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When Can It Be Considered Genocide and Why It Matters


Historians today recognize the Holocaust of the mid-20th century in which victims of Nazi Germany were killed – based on their ethnicity, religion, or nationality – as the quintessential example of “genocide.” Six million of those victims were Jews.

But what about other ethnic or religious groups targeted for extinction during the 20th and 21st centuries? Can their deaths also be called genocide? And why does that designation matter so much?

The Definition

Bridget Conley-Zilkic, project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, says Rafael Lemkin, an international lawyer at the Nuremberg War Trials after World War II, first used the term “genocide” in 1944 in a book describing patterns of destruction in Nazi-occupied Europe that he believed were unique. “He was trying to describe the cumulative effect of multiple attacks against a people. And in his mind this included cultural genocide, murder, and destruction of religious and other cultural artifacts.”

But later, the legal definition of genocide would change, Conley-Zilkic explains, and it would be restricted to “the intent to destroy – in whole or in part – an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group as such.” But the emphasis on intent makes genocide very difficult to prove, she notes.

Armenians in World War I

Lemkin’s understanding of genocide was greatly influenced by his study of what had happened to more than one million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. And in his later work he cited Armenia as an example of atrocities, of genocide,” Conley-Zilkic says. But Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, denies the genocidal intent of the mass murder of the Armenians, beginning in 1915 and continuing beyond the end of World War I.

Armenia is a controversial case today, but the Holocaust Memorial Museum has not taken a stand one way on the matter, Conley-Zilkic points out. Part of the controversy centers on historical discussions between the Turkish government and the relatives of survivors in other countries. “But another part of the controversy is political,” she notes. “Although determining what the facts are should be a matter of study for historians,” she emphasizes, “history is not without political consequence.”

“There is a lot at stake in being able to say that genocide happened,” Conley-Zilkic explains. Group identity often gets caught up in the question. “What is at stake for a lot of groups is an existential threat to their existence – the sense that the entire group’s capacity to survive has been put at risk,” she says. “Genocide is a crime that not only kills individuals but also involves an attempt to erase a group’s record from society. And that’s what makes groups extremely protective of the historical record around their suffering,” she observes.

Roma and Sinti in World War II

Conley-Zilkic notes that the Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) were also targeted in a systematic way during the Nazi period. Based on their belief in a superior “Aryan race,” the Nazis justified getting rid of other targeted non-Aryan groups. The events of World War II raise the question of what to do with this history, Conley-Zilkic says. “I think there is a lot we can – and must – learn from these other histories.”

Under the legal definition, those acts that constitute genocide are biological. But other questions linger, Conway-Zilkic says. “For example, can you destroy a group by enforced assimilation, by changing languages, or blocking access to cultural identity?”

Bosnian Muslims in the Former Yugoslavia

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has ruled that only one incident from the 1992-1995 war constitutes genocide – Srebrenica. In 1993, the United Nations declared the small town in eastern Bosnia a safe haven for Bosniaks. Conley-Zilkic says, “When the Bosnian Serbs took the town in 1995, they systematically executed some 8,000 men and boys.”

Tutsi Minority in Rwanda during War of 1994

“For too long, atrocities that occurred against civilians in Africa were treated almost as if they were a natural phenomenon,” Conley-Zilkic says. During the 1994 war in Rwanda, for example, world leaders described the killing as tribal conflict. But she calls Rwanda “the most thorough and brutal and clear-cut case of genocide since the Holocaust.”

Darfur Region in Sudan Today

Conley-Zilkic says that for the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, she and her colleagues at the Museum worked together on projects to ensure that Rwanda was remembered and that the real lessons of history had been learned. By 2004, she says there was widespread agreement that what was happening in Darfur constituted crimes against humanity. “When civilians are targeted in large numbers, it is never a natural phenomenon. It takes enormous planning and organization, and the role of leaders is of extreme importance.”

Issue of Responsibility by Governments

Although political leaders alone cannot create genocide, they can choose the basic dynamics. “They can choose to escalate the level of rhetoric and hate speech. They can also choose to arm militias, Conley-Zilkic says. “Holding them accountable for those decisions afterward is important.”

Some historians have suggested that other mass atrocities bear a resemblance to genocide – for example, Stalin’s forced famine in 1932-32 resulting in the death of seven million Ukrainians, Japan’s killing of an estimated 300,000 Chinese in Nanking in 1937-38, and the murder of two million Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge in 1975-79. Other historians have raised questions about the “Trail of Tears,” the forced march of the Cherokee Indian nation from America’s southeastern states to Oklahoma in the early 19th century.

In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that requires member nations to prevent acts of genocide during times of war and peace. But the U.N. treaty was passed with the proviso that no claim of genocide could be brought against signatory nations without their consent. So, there are still barriers to enforcement.

“There is probably no country on this earth,” Conley-Zilkic says, “that does not have some history in its formation of some atrocity or assault against minority groups. Facing our own difficult history is the starting point for protecting human rights today.”

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