engendered by programs encouraging respect for the practitioners of older cultural values and traditions, such as UNESCO's Living Human Treasures program (instituted in 2002). Programs that encourage the survival of threatened languages can also play an important role, as can language-teaching programs. Multilingualism is an important aspect of intercultural appreciation, since it enables better understanding of unfamiliar value systems. In addition, cultural exchanges should be encouraged.

Polices of multiculturalism, similar to those that have been officially adopted in countries such as Australia and Canada, promote the value of cultural diversity within states by various means: the promotion of multicultural and multilinguistic media, the provision of at least some government services in minority languages, the recognition of religious and other important holidays celebrated by all communities in a state, and the provision of education, at least at the primary school level and in the communities most affected, in a mother language. Including the representatives of many cultures in official and other public ceremonies, and representatives of all groups in public committees and other official activities, also raises awareness of these groups and their contribution to the culture of the state as a whole.

The acknowledgment of former ethnocidal policies and the groups responsible for them is also important in preventing their recurrence. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa has sought, by admission of the evils perpetrated and a purposeful confrontation with its former opponents, to defuse intercommunal hatreds. Rwanda has taken similar action.

Another reaction to threatened or actual genocide, including ethnocide, has historically been armed intervention (e.g., the UN's intervention in the Belgian Congo from 1960 to 1964 following the violence after that country gained its independence). However, interventions by individual states have very often been associated with other motives, such as the protection of economic interests or the pursuit of political ends. And such interventions have also generally been regarded as perilous; especially after the loss of eighteen U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, states remained reluctant to intervene in Rwanda in 1994, despite the clear threat and later evidence of genocide. Subsequent interventions, such as that in Kosovo, have shown the limited success of such efforts once violence has broken out. Many of these efforts have been made without sufficient force—the example of Srebrenica being the most obvious—and the preservation of culture has been abandoned in favor of rescuing human lives. What peacekeepers can do to save endangered heritage is therefore limited, and in the current international context ethnocide is unlikely to be substantially deterred by the threat of intervention by force.

Finally, the prosecution of offenders comes long after the event of ethnocide and is dependent on states' handing over the perpetrators. It is very important that the international community as a whole not tolerate such behavior and ensure its punishment, but thus far the deterrent effect of this more frequently held approach has proven small.

SEE ALSO Ethnic Cleansing; Ethnic Groups; Genocide; Lemkin, Raphael


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Lyndel V. Prott