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The Genocide Convention

Revelations at the end of World War II about the scale of the Nazi Holocaust spurred an effort within the newly created United Nations (UN) to set up an international legal convention that would prohibit genocide and require signatory governments to take all necessary steps to prevent or halt it. Although political leaders were initially slow in moving on the issue, Lemkin did his best to keep the issue on the UN's agenda. He repeatedly called on the world's governments to establish a legal framework that would apply to all acts of genocide, not just to those committed during interstate wars. In December 1946 the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution denouncing genocide as "the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups" and describing it as "contrary to moral law and to the spirit and aims of the United Nations." The resolution also set up a committee to draft an international treaty that would formally outlaw genocide. The result, after protracted and often arduous negotiations, was the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was approved by the UN General Assembly on a 55-to-0 vote in December 1948. The Genocide Convention was slated to enter into force after twenty of the fifty-five UN member-states that voted in favor of it submitted their formal instruments of ratification. Although some signatories of the convention, notably the United States, took many years before they ratified it, ratification by the twentieth country was completed in October 1950, allowing the convention to take effect in January 1951.

The Genocide Convention defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." In giving examples of the type of "acts" encompassed by this phrasing, the convention makes clear that genocide can occur even if no one has carried out (or intends to carry out) "mass killings." The definition in the convention is largely in keeping with Lemkin's own preference for the broadest possible scope. It also is in keeping with Lemkin's belief that genocide is targeted against an ethnic, religious, or racial group, and that the motives of the perpetrators are irrelevant. Although the convention stipulates that genocide is deliberate and purposeful (reflected in the phrase "intent to destroy") and includes "conspiracy to commit genocide" and "incitement to commit genocide" as well as the destruction itself, it does not require the signatories to determine why the perpetrators are seeking to wipe out the targeted group. Under the convention, genocide can occur irrespective of motive, in peacetime or in war.

The long delay in U.S. ratification of the Genocide Convention stemmed in part from domestic political maneuvering, but it also reflected continued disagreements among lawyers and politicians about the concept of genocide. Some U.S. senators were concerned, especially during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, that U.S. officials might come under frivolous accusations of genocide. Others worried that if the United States formally adhered to the convention, the government would be obligated to send military forces to distant countries to enforce it. Not until February 1986—nearly four decades after the convention was signed—did the U.S. Senate vote 83 to 11 in favor of ratification, albeit with a list of "reservations" in the resolution of ratification. It took another two years before Congress passed legislation that actually implemented the convention by making genocide a crime under U.S. law. Moreover, even after the ratification was approved (with reservations), U.S. officials and legislators continued to debate such matters as the scope of the convention and the means of enforcement. One of the ironies of the convention, as demonstrated during the mass killing in Rwanda in 1994, is that U.S. and other Western leaders have been reluctant to enforce it. As a result, they have refrained from using the term genocide to describe even flagrant instances of systematic killing and large-scale atrocities.

Some observers, notably Samantha Power in her prizewinning book on U.S. policy toward genocide in the twentieth century, have argued that U.S. leaders would be more inclined to enforce the convention if they knew they would be held accountable for failing to uphold it. Short of some action by Congress, however, there are few if any ways to ensure that presidents will faithfully implement the convention. Thus far, Congress has not tried to hold the president or other senior foreign policy officials accountable for preventing or punishing genocide. On the contrary, many in Congress have shared the executive branch's reluctance to send troops to enforce the Genocide Convention. (Although the convention was not invoked by the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton when it decided to bomb Serbia in 1999 to curb human rights abuses in Kosovo, some specialists argued that the convention was in fact relevant. Yet, congressional support for even that limited use of force was meager.) Power maintains that the calculus of U.S. officials on this matter will not be altered unless they are held "publicly or professionally accountable for inaction" (p. 510).

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGenocide - Origins And Evolution Of The Concept, The Genocide Convention, Persistent Controversies And Ambiguities, Bibliography