If torture violates the right to protection from physical harm on the individual level, then genocide extends this principle to a mass scale. Genocide is defined by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (1948, 1951) as:
Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.81
Genocides have occurred throughout human history, but they did not become a matter of pressing international concern until after World War II, when the full details of the Holocaust were revealed. Tens of millions of people were systematically massacred, using the full resources of the modern nation-state and latest technology to make the executions more efficient.
What distinguishes genocide as a unique crime is the intent to destroy a group of people based on their identity as a particular group. It is fundamentally different from the killing that occurs in war, which, as detailed in the previous section on torture, usually involves standing armies and is governed by longstanding rules and traditions (see “Non-Derogability and State Sanction: Unlawful Combatants?”). To a certain extent, war, terrible as it is, has been sanctioned by the international community as a tool of foreign policy that is acceptable under certain circumstances. War is regarded as “politics conducted by other means.”82
The scope of war’s legitimacy—in a range of situations, from being a response to unwarranted aggression to preemptive war—is peripheral to this Brief. What is relevant here is that the unprecedented violence of the first half of the twentieth century taught the world a lesson. The international community determined that certain forms of killing—those rooted in a desire to exterminate an entire population—were abhorrent to the newly recognized notions of basic human dignity expressed in the UN Charter and International Bill of Rights.
For an authoritative history of genocide in the twentieth-century, see Samantha Powers’ A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2002).