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Genocide: An Essay

Genocide was the term that came out after the Nazi’s Holocaust of World War Two, but it was not the first incident of Genocide, or the last. During the Genocide Convention that followed World War Two it was agreed amongst the world leaders that genocide would “never again” occur in the world. Time has shown that this might have been an empty promise however, and this essay will explore the laws being implemented by the United Nations to help prevent genocide, arguments about why humans kill, incidents of genocide and how genocide is defined and, of course, the victims of the violent crime known as genocide.

Genocide is now defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “[t]he deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group” (Oxford English Dictionary, n.d.). The United Nations created a much broader and in depth definition in the Genocide Convention of 1948. They state that genocide is “…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical or religious group, as such: 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 part; imposing measures to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” (United Nations, p. 2). Despite some flaws and loopholes in this definition, it covers the atrocities that occur during genocide quite well.

Genocide has occurred in:

· Armenia: 1915, 1.5 million deaths

· Central Europe: 1939-1945, 6 million deaths +

· Cambodia: 1975-1979, 2 million deaths

· Rwanda: 1994, 800,000-1 million deaths

· Sudan: 2001-present, 300,000 deaths

This list is not a definitive one and there are many other debated cases of genocide; including the colonisation of the United States of America and Australia and the consequent murder of thousands of the native populations. Furthermore, the removal of Indigenous Australian children from their families in the early to mid-1900s also falls under the United Nation’s definition of genocide.

The Holocaust was perpetrated under the cover of World War Two, and while the extermination camps were known of by the Ally’s government forces, there were many other threats being made that were made a priority, for example; the bombing of London. It can be understood though, why the survivors of the death camps felt abandoned by their fellow human beings.

“The world kept silent while the Jews were being massacred, while they were being reduced to the state of objects good for fire…We want to know, to understand, so we can turn the page: is that not true? So we can say to ourselves: the matter is closed and everything is back in order. Do not wait for the dead to come to our rescue.” – Elie Wiesel, 2001, p. 263

Since the Holocaust there have been numerous cases of genocide, though none with the same death toll. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was the most vicious and swift since the 1940’s, with an estimated one million people killed in 100 days. Nothing was done by the global community to stop this mass killing.

There is much debate about whether it is human nature to kill our fellow human beings and, as yet, there are no scientific studies to prove an answer. Many scholars, scientists, journalists and philosophers have attempted an answer. Some such as scientific journalist John Horgan come to the conclusion that murder and people taking pleasure in murder is a result of ‘nurture’ rather than ‘nature’ (Horgan, 2010). On the other hand, evolution theorist Charles Darwin suggested that human operate on a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality, and when another group of people is seen as being weak or inferior, they need to be eradicated. This is certainly the train of thought adopted by the Nazis, and also lends itself to the argument that murder is a part of human nature rather than nurture, only to varying degrees and brutality.

In all cases of genocide the spectators of the world send their hearts out to the victims, both the dead and the survivors. There are many times when the sheer number of deaths is incomprehensible in thinking of each number as a human being, for example six million people dead. It is very easy to think of this as a statistic as opposed to the deaths of individual human beings. The death tolls are, quite literally, unimaginable. Perhaps this leads to the idea that while we empathize and feel great compassion for the victims of genocide, as outsiders we have no real comprehension of the impact on a countries society and the surviving psyche as far as loss of human life, hope, dreams, passions and love go.

Some people ask why there is sometimes so little resistance amongst the targeted victims of genocide, especially amongst the Jewish people in concentration camps. Why did they go to their deaths silently? Why did they dig their own graves and line up without a fuss? Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, believes that it is because if it was not yourself being murdered it would be your comrade and this shame was enough to keep them silent.

“It is not written: I shall live or die, but: someone – today – will vanish, or will continue to suffer; and from the view of the collective, it makes no difference whether that someone is I or another…. Thus, the one who has been spared, above all during the selections, could not repress his first spontaneous reflex of joy. A moment, a week, or an eternity later, this joy weighted with fear and anxiety will turn into guilt. I am happy to have escaped death becomes equivalent to admitting: I am glad that someone else went in my place…” – Elie Wiesel, 2001, p. 262

The resulting issues from genocide can often make the act itself that much worse. Such issues involve homelessness, emotional and identity trauma and displacement, a lack of closure after the incident, especially if the genocide has not been acknowledged by responsible parties or other important groups, which can lead to long term emotional damage. The Armenian genocide in 1915 is still fighting for recognition. Immediately following the genocide there was acknowledgement from the international community of the Armenian suffering, despite the fact that ‘genocide’ as a word and crime did not exist. In 1923 however, Turkey was absolved from any responsibility of the Ottoman State that was responsible for the genocide. Not until after the 1948 Genocide convention did the Armenians once again seek recognition of the crimes against them. While a large portion of the world’s governments have formally given this recognition, the Turkish government has not (Adalian, R. 2010).

After all this violence, hatred, murder and suffering it is easy to wonder why and how this can still be happening, why there are not laws in place to stop genocide, or people more willing to stop genocide. It was only in 2009 that the United Nations instigated the international law of the Responsibility to Protect. This law states that it is the State’s responsibility to protect its “populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleaning, and their incitement” (United Nations, n.d.). If the State fails to do so then the international community has the right to exercise diplomatic and humanitarian means to intervene and protect the populations.

Thomas Cushman of Wellesley College believes that genocide is preventable in some cases, not all, but definitely some. He agrees that in some cases prevention of genocide only comes down to political will and motivation, or the lack thereof. If political parties and leaders were more willing to actively intervene when experts suggest the possibility of an impending genocide, then the number of genocide cases could be greatly reduced. On a contradictory note, Cushman also states that “[n]o rational person would think it is possible to prevent earthquakes or tornados. Yet in the world of human phenomena, it seems to be precisely the opposite.” (Cushman, 2003).

Genocide has continued to be a vicious crime throughout human history and while some argue that it is within human nature to kill, our compassionate humanity may be stronger. As a whole, it is important to realise that the statistics that come from genocides are actual people and should not be dehumanized within our minds, by the media, or by our governments. With the initiation of the United Nation’s Responsibility to Protect dictating human rights protection over sovereignty, there may be a reduced number of people willing to instigate genocide, or at least a more pro-active and willing attitude within the global community to intervene. Perhaps with this measure, there is realistic hope for a genocide-free future.


Aladian, R. P. 2010, ‘Armenian Genocide, International Recognition of’, Armenian National Institute, viewed 11 October 2010, http://www.armenian-genocide.org/recognition.html

Cushman, T. 2003, “Is genocide preventable? Some theoretical considerations”, Wellesley College, viewed 4 October 2010, http://www.wellesley.edu/Sociology/website_Cushman/pdf/IsGenocidePreventable.pdf

Horgan, J. 2010, “Why Soldiers Get a Kick Out of Killing”, Scientific American, viewed 6 October 2010, http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=why-soldiers-get-a-kick-out-of-kill-2010-04-23

Oxford English Dictionary Online, n.d., “Oxford English Dictionary genocide”, viewed 3 October 2010, http://dictionary.oed.com.ezproxy.flinders.edu.au/cgi/entry/50093700?single=1&query_type=word&queryword=genocide&first=1&max_to_show=10

United Nations 2009, “Office of the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide”, online booklet, viewed 4 October 2010, http://www.un.org/preventgenocide/adviser/pdf/Booklet_prevention_of_genocide_Final_2009-03-24.pdf

United Nations, n.d., ‘The Responsibility to Protect’, viewed 9 October 2010, http://www.un.org/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml

Wiesel, E. 2001, ‘Why So Little Resistance?’, in R K Chartock & J Spencer (eds), Can It Happen Again? Chronicles of the Holocaust, Black Dog & Leventhal, New York, USA, pp. 262-263

© J Cox, 2010

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This entry was posted on October 13, 2010 by in Essays, Events, Life, People, Thoughts.
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