In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Genocide, Politicide, and Mass Atrocities Against Civilian Populations

  • Introduction
  • Genocide Convention
  • Debating a Definition
  • Viewing Genocide through the Lens of the Holocaust
  • Understanding Genocide since the Holocaust
  • Genocide and Related Atrocities
  • Looking Back in Time
  • Nonstate Mass Violence
  • Datasets
  • Conflicting Definitions and Effects on Empirical Findings

International Relations Genocide, Politicide, and Mass Atrocities Against Civilian Populations
Gary Uzonyi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0188


Prior to the establishment of the Genocide Convention, the international community had formed several conventions, such as the Geneva and Hague, which sought to end attacks on civilians during war. However, the international community lacked both a term for and a law against the purposeful destruction of a specific civilian group during times of peace and war. Yet, as many have pointed out, such atrocities have been common throughout human history. Emerging from the horrors of the Holocaust, and with significant help from the relentless pioneering work of Raphael Lemkin, the international community eventually found a word for these atrocities—genocide—and outlawed such violence both in times of peace and war. This was a significant step in the protection of civilians, as the Convention legislated state behavior during times of peace and specifically protected certain groups. However, since the establishment of the Genocide Convention, significant debate has surrounded the definition of genocide, enshrined in 1948 by the United Nations’ delegates. This is because genocide is understood to refer to (1) the attempted physical destruction of (2) specific groups. Scholars, policymakers, and activists have been concerned that a focus on physical destruction is too limiting as some governments have purposefully destroyed the culture of a group in order to assimilate its people into the majority population. Additionally, by limiting the protections of the Convention to specific groups—national, ethnical, racial, or religious groups—critics are concerned that governments will not face punishment for victimizing groups not covered in the Convention, such as political groups or groups of certain sexual preference. These critiques arise out of legal, normative, and positive concerns for how the Convention’s definition shapes how we understand, prosecute, and prevent genocide. Building from this dissatisfaction, countless observers, pundits, and scholars have proposed new definitions of genocide. The definition of genocide observed by the International Criminal Court even differs from the original codified by the Convention. As the avalanche of definitions continues, we must stop and consider how this array of new definitions also shapes the way in which we can understand why genocide occurs, is conducted, ends, and influences the post-violence society. The goal of this article is to explore various definitions of genocide and the ways in which these definitions influence our understanding of such atrocities from a positivist framework. I begin by considering works on the creation of the Genocide Convention. Then, I engage the debate surrounding the definition of genocide provided in the Convention. From this debate, I consider a number of different approaches scholars have taken to understand the causes of genocide given these competing definitions. I conclude by reviewing a growing literature that highlights the ways in which these definitional debates have contributed to contradictory theory, inconsistent data collection, and disparate findings on the causes of genocide, politicide, and related atrocities.

Genocide Convention

As the Genocide Convention has shaped the way in which policymakers and scholars conceptualize genocide, several studies focus on how the Genocide Convention came into being. Understanding how the Convention came into being is seen as a way to better understand how to interpret the law against genocide—whom it protects and from which actions. These studies focus on one of three themes. First, some work focuses on the role Raphael Lemkin’s ideas played in shaping the drafting of the Genocide Convention. When considering Lemkin’s role in the Genocide Convention, scholars often examine Lemkin’s writings (Cooper 2008) and unpublished works (Lemkin 2012) to understand how Lemkin interpreted the crime of genocide. Siegelberg 2013 departs from this formula by using Lemkin’s writings to understand how he worked to get the act of genocide criminalized. Second, much work has been done on legal interpretations of the Convention. From this legal perspective, Nersessian 2003 considers the ongoing debate on whether to expand the groups protected in the Genocide Convention and what such expansion would mean for international law. Quigley 2008 considers how genocide is prosecuted in international law compared to other atrocities. Schabas 2000 takes a broader approach and studies the evolution of the understanding of genocide and what that means for interpretation of the Convention. Lastly, other scholars have considered how specific states have responded to the Convention. Much work has focused specifically on the United States, which was instrumental in the forming of the Genocide Convention, but then hesitated to ratify the law. LeBlanc 1991, for example, focuses on how public opinion and political culture influenced the United States’ approach to the Genocide Convention. Smith 2013 considers political culture and acculturation in the United States in relation to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

  • Cooper, John. Raphael Lemkin and the Struggle for the Genocide Convention. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230582736

    Provides a comprehensive biography of Raphael Lemkin. Draws on Lemkin’s writings to highlight how his thoughts on genocide developed as conflict evolved around him. Pays special attention to Lemkin’s campaign to have the act of genocide criminalized internationally.

  • LeBlanc, Lawrence. The United States and the Genocide Convention. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

    Dissects the nearly forty-year process that led to the United States’ ratification of the Genocide Convention. Considers this process broadly as an example of the difficulties international law faces in becoming ratified through the US system. Places considerable attention on the role of public opinion and political culture.

  • Lemkin, Raphael. Lemkin on Genocide. Edited by Steven Jacobs. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012.

    Examines two of Raphael Lemkin’s unpublished manuscripts. Provides annotated commentary on these works and explores Lemkin’s thoughts on genocide and how best to have such acts criminalized.

  • Nersessian, David. “The Razor’s Edge: Defining and Protecting Human Groups under the Genocide Convention.” Cornell International Law Journal 36 (2003): 293–327.

    Explores how genocide moved from an academic concept to a principle of international law. Analyzes how the Convention process changed Lemkin’s initial vision. Considers the wide range of critiques of the Convention’s definition since its drafting.

  • Quigley, John. The Genocide Convention: An International Law Analysis. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2008.

    Covers several legal topics related to the Genocide Convention. Begins with government violence prior to the Convention. Then considers the legal environment in which the crime of genocide is prosecuted. Attention is given to prosecuting such atrocities without a genocide statute, with a quasistatute, and with a genocide statute.

  • Schabas, William. Genocide in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Provides a thorough analysis of the Genocide Convention. Begins with the origins of a legal prohibition on genocide and the politics of drafting the Genocide Convention before providing legal interpretations of the Convention text and related treaties. Concludes with potential for prevention given the rise in legal instruments targeting genocidal actors.

  • Siegelberg, Mira. “Unofficial Men, Efficient Civil Servants: Raphael Lemkin in the History of International Law.” Journal of Genocide Research 15.3 (2013): 297–316.

    DOI: 10.1080/14623528.2013.821224

    Traces Lemkin’s thinking on the act of genocide, as well as how best to have the act criminalized at the international level. Uses Lemkin’s writings to understand how the norm entrepreneur strategically framed his cause and sought allies in pushing forward the Genocide Convention.

  • Smith, Karen. “Acculturation and the Acceptance of the Genocide Convention.” Cooperation and Conflict 48.3 (2013): 358–377.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010836713482451

    Seeks to explain why some states did not immediately ratify the Genocide Convention, but became members later. Focuses on Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Argues that acculturation is a primary explanation for this change in stances toward the Convention.

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