Genocide as a Crime

After the Second World War the world saw what had happened to the Jews, the Holocaust had cost the lives of 6 million Jews. For no other reason than their Jewish heritage. Never again, it was said, never again a Holocaust, never again genocide. But unfortunately the UN was not able to make this happen, genocides also took place after the Second World War, just as it happened before. Genocide officially became a crime against which the United Nations could intervene.

The Word Genocide

The word genocide comes from the Greek and Latin: ge nos (Greek: race) and cide (Latin: murder). It was first used in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin.

Genocide as a Crime

In December 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was signed and came into effect from 1951. It was a consequence of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed. Article two of the same convention defines genocide as any of the following acts where the intent is to destroy, in whole or in part, a religious, ethnic, national group or race:

  • killing members of a group
  • trying to prevent children from being born in a group
  • causing serious physical or mental harm to members of a group
  • the imposition of measures that partially or completely physically destroy the lives of members of a group
  • forcibly placing children from a group elsewhere


Eight Phases

Genocide is divided into eight different phases, almost all genocides involve these phases and in principle outside intervention can take place. That is also the purpose of the United Nations Convention. But unfortunately that often goes wrong, good examples of this are Rwanda and Bosnia, where people knew what was going on, but were unable to intervene in time or in the right way.


Categories are created that distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’, based on race, religion, ethnicity or nationality. In general, the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is normal, as long as there is something that transcends the differences, such as a shared language, a shared religion, etc. Regions where this does not work, where the differences are and remain extreme, have a greater chance of genocide. A good example is Rwanda, with the Hutus and Tutsis, who could not overcome their differences.


Here too there is a general human issue, people use symbols to indicate a group, a Star of David in itself is not a nasty symbol and the black skin of an African is not strange in itself. It only becomes dangerous when those symbols are used to dehumanize groups: a black person is no longer human, a Star of David is the symbol of something depraved. It can therefore work to ban symbols of hate, such as the swastika. When there is great support among the population, the denial of a symbol can also work well. In Bulgaria, many non-Jews wore a Star of David during the Second World War.


This is a very dangerous phase, the people from the other group become inhuman. They are compared to vermin (Jews were compared to rats, Tutsis to cockroaches) and thus lose their humanity . When this sound is heard everywhere, on radios and in newspapers, it can have a lot of influence.


Genocide has always been organized, sometimes by the state (in Germany, Cambodia and Namibia for example), sometimes by terrorist groups and sometimes informally. Murders are often well prepared.


Extremists drive groups further apart. Marriages between groups are banned (Namibia) and socializing with the other group is made more difficult. Terrorist actions can ensure that moderate voices are silenced.


Victims are identified, death lists are made. Sometimes groups of people are herded into ghettos or concentration camps or an area is closed off and people are starved (Ukraine).


This is the phase when the genocide becomes a fact. For the murderers, there is extermination because the victims are barely human. There are often active special militias that do the work.


This is what always follows genocide. Mass graves are being re-excavated to burn the corpses and other measures are being taken to destroy evidence. An interesting exception was Rwanda, where the Hutus initially killed their victims very openly and then left them lying around. Only later did they start to conceal the actions.


Until the advent of the Convention, genocide could take place relatively undisturbed. And people who planned genocides knew that. A good example of this is Adolf Hitler’s statement to his officers on August 22, 1939: ‘For the moment I have sent only my ‘Skull Units’ to the East with orders to destroy without pity all men, women and children of the Polish race. or kill those who speak the Polish language. Only in this way will we have the space ( Lebensraum ) we need. Who still talks about the Armenians today.’ This shows that Hitler knew exactly what he was going to do and hoped and expected that it would be forgotten, like previous genocides.