A Brief History of Genocide

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Margaret Bourke-White / Time Life / Getty

Holocaust survivors stand behind a barbed wire fence at the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after being liberated by American forces.

In 1948, three years after the fall of Nazi Germany and the end of some of the worst human atrocities in history, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), which was eventually ratified by 140 nations, including the U.S. in 1986. The Convention marks its 60th anniversary on Dec. 9 against the backdrop of a monumental human rights crisis in Darfur and an enduring debate over the effectiveness of the CPPCG and other measures aimed at stopping genocide. (See pictures of the U.N. General Assembly members.)

The term genocide is young in the context of human conflict. It was coined in 1944 by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who combined the Greek genos (race) with the Latin cide (to kill). Despite its murderous implications, the word, as defined by the CPPCG, does not necessarily always involve the killing of individuals. Genocide denotes crimes committed "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Forced sterilization or other measures designed to prevent births, the removal of children from a group, or conditions of life inflicted on a group to bring about its demise could also be considered genocidal acts. The definition also stipulates that genocidal crimes are committed against specific kinds of groups with the deliberate purpose of eradicating them. The intent is key; in Darfur, for example, some have argued that it is impossible to prove that the Sudanese Janjaweed militias are trying to eradicate entire groups; they may, in fact, just want to displace them from disputed land. However criminal that may be, it is not automatically genocidal. The criteria have been a source of debate and have often made prosecuting genocide a complicated legal undertaking, despite the somewhat common use of the label in the media. (See pictures of Kristallnacht and its survivors.)

In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda established the precedent that rape warfare is in fact a crime of genocide, in its judgment on the extermination of an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis at the hands of Rwandan Hutu militias. It was a landmark addition to the term’s legal definition, and a judgment that could be important in future International Criminal Court proceedings related to the current situation in Darfur. Many observers have recounted stories of rape being used systematically as a weapon in Sudan for the purpose of ethnic cleansing, and the International Criminal Court is expected to decide in early 2009 whether to issue an arrest warrant, requested in July, for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. (See pictures of Darfur.)

On Dec. 8, a task force led by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recommended that President-elect Barack Obama create a dedicated interagency group that would respond to genocide by analyzing emerging threats and coordinating action with other nations. The panel, which also includes former U.S. Central Command chief Anthony Zinni, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, recommended that the U.S. government invest $250 million in new funds for prevention and response.

Meanwhile, as the crisis in Darfur heads into its sixth year, with an estimated 5,000 displaced people dying each month, the 60-year-old Convention remains an unrealized promise. Beyond the legal hurdles, there are grave political repercussions to responding to an ongoing atrocity. Some say accusations could prompt deeper isolation and violent reprisals, making conditions worse for the victims and those trying to help them.

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