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  • Zac Francis

Genocide: Definition, Causes & Prevention

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

Genocide is widely considered the gravest of crimes against humanity. It is the epitome of human evil, an evil that repeatedly prevailed during the 20th century. Even today genocide exists—consider the targeted killings of the Rohingya Muslim people by the Myanmar government.

Following the atrocities of the Holocaust, the international community came together, promising that something like that would never happen again. Since then, the nations of Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia have experienced their own genocides, to name but a few.

But whilst most are aware of cases of genocide, few know its actual definition and even less understand why such a crime occurs. This cheat sheet intends to inform readers on genocide, how it is defined, why it happens and what is being done to prevent it.

What is genocide?

While most can provide an example of genocide, a true definition remains more elusive. After witnessing the atrocities of the Holocaust, Jewish-Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin fought to have genocide recognised as an official crime under international law.

The United Nations Genocide Convention of December 1948 provided a legal definition of what constitutes genocide. The definition of the crime as contained in Article II of the Genocide Convention is as follows.

“any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnic, 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.”

This definition is not without its critics. Some contend that the definition is too narrow, with numerous mass killings and ethnic cleansings escaping the label of genocide. Commonly raised arguments point out the exclusion of political and social groups, the definition’s failure to include acts against the environment which supports a group’s way of life, and the question of how many deaths equates to genocide.

Why does genocide occur?

Why genocide happens is something the academic community has long attempted to answer. The complexity of human behaviour has made a universal answer impossible. Instead, leading experts put it down to a combination of circumstances that lead to humanity’s gravest crime.

Often, there are overlapping themes:

Formation of distinct groups

Perpetrators typically formulate distinct groups and suggest the survival and progression of one group is reliant on the eradication of another. Nazi ideology claimed the Jewish people were preventing the Aryan race from capitalising on their full potential.


Offenders utilise the media and other communication systems to enforce their genocidal ideology. The use of Nazi propaganda to dehumanise Jews is well known. Additionally, the Rwandan radio station, RTLM, acted as a source of propaganda by encouraging hatred and violence towards Tutsi’s—exemplified by their interchangeable use of the words ‘Tutsi’ and ‘cockroach’.

Escalation of violence

There is also the development of violence and aggression. Most genocides do not occur in a vacuum, caused by a singular event. Perpetrators shift what is considered the norm, carrying out small acts of aggression prior to mass extermination. Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany signified the departure from discrimination and the shift towards violence.

Lack of international intervention

Genocide is often legitimised by the lack of intervention by the international community. The UN knew of the Cambodian genocide, perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, and did nothing. The United States, who were at war with the Cambodian government, actively supported the Khmer Rouge, claiming to be choosing the lesser of two evils. Global superpowers tend to consolidate their own interests first, whether political or economic. The lack of intervention from so-called free and democratic nations is taken as a form of approval of genocide.
Rohingya refugees crossing the Bangladesh/Myanmar border

Is there no international legislation to prevent it?

The previously mentioned Genocide Convention signified the international community’s commitment to ‘never again’ following the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s. 152 states (as of July 2019) agreed to state obligations under the Genocide Convention that include the obligation to not commit genocide in addition to preventing and punishing it.

However, these obligations have not proven practical. Often, it is the state who is responsible for the genocide—the atrocities in Rwanda were perpetrated by the Hutu-led government. Furthermore, genocide frequently occurs during wartime whilst the state is occupied. The Khmer Rouge capitalised on the Cambodian governments conflict with the United States, carrying out mass killings with minimal state intervention.

Outside intervention is a rare occurrence, with other states prioritising domestic issues alongside their international ambition. Increasing levels of globalisation makes international intervention even less likely, with modern economies reliant on trade and co-operation between nations. The current genocide in Myanmar illustrates the stand-off between doing what is right and doing what’s economically advantageous. Although condemned by the UN and US, no further action has been taken. This can be attributed to the West’s unwillingness to sacrifice their economic interests in Asia.

For more resources on the real world impacts of racism and discrimination, head to our dedicated Racism, Islamophobia & Antisemitism section.

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