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What is Genocide?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “genocide” is used to refer to a planned, systematic, and deliberate destruction of a particular cultural, ethnic, political, religious, or racial group. Numerous examples of genocides can be found throughout history; some notable 20th century genocides occurred under the Nazis during the Holocaust, in Bosnia under Slobodan Milosevic, and in the African regions of Rwanda and Darfur. Collectively, the international community agrees that genocide is a heinous act, and several attempts have been made to intervene in obvious genocides.

This term was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a man who knew of which he spoke, since he escaped from Poland shortly before the Nazis took over. According to Lemkin, genocide is not necessarily something which happens all at once; it can be extremely gradual but still aimed at the end goal of total annihilation. This can make genocide difficult to identify at times, because it may be well advanced by the time outside observers realize what is happening.

There are a number of ways to carry out a genocide. Outright murder of the group in question is common, of course, as is inflicting serious injuries which lead to mass loss of life. Genocide can be more insidious as well; for example, members of the group may be forced to undergo sterilization, and their children may be taken from them and raised as children of another ethnic group. Another common trait to many genocides is the deliberate undermining of quality of life for the group, as was seen in Poland when Jewish people were forced into ghettos. By creating situations which are untenable for life, taking away the ability to reproduce, and murdering people in an ethnic group, a genocide will slowly but steadily ensure that the group is stamped out.

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly passed a law declaring that genocide was illegal and clearly defining the term, in the interests of eliminating confusion. Since then, several government leaders have been prosecuted for genocide, and several instances of genocide have been identified and addressed. However, the United Nations has been accused of being slow to act in situations where genocide is suspected.

Some other examples of genocide include the mass extermination of Christian Armenians in Turkey in the early part of the 20th century, the forced labor marches and camps of Stalin in Russia, and the infamous Rape of Nanjing which was perpetrated by Japanese forces in the early stages of the Second World War.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By jessiwan — On Oct 29, 2013

I have a question: let's pretend I have a lot of power. And I force people to screen their fetuses and embryos and abort the ones that carry genes that predispose them towards psychopathy (and let's pretend we have the technology). The aim is to rid the world of psychopaths. Is this also genocide?

By glinda — On Aug 11, 2010

As in Germany in World War II the extermination of a group of people (Jews).

By Georgesplane — On Jun 09, 2010

@ Glasshouse - You point out that the number of displaced refugees from Darfur is over 2 million; the truth is the total number of internally displaced citizens and refugees in the country of Sudan (including Darfur) is somewhere between 5.5 to 6.4 million. The truth is sad. The division between the Arab and non-Arab populations of Sudan is a product of environmental effects. A combination of desertification, drought, and famine created a tense relationship between the nomadic Arabs of north Darfur, and the farming Fur people of Darfur. For centuries these two groups were able to coexist in peace. The Fur would allow the nomadic tribes to graze their land and the tribes would trade with the FUR. The relationship was symbiotic. The problem arose when the tribes were forced farther south into the Darfur region due to a failure of the land to the north. This created a situation where there simply weren't enough resources to sustain the two ethnic groups. Add to the situation refugees flooding the Darfur region from Chad, and the mix was explosive. When the war between the government and the rebels broke out, the displaced nomadic tribes joined the Janjaweed with the hopes that they could secure land for themselves through forceful means. This brings us to present day where two ethnic groups that once respected each other are now mortal enemies fighting for survival. It all comes down to resources reserves and environmental degradation, and more conflicts like this can be expected as climate change becomes a reality and populations swell.

By Glasshouse — On Jun 09, 2010

@ Babalaas - The situation in Darfur is dire. According to Amnesty international, over 2 million refugees have been displaced from their homes, 300,000 have been killed, and rape, sex trafficking, kidnapping, and murder are an everyday occurrence. The most recent conflict associated with the genocide arose in 2003, and is split mostly along ethnic lines; pitting the ethnic minority Arab tribes against the non-Arab tribes of the region. The reason that international action has not been taken may be partially due to the newly developed oil resources of the region, and the complicated relationship that the Sudanese government maintains with other UN nations. If the crisis were to be officially labeled as genocide, then the most likely action would be condemnation, trade embargoes, and sanctions levied against the Sudanese government. It would be a tough sell to get most nations to agree to this when many nations are trying to get into Sudan to secure access to the country's resources. The truth is sad.

By Babalaas — On Jun 09, 2010

I hear about the genocide in Darfur, but I do not really understand the dynamics of the situation. Is the genocide like the one in Rwanda where people are literally being hacked to death or is it a more subtle genocide (not that nay genocide is subtle). Why hasn't anything been done by the international community about this genocide? The article stated that the definition of genocide is clearly defined by the UN, and that it is illegal by international law. Why has there been no action taken against the Sudanese Government?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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