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Persistent Controversies And Ambiguities

The concept of genocide has remained a source of disagreement not only in the political arena, but also among legal scholars, historians, and political scientists. Although most scholars accept the view that genocide is targeted against a particular group, many have sought to expand the criteria for identifying particular groups. Rather than limiting the potential victims to ethnic and cultural groups, scholars such as Helen Fein and Leo Kuper have argued that genocide can also be directed against political or socioeconomic groups. This broadening of the concept is in line with Harff's and Gurr's concept of politicide, but it departs from the criteria laid out in the Genocide Convention. Some specialists, however, find even the broader conception of targeted groups to be still insufficient. In particular, Rummel has argued that the requirement for victims to be members of a group is a fatal drawback for those who want to take account of the full range of government-sponsored killing of unarmed civilians. Most scholars readily agree that genocide, if conceived of as directed against groups, leaves out many instances of slaughter and atrocities, but they still find the concept a useful one for describing a particular form of extreme abuse.

Even as scholars have generally expanded the range of potential victims of genocide, they have tended to move in the opposite direction when discussing the nature and scale of acts that fit under the rubric of genocide. In recent years, relatively few historians and political scientists have used the expansive definition of acts of genocide laid out in the Genocide Convention (in accord with Lemkin's preferences). The trend in the 1990s and early twenty-first century has generally been toward a more restrictive definition—a definition that limits acts of genocide to intentional killing of particular groups. Steven T. Katz, for example, has argued that "the concept of genocide applies only when there is an actualized intent, however successfully carried out, to physically destroy an entire group (as such a group is defined by the perpetrators)" (p. viii), and Mark Kramer has defined genocide as "deliberate mass slaughter aimed at complete extermination." (p. 2). Although some scholars continue to espouse a much broader definition of acts of genocide (a definition that would include such things as mass slavery, restrictions on cultural practices, discriminatory education policies, and limits on travel), the narrower conceptions have tended to win favor in the scholarly community.

Outside the scholarly community, however, genocide has remained an expansive concept. Many advocacy groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Genocide Watch, have sought to broaden, not restrict, the definition of acts prohibited by the Genocide Convention. They also have tried to strengthen the means of enforcing the convention. These groups vigorously supported efforts in the 1990s to establish international criminal tribunals to investigate and prosecute mass atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. They also strongly backed the ultimately successful campaign to set up an International Criminal Court (ICC), which was created under a statute signed in Rome in July 1998. Although the United States and China declined to take part in the ICC, enough other governments ratified the Rome Statute to enable the ICC to begin functioning in mid-2002.

The human rights NGOs have been less successful, however, in their attempts to persuade Western governments to enforce the Genocide Convention more rigorously. No governments adhering to the convention were willing to brand as genocide the mass atrocities committed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, against Kurds, marsh Arabs, and Iraqi Shiites. Nor were any Western governments willing to regard the mass killing in Bosnia-Hercegovina in the first half of the 1990s as genocide. Even during the slaughter of some 800,000 people (predominantly Tutsis) by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, Western governments carefully refrained from using the term genocide to describe what was going on. Officials worried that the mere use of the term would obligate them to send troops to put an end to the killing.

The unwillingness of governments to invoke the Genocide Convention in response to the massacres in Rwanda in 1994 or to the systematic atrocities perpetrated by government-backed Arab militias in the Darfur region of western Sudan in 2004 underscored the limits of both the convention and the ICC. In the absence of a concerted effort by parties to the convention to enforce it, debates about the precise scope and nature of acts of genocide are largely irrelevant. The special international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the ICC have no means of enforcing their own rulings; instead, like all international organizations, they depend entirely on individual states for enforcement. The Genocide Convention, as Lemkin recognized from the outset, is little more than a paper document unless the signatories are willing to take concrete steps to prevent mass killing and to punish the perpetrators. In a few instances, states have sent military forces to put an end to egregious human rights abuses, as Vietnam did in Cambodia in 1978 and Tanzania did in Uganda in 1979. In both of these cases, the interventions were only partly motivated by humanitarian concerns, but there is no doubt that the actions, whatever their motive, did put an end to systematic atrocities. Nonetheless, these incidents were rare exceptions. The most powerful countries, including the United States and other permanent members of the UN Security Council, have been averse to intervening abroad solely to uphold the Genocide Convention.

Despite the problems in enforcing the Genocide Convention, the document has had a notable influence on international politics. In large part through Lemkin's efforts and the widespread revulsion at the atrocities perpetrated by Nazi Germany, the convention not only attached a permanent stigma to the crime of genocide, but also helped ensure that governments could not simply brush it aside as an "internal affair" of a sovereign state. The convention made clear that unless a government lived up to certain minimum standards of conduct vis-à-vis its own citizens, that government could potentially be removed and punished by other states. No longer would sovereignty be an insuperable barrier against international action. Moving from this principle to concrete enforcement has not yet been practical, but the establishment of the principle itself has been a crucial step on the road toward more effective international responses to genocide.


Chalk, Frank, and Kurt Jonassohn. The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.

Fein, Helen. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London and Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1993.

Gellately, Robert, and Ben Kiernan, eds. The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Harff, Barbara, and Ted R. Gurr. "Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides: Identification and Measurement of Cases since 1945." International Studies Quarterly, 37, no. 3 (September 1988): 359–371.

Katz, Steven T. The Holocaust in Historical Context. Vol. 1: The Holocaust and Mass Death Before the Modern Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kramer, Mark. "Introduction." In Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944–1948, edited by Philipp Ther and Ana Siljak, 1–42. Lanham, Md.: Rowan and Littlefield, 2001.

Kuper, Leo. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Lemkin, Raphael. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944.

Power, Samantha. "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Rummel, R. J. Death by Government. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1994.

Mark Kramer

Additional topics

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