United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Nazi execution of millions of persons in attempts to exterminate whole ethnic groups provoked the United Nations, in one of its first acts, to draft an international law declaring genocide a crime against humanity.

Summary of Event

No century in human history was marred by more willful and massive acts of mass murder than was the twentieth century, a fact that comes as a shock to the post-Enlightenment sense that humanity had somehow progressed beyond ancient barbarisms. Stirred by the Nazi execution of millions of persons in attempts to exterminate whole races and ethnicities, the United Nations General Assembly, at its first meeting in 1946, addressed the systematic killing or harming of target groups of persons. Sadly, even after steps were taken to outlaw genocide, massive killings continued to be a part of international politics throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. United Nations;genocide Genocide Convention, U.N. (1948) International law [kw]United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide (Dec. 9, 1948) [kw]Convention on Genocide, United Nations Adopts (Dec. 9, 1948) [kw]Genocide, United Nations Adopts Convention on (Dec. 9, 1948) United Nations;genocide Genocide Convention, U.N. (1948) International law [g]North America;Dec. 9, 1948: United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide[02700] [g]United States;Dec. 9, 1948: United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide[02700] [c]United Nations;Dec. 9, 1948: United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide[02700] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Dec. 9, 1948: United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide[02700] [c]Human rights;Dec. 9, 1948: United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide[02700] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 9, 1948: United Nations Adopts Convention on Genocide[02700] Lemkin, Raphael Roosevelt, Eleanor Malik, Charles Habib

In a 1946 resolution, the assembly defined genocide as the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups. It said that this act shocks the human conscience, violates moral law, and offends the spirit and aims of the United Nations. The assembly affirmed that genocide is a crime under international law, a crime the entire civilized world condemns and the commission of which is punishable for the principals and accomplices, whether public officials or private individuals, and whether the crime was committed on religious, racial, political, or any other grounds. The assembly initiated a study group to draft a convention on the prevention and punishment of this crime. Two years later, on December 9, 1948, the assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, or the Genocide Convention.

The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who served as an adviser during the Nuremberg trials. He had sought as early as the 1930’s to arouse interest in condemning genocide and campaigned successfully for the United Nations’ adoption of the convention. The word derives from the Greek word genos, meaning race, tribe, descent, kin, sex, or kind, and the Latin word cida, meaning killing. This created word, Lemkin said, denoted destroying a nation, people, ethnic group, or other identifiable group through coordinated action directed against individuals, not as individuals but as members of an identified group. This definition was revised during the negotiation producing the 1948 convention.

Working with Lemkin on the convention’s first draft were two well-known human rights supporters, Eleanor Roosevelt, U.S. delegate to the United Nations and chair of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and Charles Habib Malik, Lebanon’s permanent representative to the United Nations and commission rapporteur. The trio found some legal groundwork in the Charter for an International Military Tribunal Charter for an International Military Tribunal (CIMT) of August 8, 1945. This document had authorized the major war crimes trials at the conclusion of World War II. The CIMT specified three types of crimes—crimes against peace, crimes in war, and crimes against humanity. Crimes against humanity included genocide. The Genocide Convention, however, went beyond the CIMT, separating such assaults from wartime. Criminal genocide, then, could be action by governments against their own nationals, in war or in peace.

In the Genocide Convention, the contracting parties confirm that genocide is a crime under international law and that they will prevent and punish it, although they rarely have in fact, owing in part to the language of the convention itself, which requires that such acts must be intentional, a legal standard that is difficult to prove. The convention describes genocide as any of several acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Those acts include killing group members, causing serious bodily or mental harm to group members, 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, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The convention says clearly that genocide is a matter of international concern. This is true of conspiracy in, incitement of, and complicity in attempts to commit genocide, even if perpetrated by a government on its own territory and against its own citizens. Any contracting party can call on the United Nations to intervene anywhere against genocide. The convention specifies that genocide shall not be considered a political crime. Someone accused of a political crime is normally not subject to extradition. The contracting parties pledge in genocide cases to grant extradition in accordance with their national laws and treaties in force, to try people accused of genocide in their own courts, or to turn the accused over to a recognized international penal tribunal should the world community create one. The convention binds the parties to enact the necessary enforcement legislation.

The United Nations achieved some success creating this convention, which came into force in 1951. The United Nations managed modestly to define the crime of genocide, symbolically denounce it, and prescribe some punishments for it. The convention prompted some member states to enact enabling legislation that defined genocide as a crime under their codes, punishable by municipal courts. Finally, the convention stipulated a procedure for punishment: competent U.N. organs, using the International Court of Justice to interpret, apply, or demand compliance with the convention.

The United Nations has had difficulty in preventing or punishing genocide. The convention lacks needed specificity for several reasons. It was the international community’s first attempt at drafting rules to constrain genocide. It was also one of the first post-World War II attempts at international legislation. Moreover, several states negotiating the convention had themselves been guilty or suspected of behavior they were now calling criminal. Meanwhile, for various reasons, courts have found no opportunity to clarify through decisions in individual cases the meaning of many of the convention’s articles. In addition, the convention focuses more on punishing an act of genocide than on preventing it. This makes teaching the law difficult as well. There are several concerns surrounding the convention’s authority and force.

First, the convention has wording problems. For example, how should courts determine “intent”? What is “mental harm” in the convention’s language? Furthermore, the convention’s listing of acts constituting genocide is not logically exhaustive. The convention excludes as genocide the destruction of political groups, as in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, Indonesia in 1965, Democratic Kampuchea (Cambodia) under Pol Pot, or Uganda under Idi Amin.

Second, the moral values of states often conflict. This has frustrated application of the convention and prevented its ratification in some countries. Third, states put sovereign interests above protecting human rights. Indeed, in the twentieth century more persons died at the hands of their own states than were killed in war by other states. How free should a government be to dispose of its political opposition without interference from the outside world? Fourth, the convention names no specific court to rule reliably and effectively.


By the end of 2005, 138 countries had ratified the convention, a substantial majority of the world’s governments. The convention’s authors hoped that they had made permanent and universal a generation’s revulsion to genocide. With the law spelled out, they believed that states would hold one another in check, through either moral suasion or the threat of international embarrassment. If these failed, states party to the convention would try the accused, allow an international penal tribunal to do so, or extradite them for trial elsewhere. Any needed clarification of the convention would come from the International Court of Justice.

The proponents’ hopes were largely unrealized during the first forty years of the convention, however. Several signatory states committed genocide, with no other states calling them legally to account. Continually, somewhere, one or more states appeared indifferent to genocide or to genocidal massacres. Even the United Nations sometimes has ignored such actions. The United Nations’ major contribution has been to provide humanitarian relief for survivors; however, U.N. peacekeeping and observer forces have certainly also averted many massacres. Numerous governmental and nongovernmental bodies have examined particular instances of genocide and repeatedly called on states to desist from or avoid engaging in the crime.

In the early 1990’s momentum also built to consider the establishment of an international criminal court, which could potentially exercise universal jurisdiction over crimes of genocide and other war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. This led to the promulgation of the International Criminal Court Statute in 1998, which entered into force in 2002.

The Genocide Convention contributed to a fundamental change in international law, if not in international practice. It, the U.N. Charter, and other human rights conventions together have internationalized many human rights. For a century or two prior to World War II, such rights were deemed matters of domestic jurisdiction of each state, although prior to that time governments recognized that uncivilized and shocking treatment of civilian populations could provoke a right to, or even a duty of, humanitarian intervention. The Genocide Convention marked a first step in the modern period to return to that older appreciation of the duties and obligations of states, so that shocking abuses such as those perpetrated by the Nazis would not again occur. Unfortunately, this first step, even though recently followed by others, has yet to rid the world of egregious human rights abuses and brutal genocides. United Nations;genocide Genocide Convention, U.N. (1948) International law

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charny, Israel. How Can We Commit the Unthinkable—Genocide: The Human Cancer. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1982. Clinical psychologist’s evocative, accessible description of human destructiveness. Offers a wide range of conceivable explanations for this criminal behavior at individual, family, and social levels. Describes cultures, genocidal fantasy and ideology, the destabilizing character of major social change, having technical means, institutionalized discrimination, and psychological denial. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuper, Leo. “The Plural Society and Civil Conflict.” In UNESCO Yearbook on Peace and Conflict Studies, 1986. Paris: UNESCO, 1988. Updates Kuper’s earlier work (see below), examining the relationship of plural societies and civil violence to show that the greater the cleavage and inequality, and the more the disparate groups experience all aspects of life the same differential way, the more likely is genocidal conflict. Notes, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Prevention of Genocide. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Probably the most conscientious author on this subject. Builds on his numerous previously published case studies of genocide, this time including domestic mass killing. Emphasizes that although state interests often inhibit U.N. action, the structure, procedures, and publicity of the United Nations can constrain potentially offending states. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riemer, Neal, ed. Protection Against Genocide: Mission Impossible? Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. An examination of genocide and the United Nations’ role in preventing it. Appendixes include the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ryan, Stephen. The United Nations and International Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A thorough examination of the United Nations and global politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schabas, William A. Genocide in International Law: The Crimes of Crimes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Authoritative study of genocide with a focus on the Genocide Convention. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shelton, Dinah L., ed. Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. 3 vols. Detroit, Mich.: Macmillan Reference, 2005. That there exists a three-volume encyclopedic work on genocide and crimes against humanity is most relevant here. Includes a glossary, maps, primary sources, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sieghart, Paul. The Lawful Rights of Mankind: An Introduction to the International Legal Code of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Readable handbook-style distillation of Sieghart’s massive, comprehensive work, The International Law of Human Rights (1983). Provides the larger human rights context of genocide. Examines the historical problems giving rise to the need for human rights laws, how such laws are made, their content, and actual documents. Bibliography, index.

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Categories: History