(photo showing the excavation of mass graves in Srebrenica)
What is genocide?
Genocide is the deliberate, systematic and violent destruction of a group (an ethnic, racial, religious, national or political group). This destruction can take many forms:
- the outright murder of (the majority of) the members of the group
- inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about destruction
- measures intended to prevent births
- systematic rape as a means of terror and a means to “dilute” the identity of the group
- forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
- destroying the (cultural) identity of the group (forceful assimilation; imposition of a language, religion etc.)
“Systematic” is important here. Short-term outburst or pogrom type actions will probably not amount to genocide.
The “intent to destroy” is also crucial when labeling actions or campaigns as genocidal. The destruction, however, doesn’t have to be physical (i.e. large-scale murder). As is obvious from the list above, cultural destruction or destruction of the groups’ separate identity is also genocide.
Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide is
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group…”
The “in part” bit has led to some confusion. When is the part of the group that is being destroyed big enough to warrant the label of genocide? There is still some discussion about absolute numbers of victims, percentages of the total population of the group, degree of killing in the territory controlled by the killers etc.
Of all the generally recognized genocides that have taken place throughout human history, the most infamous ones occured in the 20th century (the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia, Cambodia, Stalin’s forced famines, Mao’s Great Leap Forward etc.).
Stages of genocide
Before a genocide is actually carried out, the perpetrators usually take a number of “preparatory” steps:
- dehumanization of a group (vermin, insects or diseases…)
- promotion of narratives of “us and them“
- hate propaganda, polarization
- criminalization of a group (group has to be eliminated “in order that we may live”; them or us)
- identification of victims (“yellow star”)
- concentration of victims (ghettos)
- mobilization of large numbers of perpetrators
- state support and logistical organization (arms, transport, training of militias etc.)
Causes of genocide
The causes of genocide are often hard to pin down. They include:
- long-lasting tensions
- imbalances in political power
- imbalances in wealth or economic power
- religious incompatibilities
- indoctrination and propaganda
- civil war
- ideals of cultural purity and autonomy
- ethnological constructs (e.g. the creation of “hutuness” in Rwanda) which get a life of their own
- colonial heritage
- outside indifference