What is genocide?

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer and linguist, coined the term ‘genocide’ and spent most of his life advocating that the international community recognize genocide as a crime.

In 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined genocide as:

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. 

Click here to learn more about the origins of the term ‘genocide.’

What makes genocide different?

Genocide stands apart from other crimes because genocide is the intention to destroy a specific population because, and only because, they belong to that particular group.

What about mass atrocities?

Mass atrocities is a term used to refer to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Due to the specific legal definitions attributed to each of these individual crimes, the term ‘mass atrocities’ is used as a catchall phrase to describe, more often than not, widespread targeted attacks against civilians. The International Criminal Court (ICC) defines crimes against humanity and war crimes as:

Crimes against humanity are acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.

War Crimes include grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict and in conflicts “not of an international character” listed in the Rome Statute, when they are committed as part of a plan or policy or on a large scale.

Full definitions of these crimes can be found in the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC.

Genocide and Mass Atrocities Prevention

Often the term ‘prevention’ is conflated with the idea of preventing further loss of human life after violent conflict has broken out, and after genocide and mass atrocities have taken place. These ad hoc interventions aimed at stopping ongoing genocide and ending the killing are more aptly referred to as ‘mitigation,’ as the goal is to reduce or mitigate casualties. Prevention on the other hand seeks to prevent genocide and mass atrocities from ever happening by addressing the root causes and drivers of violent conflict; this is known as ‘upstream prevention.’ Getting ahead, or upstream, of the violence is widely considered to be the best chance to ensure genocide and mass atrocities do not break out.

The 2008 Genocide Prevention Task Force report, “Preventing Genocide: A Blueprint for U.S. Policymakers,” concluded that:

[P]reventing genocide is an achievable goal. Genocide is not the inevitable result of “ancient hatreds” or irrational leaders. It requires planning and is carried out systematically. There are ways to recognize its signs and symptoms, and viable options to prevent it at every turn if we are committed and prepared.Genocide Prevention Task Force

Jewish World Watch strongly believes that preventing genocide and mass atrocities is not only an achievable goal, but that we all have a role to play in ensuring that the promise of “Never Again” moves from rhetoric to reality. Through our education and advocacy programs, we promote the ideals of atrocities prevention and suggest concrete policy changes that would help the US government adopt preventive policies.

To learn more about how you can get involved and take action now, visit our Take Action page.