In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Genocide

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Judicial Decisions
  • Distinctions from Crimes Against Humanity
  • The Duty to Prevent and Punish Genocide
  • Sentencing
  • State Responsibility
  • Prevention

International Law Genocide
Christine Byron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0035


Genocide has been called the “crime of crimes” and the gravest violation of human rights it is possible to commit. It was developed as an international crime in reaction to the Nazi Holocaust and intended to provide for the prosecution of those who sought to destroy entire human groups. The word “genocide” was coined by a Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) to provide a legal concept for this unimaginable atrocity. The word is a hybrid of the Greek word genos, meaning race, nation, or tribe, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. Although genocide is often spoken of in the same breath as war crimes and crimes against humanity, it is not the same thing. War crimes refer to violations of the law of armed conflict, while crimes against humanity, of which genocide is often seen as a more serious subset, require a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population. Unlike war crimes, the crime of genocide does not have to take place during an armed conflict (although it often does), and unlike crimes against humanity, it may also be perpetrated against soldiers or prisoners of war from the targeted group (if it happens to take place during an armed conflict). Additionally, crimes against humanity do not have to be perpetrated against a specific human group, as is the case with genocide, but simply against a civilian population. While the concept of genocide was developed after World War II, it is unfortunately true that the mass killing of human groups is much older than the legal expression; indeed, the first genocide of the 20th century is widely thought to have been the German genocide of the Herero and Nama in German South West Africa (modern-day Namibia) between 1904 and 1907. The Genocide Convention of 1948 (officially the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide) declared that “genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they, the contracting parties, undertake to prevent and to punish.” Nevertheless, the real development of systematic international trials and punishment for the crime of genocide waited for the end of the 20th century: the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the inclusion of the crime of genocide in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

General Overviews

For a concept that was only legally named after World War II, there is abundant scholarship on the topic of genocide, including how it is or should be understood as well as how a fairly short treaty can be turned into a usable tool to prosecute individuals for the worst of atrocities. In legal terms, one of the most comprehensive discussions of genocide is Schabas 2009, in which William Schabas discusses the history, drafting, and interpretation of the Genocide Convention in the light of modern-day trials and events. Another general legal overview is Henham and Behrens 2007, which considers the history, case studies, and prosecution of genocide and also considers sentencing for the crime of genocide. Quigley 2006 also considers the entire ambit of the Genocide Convention, including techniques of genocide and genocide by states. A more theoretical approach is taken by Totten and Bartrop 2009, an edited work in which consideration is given to alternative definitions and theories of genocide and to intervention when a genocide is in progress. The other main overview of genocide, Jones 2006, considers it from an interdisciplinary perspective. Jones 2006 is intended to be comprehensive and examines case studies of seven genocides (some of which rely on a rather loose interpretation of the term). The work also covers social science perspectives on genocide.

  • Henham, Ralph, and Paul Behrens, eds. The Criminal Law of Genocide: International, Comparative, and Contextual Aspects. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2007.

    A well-structured edited book with pertinent chapters by some well-known names in the field dealing with a range of concepts from the responsibility to protect and genocide to a European perspective on extraterritorial jurisdiction over genocide.

  • Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2006.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203347447

    This is intended as a book for higher-level undergraduate students and postgraduate students. It is written in an accessible style with suggestions for further study after each chapter. Those who prefer a stricter interpretation of genocide may not agree with all of Jones’s conclusions in his case studies, but his section on social science perspectives is a useful introduction to the wider study of genocide.

  • Quigley, John B. The Genocide Convention: An International Law Analysis. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006.

    A consideration of the legal aspects of the treatment of genocide. The approach of extremely short chapters may be off-putting to some readers and perhaps gives the impression of a superficial coverage of the topic, but the book is well structured and refers in some depth to the case law of both national courts and the ad hoc tribunals.

  • Schabas, William. Genocide in International Law: The Crime of Crimes. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511575556

    A comprehensive and detailed text that works through the mental and physical elements of the crime of genocide with exhaustive reference to the travaux préparatoires (preparatory works) of the Genocide Convention and through post–World War II trials, national trials, and the decisions of the ad hoc tribunals. Schabas also considers state responsibility for genocide and the problems involved in preventing genocide.

  • Totten, Samuel, and Paul R. Bartrop, eds. The Genocide Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    This work has contributions from some of the experts in this field and covers issues such as alternative definitions, theories of genocide, and intervention when genocide is occurring. Each chapter is relatively short, but they are well organized under group headings. This would be useful for someone who just wanted to dip into the book to look at one aspect of genocide.

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