In Depth

What is the definition of genocide?

Russia accused of mass civilian killings in areas surrounding Kyiv

Russia has been forced to deny allegations that its troops committed genocide in Ukraine after images emerged of mass graves and civilian bodies in the town of Bucha.

Western outrage intensified amid claims that Ukrainian civilians had been murdered, with EU leaders denouncing “massacres”, “atrocities” and “possible genocide”. The Kremlin, meanwhile, rejected the possibility that its troops targeted civilians during their retreat from areas surrounding Kyiv.

The term genocide was coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, according to the United Nations. But what does it mean – and when does wartime killing constitute an act of genocide?

What is genocide?

The word genocide consists of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. The act was first codified in 1948, in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

According to PBS, the treaty outlines five acts that can constitute genocide if they are done “with the intent to destroy an ethnic, national, racial or religious group”.

These are killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births; and forcibly transferring children.

To qualify as genocide, the actions “must be done with intent to eliminate an entire group of people”, the broadcaster added. Without provable intent, a group or individual may instead be charged with “crimes against humanity” or “ethnic cleansing”.

What is wrong with this definition?

According to the BBC, the UN treaty has “come under fire from different sides”, mostly by people “frustrated with the difficulty” of applying the term genocide to specific cases.

Among the main complaints are that the convention excludes targeted political and social – rather than purely ethnic – groups; is limited to direct acts against people and omits acts against the environment that sustains the victims or their cultural distinctiveness.

But the most troubling issue is that war crime tribunals have struggled to establish a legal standard for genocidal intent. “Few perpetrators, with the notable exception of the Nazi regime, left explicit plans detailing their intentions to eradicate groups,” PBS said.

“Genocide is distinguishable from all other crimes by the motivation behind it,” said Alain Destexhe, former secretary general of Médecins Sans Frontières, in his book Rwanda and Genocide in the 20th Century.

The waters are muddied by incorrect usage of the word, which has fallen victim to “a sort of verbal inflation, in much the same way as happened with the word fascist”, he added.

This warning is echoed by Michael Ignatieff, former director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, who the BBC said described the transatlantic slave trade is an example of the term being misused.

Slavery is often described as having been genocidal, he has said in public lectures, when in fact “it was a system to exploit, rather than to exterminate the living”.

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