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Genocide and Human Rights

The horrors of the mass murders and other atrocities committed by the Nazis shocked the conscience of all decent people. After World War II the nations of the world were determined to prevent such grave crimes from recurring or, at the very least, to ensure that they would in future be severely punished. New international treaties on human rights, the humane treatment of civilians in time of war, sanctuary for refugees and the elimination of racial discrimination came into effect, recognising the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) a Polish-Jewish lawyer, attempted to describe the Nazis’ agenda for systematic murder, including the destruction of European Jewry. He coined the term “genocide” by combining geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe, with –cide, from the Latin word for killing. Lemkin conceptualised the ‘act of genocide’ as being, “a co-ordinated plan …. aimed at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” In 1945, the International Military Tribunal held at Nuremberg, Germany, charged senior Nazis with, “crimes against humanity”, which were defined to include “murder, cruel treatment and persecution of a group based on its race or ethnicity in order to destroy the group”. The word “genocide” was not included in the indictments of the major Nazi war criminals as it was not included in the international agreement that established the Tribunal.

In 1948, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and in no small measure due to the ceaseless efforts of Lemkin himself, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention recognised “genocide” as an international crime. It is now accepted that the prohibition of genocide is binding not only on States which are parties to the Convention but on all States as a fundamental principle of customary international law.

“Genocide” is defined in Article 2 of the 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: 

(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.” 
The crime of genocide is the most serious crime known to humanity. The “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such” is the critical element, and distinguishes genocide from other atrocious crimes, and from other massacres that have occurred throughout history. The prohibition against genocide is now a fundamental principle of international law which binds all States and all people.

Holocaust experts all agree that genocide was a fundamental part of the Holocaust. However, some scholars also say that what the Nazis did to the Jewish people went beyond genocide, for several reasons. The large-scale, systematic attempt to dehumanise, and then murder, every Jew everywhere solely for being Jewish, and regardless of his or her actions or beliefs, was unprecedented in history. This, and the Nazi belief that all Jews had to be murdered for the sake of humankind, invest the Holocaust with unique dimensions that are not present in other genocides, whether occurring before or since the Holocaust.

Recommended Reading

Kuper, L. (1981). Genocide. Yale University Press: New Haven.
M. Ignalieff (Sept 2013) The Unsung Hero Who Coined the Term “Genocide” Retrieved April 3, 2014 from http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114424/raphael-lemkin-unsung-hero-who-coined-genocide.
Staub, E. (1989). The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Tatz, C. (2003). With Intent To Destroy. Verso: London.
Tatz, C., Arnold, P., & Tatz, S. (2003). Genocide Perspectives II. Brand & Schlesinger & the Australian Institute for Holocaust Studies. : Sydney.
Totten, S., Parsons, W. S., & Charny, P. (Eds.). (1997). Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts & Critical Views. Garland Publishing Inc: New York.
Wallimann, I., & Dobkowski, M. N. (1987). Genocide in the Modern Age: Etiology and Case Studies of Mass Death. Syracuse University Press: USA.
Wiltshire, B. (2005). Get ‘Em All! Kill ‘Em! Lexington Books: New York.