ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

A Critical Introduction to Genocide


Genocide, the intentional destruction of a specific group, is an important subject for scholars of state crimes, yet it remains underexplored within the discipline. In light of the increasing pervasiveness of genocide in the twentieth century, it is perhaps surprising that genocide studies have tended to be the remit of historians and theologians. Social scientists rarely turned their attention to the study of this particular type of criminality until the 1970s (Fein, 1979; Horowitz, 1982:3; Bauman, 1989:3, Fein 1993:5; Fein, 2002:75). Hirsch (1995: 75) suggests that even today sociological attention to this topic has at best grown from almost nonexistent to scarcely existent.

There is no indication as to where or when the first genocide occurred, the evidence from antiquity being contradictory, ambiguous or missing. Kuper (1981) argued the word is new, the crime ancient, making reference to horrifying genocidal massacres in the eighth and seventh centuries BC in the Assyrian empire in addition to accounts of the many genocidal conflicts in the Bible and in the chronicles of Greek and Roman historians.

In a 1941 BBC radio broadcast, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, described the actions of the Nazis in Europe as a crime without a name (Elder, 2005: 470). Two years later, Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish specialist in international law, created the neologism of genocide to express the use or a user of deliberate, systematic measures such as killing, bodily or mental injury, unliveable conditions, and prevention of births, calculated to bring about the extermination of a racial, political, or cultural group or to destroy the language, religion, or culture of a group (Elder, 2005: 469). In developing this new term, Lemkin combined the Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin word cide (killing). Lemkin became the founding figure of the United Nations Genocide Convention (UNGC).

After two years of acrimonious debate over the definition of genocide, the United Nations General Assembly finally passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in December 1948. By October 1950, twenty countries had ratified the Convention on Genocide and, in January 1951, after ratification by Canada, the UNCG came into effect. There was one notable exception; the United States refused to ratify the Convention, arguing that it could prove detrimental to American citizenry. The US Senate did finally ratify the Convention in 1986, some forty years after it was first drafted.

In its present form, the United Nations Convention on Genocide dictates that genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group:

(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.

Article II, Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948.

In the said Convention, the following acts are punishable:

(a) Genocide;

(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;

(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;

(d) Attempt to commit genocide

(e) Complicity in genocide.

Article III, Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948.

The UNGC definition of genocide is simultaneously broad and narrow, and draws no distinction between types of genocide, seeking instead to define the elements they commonly share (Kuper 1985: 150).

Unsurprisingly, the term genocide bewilders scholars and initiates controversial and frequently hostile debate over what exactly constitutes genocide. Despite a wealth of excellent scholarship on definitions, genocide remains to this day a deeply contested concept with a lack of unanimity about its core definition (Charny, 1999; Alvarez, 2001; Rittner et al, 2002, Charny, 2003:23). A review of the sociological literature identifies at least thirteen different definitions of genocide (Straus, 2001) with some arguing that both political and social groups should be included in any definition of genocide (Charny,1988; Drost, 1975; Kuper, 1981; and Totten, 2002). Such contention is highly problematic since intervention and prevention of genocide, and the prosecution of cases that include genocidal-like actions, are dependent on an accepted and analytically rigorous definition.

Historically, a number of typologies of genocide have been presented in literature, some of which include actions involving indigenous peoples specifically. Dadrian (1975), for example, identified five types of genocide: (a) cultural genocide, in which assimilation is the perpetrators aim; (b) latent genocide, the result of activities with unintended consequences (for example, the spread of diseases during an invasion); (c) retributive genocide, that designed to punish a segment of a minority that challenges a dominant group; (d) utilitarian genocide, the using of mass killing to obtain control of economic resources; and (e) optimal genocide, which is characterized by the slaughter of a group to achieve its obliteration,

Conversely, Chalk and Jonassohn (1990: 12-15) identified four types, namely genocide designed (a) to eliminate a potential or future threat; (b) to acquire economic wealth; (c) to create terror; and (d) to implement a belief, theory, or ideology.

Historically the following twentieth century cases of atrocity have been labelled as genocide by many scholars of genocide (Totten et al, 2004): genocide of the Hereros; the Armenian genocide; the Soviet man-made famine in Ukraine; the Nazi genocide of Jew, Gypsies, Russians, disabled persons and homosexuals; the Indonesian massacres of suspected Communists; the genocide in East Timor; the Bangladesh genocide; the genocide of the Hutu in Burundi; the Cambodian genocide; the Iraqi genocide of the Kurds in the late 1980s; the 1994 Rwandan genocide; the genocide perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s; the genocide in Sudan. However, few of the foregoing cases are definable as genocide in terms of article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (1948).

Even if one was to refer solely to those cases deemed to constitute genocide in terms of the UNGC , there is still no crime in the twentieth century that has been more costly, more devastating, and more global in its impact. Genocide undoubtedly presents one of the most complete and conspicuous illustrations of state crime in violation of international criminal law.


Alvarez, A., (2001), Governments, Citizens, and Genocide: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary Approach, Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Press

Barta, T., (2005), ‘Mr Darwin’s shooters: on natural selection and the naturalizing of genocide’, Patterns of Prejudice, 39: 2, 116-137

Bauman, Z., (1989), Modernity and the Holocaust, Ithaca, Cornell University Press

Cameron, (2010), Illuminating External Institutional Bystander Complicity in Genocide: Case Study Rwanda (forthcoming).

Chalk, F., and Jonassohn, K., (1990), The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies, New Haven, Yale University Press

Charny, I.W., (1988), Intervention and Prevention of Genocide in Charney, I.W., (Ed), Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Revie, New York, Facts on File.

Charny, I.W., (1999), Encyclopaedia of Genocide, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio

Charny, I.W., (2003), A Classification of Denials of the Holocaust and other Genocides, Journal of Genocide Research, 5 (1), 11 34

Dadrian, V.N., (1975), A Typology of Genocide, International Review of Sociology, 5, 2: 201-212

Drost, P., (1975), The Crime of State (Vol. 2), Leyden, A.W.Sythoff

Elder, T., (2005), ‘What you see before your eyes: Documenting Raphael Lemkin’s life by exploring his archival Papers, 1900 – 1959’, Journal of Genocide Research, 7:4, 469 – 499

Fein, H., (1979) ‘Is Sociology Aware of Genocide? Recognition of Genocide in Introductory Sociology Texts in the US, 1947 – 1977, ” Humanity and Society, 3 (3), pp 177 193

Fein, H., (1993), Genocide: A Sociological Perspective, London, Sage Publications

Fein, H., (2002), Genocide: A Sociological Perspective in Hinton, A.L., (ed), (2002), Genocide: An Anthropological Reader, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers

Hirsch, H., (1995), Genocide and the Politics of Memory: Studying Death to Preserve Life, Chapel Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press

Horowitz, I.L., (1982), Taking Lives: Genocide and State Power, New Brunswick, Transaction

Kuper, L., (1981), Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press

Kuper, Leo (1985). The Prevention of Genocide. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press

Lemkin, R., (1944), Genocide in Hinton, A.L., (ed), (2002), Genocide: An Anthropological Reader, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Levene, M., (1994), Is the Holocaust Simply Another Example of Genocide?, Patterns of Prejudice, 28(2)

Merivale, H., (1861), Lectures on Colonization and Colonies, London: Green, Longman and Roberts

Pakenham, T., (1992), The Scramble for Africa, London: Abacus

Rittner, C., Roth, J.K., Smith, J.M., (2002), Will Genocide Ever End? , St Paul, MN: Paragon House

Scheper-Hughes, N., (2004), ‘Ishi’s brain, Ishi’s ashes: anthropology and genocide’, in Scheper Hughes, N., and Bourgois, P., Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell

Straus, S., (2001) “Contested meanings and conflicting imperatives: a conceptual analysis of genocide”, Journal of Genocide Research, 3:3, 349 375

Totten, S., (2002), A Matter of Conscience, in Totten, S., and Jacobs, S., (Eds) Pioneers of Genocide Studies, New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers

Totten, S., Parsons, W.S., and Charny, I.W., (2004), Century of Genocide: Critical Essays and Eyewitness Accounts, New York, Routledge

United Nations Genocide Convention (1948), available online at