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What is Genocide? - Definition, History & Examples

Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson we will explore the meaning of genocide, offer some historical examples of genocide around the world, discuss the stages of a genocide, as well as the methods a country or state may use to deny a genocide has occurred.

What is Genocide?

Chances are better than not you already know what a genocide is, even if you didn't realize that genocide is the proper term used. If you've ever heard of Adolf Hitler, concentration camps, the Nazis, or the Holocaust, you've heard of one major example of genocide.

Let's start with a definition of genocide created in 1948 by the United Nations in Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The organization defined a genocide as 'any of the following acts committed with the 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'.

This definition is internationally accepted by many countries. Generally speaking, genocide often occurs as an act of war, in an attempt to wipe out a specific population, usually one that has less power. Accordingly, it may be regarded as a war crime. The actions of German Nazi soldiers during World War II were considered war crimes. However, currently and historically, the Holocaust isn't the only example of a genocide.

Examples of Genocide

In addition to the Holocaust, several other examples of genocide exist in world history. They are often aimed at minority groups in a nation or state that have different physical characteristics (they look or appear different) or alternative religious beliefs than what are shared by members of the dominant group.

  • The persecution of Christians in Europe in the 1200s
  • An estimated 1.5 million Armenians of the Ottoman Empire killed by the Turkish government in the early 1900s
  • The genocide of thousands of Tamil people of Sri Lanka in 1983
  • An estimated 800,000 Tutsi minorities killed in Rwanda in 1994
  • Hundreds of thousands of Darfuri killed by the Janjaweed militias in Darfur, Sudan, since 2003

There are several other examples that could be argued to meet these criteria as well. For example, there are calls by many, including the UN, to classify the 2014/2015 persecution of religious and ethic minorities in Iraq, conducted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, also known as ISIL), as genocide.

Stages of Genocide

Genocide does not occur instantaneously. It requires that a large number of people be convinced that another group within their society must be annihilated. According to genocide researcher Gregory Stanton in his article 'The Ten Stages of Genocide', doing that is a social process involving the following steps:

  1. 'Classification' - identifying a group within a society as undesirable and different
  2. 'Symbolization' - labeling members of a group by notable characteristics
  3. 'Discrimination' - systematically denying rights to a less-powerful group in a society
  4. 'Dehumanization' - regarding members of a group as less than human
  5. 'Organization' - organizing groups, often militias used by the state, which then train, are armed, and plan killings. States often deny responsibility in these organizations
  6. 'Polarization' - silencing and eliminating moderate voices, especially those that are part of the dominant group, leaving extremists to spread propaganda and terrorize members of the less powerful group
  7. 'Preparation' - using terms such as 'final solution', 'ethnic cleansing', or even 'counter-terrorism' to covertly refer to the elimination of the less powerful group and spread fear in the general population
  8. 'Persecution' - identifying and separating victims from the general population, sometimes by forcing them to wear identifying marks and removing them from their homes. Lists are created, indicating persons to be eliminated
  9. 'Extermination' - killing of the victims, also referred to as 'extermination' by those carrying out the killing because they don't consider the victims to be human
  10. 'Denial' - denying of actions by the state, during and after the killing. The state takes actions, such as destroying evidence, intimidating witnesses, and blocking investigations into the deaths

Denial of Genocide

In 'The 12 Ways to Deny a Genocide', Mr. Stanton also notes that there are specific ways that countries deny a genocide occurred. Reporters and researchers who've attempted to gather evidence have been hunted, tortured and killed. For a country to admit that it allowed or participated in a genocide would mean losing the support of other countries around the world.

Mr. Stanton contends that the following are ways that states and countries may argue that a genocide never occurred (the examples are mine):

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