What is genocide and why is Joe Biden now using this term?

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US President Joe Biden today used the term “genocide” to refer to Russian crimes in Ukraine. After defining what happened in recent days in the country invaded by Russia as “war crimes” as a result of the Bucha massacre, the US president has now chosen to use a term that the Ukrainian president, Volodimir Zelenski, had already been using since days ago. What is genocide and how is it different from war crimes? When was the first time the term was used? What has been the most serious genocide in history? Who is in charge of judging this type of crime?

what is a genocide

The founding treaty of the International Criminal Court, the 1998 Rome Statute, defines genocide as those acts “perpetrated with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

These acts would include the killing of members of the group, the serious injury to their physical or mental integrity, the intentional subjection of their members to conditions that could lead to their physical destruction -whether total or partial-, measures aimed at preventing births within the group or the forcible transfer of children from that group to another. According to this statute, any of these acts can be understood as genocide.

For its part, the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE), defines it as the “systematic extermination or elimination of a human group due to race, ethnicity, religion, politics or nationality”.

What is the origin of the term ‘genocide’ and when was it coined

The etymological origin of the word ‘genocide’ is found in ancient Greek and Latin: genes means ‘race’, ‘tribe’ and -cidio, a suffix that refers to the Latin verb fallrefers to actions such as ‘kill’ or ‘cut’.

The term was used for the first time by the Polish jurist from a Jewish family, Raphael Lempkin, who after studying events such as the massacre -genocide- of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (1915-1920) or Nazi practices, coined the term in 1944, in his construction site Axis Power in Occupied Europe published in the United States, a country where he arrived in 1939 fleeing from the Nazis.

The term ‘genocide’ is enshrined as a legal term in 1948

With regard to international law, genocide began to be legally sanctioned after the approval of what is known as the ‘Convention for the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide’ by the United Nations in December 1948.

After almost two years of discussions in which it was debated whether or not to include “political groups” within the convention -they were finally excluded-, this agreement entered into force by which the different parties confirmed that “genocide, whether committed in times of peace or in times of war, is a crime under international law that they undertake to prevent and punish”.

Who punishes this type of crime today?

Today it is the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, founded in 1998, which is in charge of judging genocide. This court also judges war crimes, aggression and crimes against humanity.

What have been the greatest genocides in history

Since the term exists, in current history there have been mass killings of certain groups that have been considered genocides, starting with the Holocaust, when the Nazis systematically and deliberately eliminated three quarters of European Jews.

In 1994, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in Rwanda at the hands of radical Hutus between April and July of the same year. 70% of Tutsis died brutally in what is considered one of the cruelest and bloodiest events in recent history.

Family photos of victims of the Rwandan genocide at an exhibition in Kigali

Ben Curtis/AP

A year after Rwanda, the Bosnian genocide took place. This crime occurred in the context of the Yugoslav wars, a conflict in which Bosnian Serb forces killed 8,000 ethnic Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.

Women from Srebrenica demonstrated peacefully on April 11 in remembrance and memory of the 1995 genocide

Women from Srebrenica demonstrated peacefully on April 11 in remembrance and memory of the 1995 genocide

Fehim Demir / EFE

Since the International Criminal Court was founded in 1998, a case that has been considered as a possible genocide is that of the murders of black people -mainly farmers- in Darfur at the hands of Arab militias supported and assisted by the former dictator of Sudan, Omar al Bashir. The ICC issued an arrest warrant against Al Bashir more than ten years ago, accusing him of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”.

How is genocide different from a war crime?

While a genocide supposes the intention to eliminate a specific group for reasons such as those already mentioned, war crimes consist of the violation of the established laws by individuals during a warlike conflict. Examples of war crimes would be sexual violence, hostage taking, murder or torture.


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Francesc Peiron

Washington (United States), 04/04/2022.- US President Joe Biden speaks to members of the press after arriving at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, DC, USA, 04 April 2022. (United States) EFE/EPA/ Ting Shen / POOL

Biden has chosen today to use the word ‘genocide’ as he considers that Putin is trying to “annihilate the idea that you can be Ukrainian”. As the president of the United States has indicated, now it is necessary to let “the lawyers decide internationally” if this term “proceeds or not”.

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