Lemkin Factsheet

The term genocide was coined by a Polish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin.  While working as a public prosecutor for the district court in Warsaw in 1933, Lemkin presented a paper at an international conference held by the League of Nations arguing for the inclusion of a law for the Crime of Barbarity.  In this paper, he used the mass killings of Armenians during World War I and the Assyrians in Iraq as a template for this new crime.  It would prove to be the formative work that led to the creation of the term genocide as well as the 1948 United Nations Convention.  

In 1943, Lemkin published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, in which he first defined the term: 

By "genocide" we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), thus corresponding in its formation to such words as tyrannicide, homocide, infanticide, etc.  Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation.  It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.  The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.  Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.

Lemkin, a Jew who fled Poland after the 1939 invasion, would spend years petitioning the League of Nations and the subsequent United Nations to enact a measure to prosecute countries and individuals who commit genocide.  In 1948, he claimed victory with the passage of General Assembly Resolution 260: The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG), which defines genocide as:

Article II

In the present 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.

Unfortunately, a number of key concepts from Lemkin's original definition were dropped in order to ensure passage by the United Nations.  The impact of this has been decades of debate among politicians about what constitutes genocide and enough confusion to allow the international community to deny acts of genocide when they are occurring.  

Over the last twenty years, the following have been proposed by scholars as workable definitions within the field of genocide studies:   

Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn

"Genocide is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator" (in The History and Sociology of Genocide, 1990). 

Israel W. Charny

"Genocide in the generic sense is the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military forces of an avowed enemy, under conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims". (in Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions ed. George Andreopoulos, 1994). 

Helen Fein

"Genocide is sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim". (in Genocide: A Sociological Perspective, 1993). 

Barbara Harff and Ted R. Gurr

"By our definition, genocides and politicides are the promotion and execution of policies by a state or its agents which result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a group. The difference between genocides and politicides is in the characteristics by which members of the group are identified by the state. In genocides the victimized groups are defined primarily in terms of their communal characteristics, i.e., ethnicity, religion or nationality. In politicides the victim groups are defined primarily in terms of their hierarchical position or political opposition to the regime and dominant groups" (in "Toward empirical theory of genocides and politicides," International Studies Quarterly 37, 3 [1988]).

Conceptual Framework

The next question is what conceptual framework could be used when discussing genocide?  This is often difficult as genocides are carried out in vastly different ways, making it extremely problematic to analyze whether any given event might be genocidal in nature.   Fortunately, when he was initially working with the concept, Lemkin outlined a series of "techniques" that are often used to perpetrate genocide; by using these techniques as a guide, we can easily construct a framework that will help us understand the concept of genocide.

  1. Political – includes the elimination of self-government and any local group decision making.
  2. Social – restricting the freedom or eliminating the intelligentsia. 
  3. Cultural – patterns of restricting the use of a group’s native language and indoctrinating youth against a certain group.
  4. Economic – confiscating economic resources from the victim group or creating laws that limit what they are allowed to do.
  5. Biological – any process that attempts to diminish the birth rate or forcibly change the ethnic background of the victim group.
  6. Physical – endangering the health of a group or restricting their access to food or even mass murder.
  7. Religious – attacking the religious institutions or practices of a given group.
  8. Moral – refers to methods where perpetrators attempt to erode a group’s moral traditions.

It should be noted that it is not necessary for a perpetrator group to use all eight of these techniques in order to commit genocide.  Although any combination can be used, the determining factor always revolves around the physical destruction of a group; therefore, the physical category will be seen in any case of genocide, while the others will be seen to varying degrees based on the event.