The idea of genocide as a distinct crime did not have any currency before World War II. The term was introduced by a Polish-Jewish jurist named Raphael Lemkin who emigrated from Poland to the United States when Germany invaded at the beginning of World War II. At the time, he had been working to have crimes that would later be designated as genocide criminalized under international law since at least 1933 without much success. It was in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, that he coined the word genocide, defining it as “…a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with an aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”83
After the war, Lemkin was instrumental in making sure that genocide was among the list of offenses for which Nazi officials were prosecuted (see “Courts and Justice in International Law: The Post-World War II Military Tribunals” below), but genocide had not yet been legally declared a crime under international law. Lemkin actively lobbied for several years until the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the UN in 1948. For the next ten years, he passionately devoted himself to persuading as many countries as possible to ratify the Convention and pass national legislation implementing its principles.84
The Genocide Convention declared genocide an “odious scourge” from which mankind must be “liberate[d].” It officially criminalized genocide in all its forms: the act itself, conspiracy or attempts to commit genocide, incitement to encourage genocide, or complicity in genocidal acts. Importantly, Article 4 made clear that any individual could be held liable for the crime of genocide, whether they were acting in a public or private capacity.85 Thus, no one would be safe from prosecution and no excuses could be advanced to justify this terrible act.
|Genocide vs. War Crimes vs. Crimes Against Humanity
The concept of genocide can be confusing because it often seems to overlap with two other types of crimes that have a special place in international law: war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A war crime is generally understood to be a violation of the laws and customs of war, as established by the Geneva and Hague Conventions and other international traditions. Over time, our understanding of what constitutes a war crime has evolved as international courts and tribunals have issued rulings and established precedents.
Some examples of war crimes include: “Wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity; attack, or bombardment, by whatever means, of undefended towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings; seizure of, destruction or willful [sic] damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments and works of art and science; plunder of public or private property.”86
A crime against humanity is thought to be a crime “committed in armed conflict but directed against a civilian population.” Crimes against humanity can include slavery, deportation, certain kinds of incarceration, and “persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds.” The distinction between war crimes and crimes against humanity is subtle and not entirely fixed.
The crime of “mass systematic rape,” for example, was upgraded from a war crime to a crime against humanity in a 2001 ruling by an international court sitting in the Hague, Netherlands.87 Both types of crimes are regarding as extremely serious and are subject to prosecution by UN-authorized international tribunals.
Genocide shares characteristics with both war crimes and crimes against humanity, but is considered the most egregious crime of all. It goes beyond the crimes of war and constitutes an attack against the very existence of people.