April 17, 2022
Oleg Yevtushenko, 55, stands by the grave of a neighbor he said was killed by Russian soldiers in Bucha, Ukraine. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
In the nearly eight decades since the term was first used, “genocide” has conjured images of gas chambers, killing fields in Rwanda and mass graves in Srebrenica.
Evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukrainian towns such as Bucha, combined with ominous rhetoric in Russian media suggesting “de-Ukrainization,” have fueled discussion about whether Russia is carrying out genocide in Ukraine.
President Biden used the term on Tuesday, saying, “It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is trying to wipe out the idea of being Ukrainian.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has described Russian atrocities as genocide, praised Biden’s comments and called on the United States to send additional heavy weapons.
Other Western leaders have been more hesitant.
The Kremlin called Biden’s accusation “unacceptable.”
Experts are divided over the merits of declaring Russian atrocities in Ukraine a genocide at this point.
Here’s what to know about the term and its significance.
What to know:
What is the definition of ‘genocide’?
The term “genocide” was coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944, in part to describe the Nazis’ systematic murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
The Genocide Convention of 1948 codified genocide as an international crime, defining it as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Those acts include killings, inflicting serious harm on a group, making its living conditions impossible, preventing births within the group, or forcibly transferring children to another group.
Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, said people often ignore the “in part” element. Atrocities can count even if they don’t aim to wipe out a whole population, he said. Genocide Watch has called Russia’s campaign to destroy Ukrainian cities a genocide.
The roughly 150 parties to the convention — including Russia — are supposed to try to prevent and punish genocide. Under the convention, perpetrators charged with genocide are supposed to be tried in the country where the act occurred or in an international court.
Past genocides include the killing of more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda by Hutu extremists in 1994; the massacre of Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica in 1995; and the forced displacement of and attacks on ethnic groups by Sudanese forces and militias in Darfur in the early 2000s.
What legal and moral significance does the term carry?