Anna Gopsill
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From its very conception, the word genocide has been entwined with humanitarian concerns and the heavy legal, social, and moral obligation to act in the face of atrocity. Until 1944, genocide was “the crime without a name,” and instead acts of genocide fell into the general categories of mass killing or crimes against humanity; but the systematic horrors of the Holocaust meant that these acts could no longer be ignored.

“Genocide” was coined by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) After experiencing the suffering of World War II, Lemkin tirelessly advocated at the United Nations (UN) for international and legal recognition of the crime of genocide. His efforts were instrumental to the adoption of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948 (Jones 2016).

Comprised of the Greek “genos” (meaning race or tribe) and the Latin “cide” (killing), genocide literally means the killing of a specific group of people (Lemkin 1944). Lemkin envisaged that genocide would also include the social, economic, and historical destruction of a group of peoples and would therefore encompass not only killing, but also eradication or removal. According to Lemkin, genocide “is intended … 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” (Lemkin 1944). Thus, its broad definition could include the eradication of language, destruction of historical monuments, or even the lack of memorialization of a significant event in the history of a people. However, genocide, its meaning, and how the international community should respond are all subject to fierce academic and legal debate (Jones 2016; Short 2016).

Genocide is legally defined by the UN Convention (1948) as an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” This could be achieved through killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring about physical destruction of the group, imposing measures to prevent births, or forcibly transferring children. One of the primary criticisms leveled at the convention is that it excludes cultural, indigenous, political, gender, and social groups from the legal definition of genocide, making it theoretically impossible to prosecute a perpetrator of genocide against these groups (Jones 2016; Short 2016). For an act to be considered genocide in the legal setting, there needs to be demonstrable intent to destroy. This often creates a legal stumbling block as documents proving intent very rarely exist, and, if they do, are veiled with neutral terminology or relevant information is redacted (Power 2003).

The 1948 convention was aimed to legally bind the signatories into acting in the face of atrocity. However, the lack of consensus about when an act constitutes genocide and the lack of political will to intervene in the affairs of another country often translates in practice to a lack of agreement about when or how to intervene or provide support (Annan 1998).

The international community was criticized for being a bystander and not intervening to prevent genocide in either Rwanda or Cambodia. Further, during the Bosnian war the UN was present but was unable to secure protection of civilians and protect a safe area, leading to the murder of 8000 men and boys in Srebrenica (Power 2003). The 1995 Srebrenica massacre, genocide in Rwanda (1994), and atrocities in Kosovo (1998–1999) and Darfur in the 1990s pushed genocide to the forefront of political and humanitarian discourses, bringing questions of the role of humanitarianism in confronting and preventing genocide into public, political, and academic debate. In 2005, arguably as a result of the atrocities witnessed in the 1990s, the UN implemented the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). While this has created an infrastructure that is supposed to protect the most vulnerable and prevent genocide and other mass atrocities, it has also raised concerns that military interventions with other goals are justified by R2P. Although evoked several times, Libya is the only case where the R2P doctrine has been officially used. The doctrine was claimed to be implemented via the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which was proposed by France, Lebanon, and the United Kingdom and adopted on March 17, 2011. The multistate NATO-led coalition adopted military means with the supposed aim of protecting civilians from an oppressive regime. However, the legitimacy and the effects of the international intervention are still debated, and figures related to casualties of the 2011 coalition bombing are contested. According to Human Rights Watch (2012), the bombing resulted in a loss of life of at least 72 civilians and up to 1000 supposed combatants; according to Libyan sources, the figures are higher. The long-term implications of the intervention, including displacement and instability, are still unfolding.

Different cases globally demonstrate the complicated humanitarian challenges posed by genocide and intervention. The international community is yet to find a way to effectively protect civilians and prevent murderous conflict and genocide (Annan 1998; Kuperman 2001).


  • Annan, K.A. (1998) Peacekeeping, Military Intervention, and National Sovereignty in Internal Armed Conflict. In: Moore, J. ed. Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention. Rowan and Littlefield.

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  • Human Rights Watch (2012) Unacknowledged Deaths: Civilian Casualties in NATO’s Air Campaign in Libya. Human Rights Watch Report.

  • Jones, A. (2016) Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. Routledge.

  • Kuperman, A.J. (2001) The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda. Brookings Institution Press.

  • Lemkin, R. (1944) Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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  • Power, S. (2003) “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide . HarperCollins.

  • Short, D. (2016) Redefining Genocide: Settler Colonialism, Social Death and Ecocide. Zed Books.

  • UN (United Nations) (1948) UN Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide .

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