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What is Genocide?


By Dr. Gregory H. Stanton

President, Genocide Watch

The crime of genocide is defined in international law in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.  The Genocide Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948. The Convention entered into force on 12 January 1951. By 2020, 152 nations have ratified the Genocide Convention and over 80 nations have provisions for the punishment of genocide in domestic criminal law. The text of Article II of the Genocide Convention was included as a crime in Article 6 of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

“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, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(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.

Article III: The following acts shall be punishable:
(a) Genocide;
(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
(d) Attempt to commit genocide;
(e) Complicity in genocide.”

The following are genocidal acts when committed as part of a policy to destroy a group, in whole or in part:

a.    Killing members of the group includes direct killing and actions causing death.
b.    Causing serious bodily or mental harm includes inflicting trauma on members of the group through widespread torture, rape, sexual violence, forced or coerced use of drugs, and mutilation.
c.    Deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to destroy a group includes the deliberate deprivation of resources needed for the group’s physical survival, such as clean water, food, clothing, shelter or medical services. Deprivation of the means to sustain life can be imposed through confiscation of harvests, blockade of foodstuffs, bombing of hospitals, bombing of civilian housing, detention in camps, forcible relocation or expulsion into deserts.

d.    Prevention of births includes involuntary sterilization, forced abortion, prohibition of marriage, and long-term separation of men and women intended to prevent procreation.

e.    Forcible transfer of children may be imposed by direct force, removal of children to schools where their language or culture is prohibited, or through fear of violence, duress, detention, human trafficking, psychological oppression or other methods of coercion. The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines children as persons under the age of 14 years.

Genocidal acts need not kill or cause the death of members of a group. Genocide does not require killing.

Causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting unlivable conditions, prevention of births, and transfer of children are acts of genocide when committed as part of a policy to destroy a group’s existence.

It is a crime to plan or incite genocide, even before destruction starts, and to aid or abet genocide. The crime includes conspiracy, direct and public incitement, attempts to commit genocide, and complicity in genocide, through provision of arms to perpetrators, and blocking of aid to victims.

Civil or international war is often accompanied by genocide. War, including defensive war or counter-insurgency against terrorism, is not an excuse for genocide.

Euphemisms such as "ethnic cleansing" or "atrocities" are terms often used for genocide denial.  Neither is outlawed by treaty in international law. "Ethnic cleansing" is a term introduced by Slobodan Milosevic during the Bosnian and Kosovo genocides.  It is also a euphemism for "deportation or forcible transfer of population," which is a crime against humanity under Article 7 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court.  "Atrocities" is an umbrella term to cover genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, without specifying which crimes have been committed. It was intended to avoid legal debates and to motivate preventive action, but it has failed to do so.  Instead it has become a term used by politicians, diplomats and human rights organizations to avoid legal precision.

Element 1:

Acts of GEnocide

Element 1

“Intentional” means purposeful. Intent can be proven directly from statements or orders. But more often, it must be inferred from a pattern of coordinated acts.  Intent is inferred from the consequences of those acts.

Intent is different from motive. Whatever the motive for the crime (land expropriation, national security, territorial defense), if the perpetrators commit acts intended to destroy a group, even part of a group, it is genocide.

The phrase “in whole or in part” is important. Perpetrators need not intend to destroy the entire group. Destruction of only part of a group (such as its educated members, or members living in one region) is also genocide. A common error of genocide deniers is denial that genocide has occurred because only part of a group, rather than the whole group, is targeted for destruction.


Some national laws require intent to destroy a substantial number of a group’s members. But in international law and the International Criminal Court, an individual may be guilty of genocide even if he commits an act of genocide against only one person, so long as he knew he was participating in a larger plan to destroy a protected group.​

Element 2:

Intent to Destroy

(Dolus Specialis)

Element 2

The law protects four groups – national, ethnical, racial or religious groups. A national group means a set of individuals whose identity is defined by a common country of nationality or national origin. An ethnic group is a set of individuals whose identity is defined by common cultural traditions, language or heritage. A racial group means a set of individuals whose identity is defined by physical characteristics. A religious group is a set of individuals whose identity is defined by common religious creeds, beliefs, doctrines, practices, or rituals.

Element 3:

Protected Group

Element 3

Raphael Lemkin's

Definition of Genocide

Raphael Lemkin in his masterpiece “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe” (1943) invented the term “genocide,”by combining “genos” (race, people) and “cide” (to kill).

Lemkin defined genocide as follows:

“Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”

When Lemkin proposed a treaty against genocide to the United Nations in 1945, he defined it as follows:

“The crime of genocide should be recognized therein as a conspiracy to exterminate national, religious or racial groups. The overt acts of such a conspiracy may consist of attacks against life, liberty or property of members of such groups merely because of their affiliation with such groups. The formulation of the crime may be as follows:
“Whoever, while participating in a conspiracy to destroy a national, racial or religious group, undertakes an attack against life, liberty or property of members of such groups is guilty of the crime of genocide.”

Raphael Lemkin would have included protection for political, economic, social, and cultural groups in the Genocide Convention.  But nations that in the past or present had committed crimes against humanity in their territories or their colonial empires, including the Soviet Union, the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Iran, Egypt, Belgium, and Uruguay voted to exclude those groups from the Genocide Convention.

Copyright 2020 Genocide Watch, Inc.

Genocide Watch proposed Optional Protocol to the Genocide Convention

Read it in English or French along with a Fact Sheet/Explication about the proposed Protocol.


Optional Protocol to the Genocide Convention (English) (French)

Questions about the Optional Protocol to the Genocide Convention (English) (French)


UN Factsheets on the Genocide Convention: (English)(French)(Spanish)

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