The word “genocide” was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. It consists of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. Lemkin developed the term partly in response to the Nazi policies of systematic murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust, but also in response to previous instances in history of targeted actions aimed at the destruction of particular groups of people. Later on, Raphäel Lemkin led the campaign to have genocide recognised and codified as an international crime.
Genocide was first recognised as a crime under international law in 1946 by the United Nations General Assembly (A/RES/96-I). It was codified as an independent crime in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention). The Convention has been ratified by 149 States (as of January 2018). The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has repeatedly stated that the Convention embodies principles that are part of general customary international law. This means that whether or not States have ratified the Genocide Convention, they are all bound as a matter of law by the principle that genocide is a crime prohibited under international law. The ICJ has also stated that the prohibition of genocide is a peremptory norm of international law (or ius cogens) and consequently, no derogation from it is allowed.
The definition of the crime of genocide as contained in Article II of the Genocide Convention was the result of a negotiating process and reflects the compromise reached among United Nations Member States in 1948 at the time of drafting the Convention. Genocide is defined in the same terms as in the Genocide Convention in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 6), as well as in the statutes of other international and hybrid jurisdictions. Many States have also criminalized genocide in their domestic law; others have yet to do so.
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:
Killing members of the group;
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Elements of the crime
The Genocide Convention establishes in Article I that the crime of genocide may take place in the context of an armed conflict, international or non-international, but also in the context of a peaceful situation. The latter is less common but still possible. The same article establishes the obligation of the contracting parties to prevent and to punish the crime of genocide.
The popular understanding of what constitutes genocide tends to be broader than the content of the norm under international law. Article II of the Genocide Convention contains a narrow definition of the crime of genocide, which includes two main elements:
A mental element: the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such"; and
A physical element, which includes the following five acts, enumerated exhaustively:
Killing members of the group
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
The intent is the most difficult element to determine. To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group. It is this special intent, or dolus specialis, that makes the crime of genocide so unique. In addition, case law has associated intent with the existence of a State or organizational plan or policy, even if the definition of genocide in international law does not include that element.
Importantly, the victims of genocide are deliberately targeted - not randomly – because of their real or perceived membership of one of the four groups protected under the Convention (which excludes political groups, for example). This means that the target of destruction must be the group, as such, and not its members as individuals. Genocide can also be committed against only a part of the group, as long as that part is identifiable (including within a geographically limited area) and “substantial.”