Genocide: guilty or not guilty?

Almost six decades since the term genocide was coined, the ambiguous wording in international law is allowing the issue to be politicised in the absence of objective academic research.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

A Turkish nationalist protester wearing Ottoman clothes holds a placard during a protest against Germany in front of the German consulate in Istanbul.

On June 2, 2016, the German parliament voted in favour of a resolution which declared the incidents concerning Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in 1915 a "genocide." Turkey, which was born out of ashes of the Ottoman Empire after its collapse in 1923, wasted no time in recalling its ambassador from Berlin.

It is not the first time that Turkey has been at odds with another country over this issue. So far, 27 countries around the world have officially recognised the incidents as “genocide,” as well as the European Parliament. They claim around 1.5 million Armenians died in 1915 during mass deportations from territories now within Turkey’s eastern borders.

Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Slovakia and Switzerland have even gone as far as criminalising the denial of the Armenian “genocide,” even though the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) last year ruled that Dogu Perincek, who was sentenced for denying the “genocide” by a Swiss court in 2007, had his right to freedom of speech violated.


Turkish politician Dogu Perincek waves to supporters outside a court in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 6, 2007.

Turkey, on the other hand, says that around 300,000 to 500,000 Armenians died during the deportations, and despite expressing regret over the incidents, has stopped short of acknowledging the event as a genocide.

The events happened in the context of World War I, during which the Russian Empire was supporting ethnic Armenians in an uprising against the Ottomans. Many Turks were also killed during the uprisings, with some arguing that it was the Turks who were the real victims of the incident.

However, in reality, the term “genocide” had not even been coined at the time. It is true that mass killings have been taking place throughout history, but it wasn’t until after World War II that a word describing such atrocities was officially incorporated into legal language.


Skulls displayed on a metal shelf in a Catholic church where they were killed during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in Nyamata April 9, 2014.

Wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, when describing German massacres of Russians in 1941, called the atrocities a “crime without a name.”

In fact, before World War II and the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, the absence of international law meant there were no measures in place to recognise the initiation of genocide, nor were there any means of prevention or punishment. Tragic as it was, the mass death of civilians was in the past merely considered to be an unfortunate but natural outcome of war.

Pretty much every nation around the world, therefore, has committed such heinous acts at some point in their history. The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines are just two examples of genocide that are still fresh in human memory, long before the act became a crime.


A six-year study by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission finds at least 6,000 aboriginal children died while in the Canadian residential school system that aimed to assimilate the indigenous population.

That begs the question...can an act be considered a crime if it was committed before it was criminalised?

Experts Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn in their book The History and Sociology of Genocide (1990) argue genocide was not defined in the 20th century and stems back to antiquity. Others like Leo Kuper and Rudolph Joseph Rummel, however, focus entirely on the 20th century, while some limit their research to the post-World War II period.

The massacres witnessed during World War II were unlike anything else in history.

It was particularly the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during this period that led Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to coin the term in 1944 to describe the “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."

Finally, on December 9, 1948, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, establishing genocide as an international crime.


One million European Jews died between 1940 and 1945 at the Auschwitz camp in the southern Polish city of Oswiecim.

According to Article 2 of the Convention, genocide refers to intentionally seeking to destroy “in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” through the following acts: killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s entire or partial physical destruction, imposing measures intended to prevent births, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Among scholars, many other terms have been coined to describe certain components of genocide.

“Ethnocide” refers to the cultural dimension of genocide, in which a group escapes being killed but has its social culture destroyed.

This term was mentioned in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 1994, although no definition was given. However, the declaration underlines that states must implement measures to help preserve the integrity cultural values and ethnic identities of indigenous peoples as well as their lands, territories or resources.

States are also obligated to prevent forced population transfers with the aim or effect of violating or undermining their rights, forced assimilation or integration, and propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them.


Circassians were expelled from their homeland by Russians in 1864.

Peg LeVine coined the term “ritualcide” in reference to the tampering of religious practices and traditions, while the word “politicide” has been used to refer to the annihilation of political groups which are not protected by the genocide convention.

Democide, meanwhile, is a recently-coined umbrella term that covers both genocide and politicide. It is also used to define both mass murder and intentionally creating conditions that lead to mass death, such as starvation.

Regardless of terminology, genocide has always been a practice of war. Where the scholars differ is which incidents to apply these terms to. This is where the politicians have been stepping in, choosing to bypass the academic process by presenting their own conclusions based on self-serving interests rather than objective research.

Indeed, lobbies and politicians have been using international law to their advantage in labelling the incidents of 1915 a “genocide,” but sociologists and historians like Mohammad Hassan Kakar have criticised the UN Convention for being too restricted.

Typical understandings of the Convention suggest the perpetrator of a genocide is usually a state and/or its agents. Intent to commit genocide is also a key component in the crime. The perpetrator usually defines the victim of the genocide. To qualify as a genocide, a substantial part of the targeted group needs to have suffered.


An elderly Bosnian woman mourns at the grave of her relative at the Potocari Memorial Center near the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

However, this presents a number of problems. If a substantial proportion of a targeted group is subjected to a series of massacres on multiple fronts by different actors, the states responsible can each individually deny committing genocide by limiting their role in the crime to small-scale incidents, even if the overall consequences suffered by the target group resemble a genocide.

Perpetrators can also deny intent to commit genocide if there is no way to prove that the massacres were coordinated with other groups.

For example, throughout most of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was being attacked on many fronts by Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Romanians, Croats, Armenians and Russians. Hundreds of thousands of Turks were killed and displaced, but as the perpetrators were numerous and attacks were seemingly uncoordinated, it would be difficult to make accusations of genocide unless the identity of the perpetrators can be unified.

Furthermore, the overall damage inflicted on the targeted group can be downgraded if the perpetrator divides the identity of the victim into various sub-groups. Turks could still claim to have been victims of genocide at the hands of a united enemy, but if they are unable to prove in the international arena that Turks who were killed in Greece, the Balkans, the Caucasus and Cyprus are indeed one and the same, they would find it difficult to establish their case.


Again, if the targeted group is unable to prove affiliation with the victims of genocide, they cannot argue that a substantial part of their group has suffered.

The definition of “substantial” is also open to debate. If 100 members of a tribe consisting of 300 people are killed, amounting to a third of the population, this act could be considered a genocide. But if 1,000 individuals in a nation of 3 million are killed, it is more likely the incident will be called a massacre.

The issue of time is also not addressed in the Convention, so while the death of a million people in the space of a year can be considered a genocide, the death of an entire nation over the period of a century could go completely unnoticed.

Author: Ertan Karpazli