What is genocide?

The term “genocide” was coined in 1944 by a Polish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, to describe the Nazi’s systematic murder of the European Jews and other groups. In Lemkin’s words, genocide is “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”

The crime of genocide is an attack upon human diversity, committed against specific human groups with the intent to destroy the very existence of the group. It is one of the gravest breaches on the moral and physical integrity of individuals and societies.

“The crime of crimes”

In 1948, shocked by the scale of violence and atrocities committed during World War II, the international community adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It defines genocide as the following acts, committed with intent to destroy a group, in whole or in part:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

Genocide constitutes the crime of crimes, which must be taken into account when deciding the sentence.” (Kambanda judgment, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda)

The same convention establishes genocide as an international crime. Not only does it outlaw all acts of genocide, but it also criminalizes the following:

  • Conspiracy to commit genocide
  • Direct and public incitement to commit genocide
  • Attempt and complicity in genocide

Over 140 States have ratified the Convention, committing to preventing acts of genocide and arrest and prosecute any individual suspected of genocide on their territory.

Since the 1990’s the international community stepped up its efforts to fight against impunity for genocide with the creation of several international tribunals, in particular the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court. Many States have also adopted legislation enabling their courts to prosecute and sanction authors of genocide, as exemplified in the case of Efraín Ríos Montt, the first former head of state to be prosecuted for genocide in a national court.

Despite these efforts, genocide is far from being eradicated and thousands of victims still await reparations. According to different sources, 80 to 250 million people have died from genocide in the 20th century.

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TRIAL International acts against genocide

Many states continue to tolerate the presence of authors of genocide on their territory, while countless victims of genocide still await justice and compensation for the crimes they have suffered. For these reasons, TRIAL International adopts a double approach to fighting genocide.

Helping the victims

TRIAL International provides free legal aid to victims of genocide by submitting their complaints before regional and international human rights mechanisms, such as the European Court of Human Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Committee. It also work towards the implementation of the cases won at the national level to ensure victims closure and reparation.

Prosecuting the perpetrators

Unlike other human rights violations, war crimes do not engage State responsibility but individual criminal responsibility. This means that individuals can be tried and found personally responsible for these crimes.

TRIAL International submits criminal complaints against the perpetrators of genocide, either in the countries where the crimes were committed or in a third country (for example when the victim or the perpetrator is from that country, or if it has universal jurisdiction on the crime), exploring all legal avenues to bring the perpetrators before justice.