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LEARN: History of Genocide


What is genocide?

Definition of Genocide

(source: New Oxford American Dictionary)


Genocide in Recent History


Origin of the Word




Armenian Genocide




The Holocaust








Kurdish Genocide



Origin of the Word

Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) is best known for his work against genocide and for coining the term in 1943. He first used the word in print in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation - Analysis of Government - Proposals for Redress, which as published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1944 during the Holocaust.

Lemkin joined the Polish army and defended Warsaw during its siege. He lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust but helped his brother and family immigrate to Canada. Once in the United States, he taught law at Duke University in 1941. In 1943 Lemkin was assigned consultant to the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration and became an adviser on foreign affairs to the War Department because of his knowledge in international law. He also served as one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials. He then lectured on Criminal Law at Yale University and soon after, in 1955, became a Professor at Rutgers.

He continued his campaign for international laws forbidding genocide and presented a draft resolution for a Genocide Convention which was eventually placed before the General Assembly, with the help of the United States.  His Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted on December 9, 1948 and defines what constitutes genocide in legal terms.

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Armenian Genocide

Death march in the Syrian Desert

The Armenian Genocide took place during and after World War I from 1915 to 1923 and involved the systematic extermination of Armenian people from their homeland in Asia Minor by the Ottoman government.

A mass killing of the male population took place through massacre and forced labor and women, children, the elderly, and sick were deported on death marches through the Syrian Desert. An estimated 1 to 1.5 million lives were taken. This genocide is considered one of the first modern genocides.

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The Holocaust

Deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto

The Holocaust was the systematic and large scale extermination of approximately six million European Jews and other minority groups by the Nazi regime led by Adolph Hitler during World War II.

Many scholars posit that with the genocide of millions of other minority groups such as homosexuals, people with disabilities, Romani, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among others, the total number of Holocaust victims is between 11 and 17 million. As part of the Final Solution, Jews were forced into overcrowded ghettos only to be deported to concentration camps where many died of exhaustion from slave labor or were systematically killed in gas chambers. To prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners by the Allies, death marches were executed and continued until 1945 when the German forces surrendered to the Allies.

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The Cambodian Genocide

A gun-brandishing Khmer Rouge fighter shouts commands during the April 17, 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital

The Cambodian Genocide took place from 1975 to 1979 under the Khmer Rouge, an armed resistance movement formed by Pol Pot.

Influenced by a Chinese Communist agricultural model, Pol Pot attempted to control and consolidate the peasant farming society of Cambodia. Anyone in opposition to this system was eliminated and included those such as intellectuals, professionals, monks, religious enthusiasts, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Cambodians with Chinese, Vietnamese or Thai ancestry. Like many other genocides, survival was dependent on ones ability to work. Over 25% of the Cambodian population perished.

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Al Anfal Campaign/ Kurdish Genocide

Kurdish refugees

As part of the Iraqi-Kurdish conflict of the final stages of the Iran-Iraq War, a series of systematic attacks on the Kurdish population and other minorities took place from 1986 to 1989 in Northern Iraq.

Because the Iraqi government saw the Kurds as a threat to the nation Led by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and run by his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid the Anfal campaign included the use of ground offensives, aerial bombing, destruction of settlements, mass deportation, firing squads, and chemical warfare. Approximately 4,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed and at least a million people of the Kurdish population were displaced. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds lost their lives. This genocide is also considered gendercidal because men were the primary targets of Anfal, according to Human Rights Watch/Middle East.

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Bosnian Genocide

City of Bijeljina, March 31, 1992: Serbian paramilitaries strike Bosnian Muslim civilians

The Bosnian vote for independence took place on April 6, 1992, when Serb militants killed and wounded several people in Sarajevo.

In response, Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic blocked all roads leading to Sarajevo and shut down the airport. Around 400,000 Bosnians were trapped and not given food, water, medicine, and electricity. Several atrocities occurred during this siege including the Lasva Valley case in 1991 in which mosques and Bosnian homes were destroyed, civilians were murdered, and the first acts of pillage occurred; The Ahatovici massacre in 1992 took the lives of 64 males who had been tortured and killed by weaponry; The Ahmici massacre in 1993 in which two mosques were destroyed and another 120 people murdered. Further, between 1992 and 1994 in Foca, all Bosnians were expelled from the area and hundreds of women were raped and more people were killed. The largest genocide during this siege was the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 where 8,373 Bosnian men and boys were murdered. This genocide lasted from 1992 to 1995 and an estimated 33,071 to 66,470 lives were lost during this time.  

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Rwandan Genocide

April 6, 1994: Debris from the plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundi presidents, shot down on its descent to Kigali International Airport

The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 was the mass murder of around 800,000 people from the East African nation of Rwanda.

It resulted from the recurrent tension between the minority Tutsi and the majority Hutu people. Habyarimana, the president at the time, used propaganda to increase tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi. After a plane carrying the President was shot down, violence broke out and the Hutu extremists planned to destroy the entire Tutsi population, wanting to regain power. Tutsi and those suspected of being Tutsi were killed, families were killed, and women were raped. At the same time, thousands of Hutu were killed because they were opposed to the killings. The genocide ended when the Tutsi rebel group, the RPF, defeated the Hutu regime and President Paul Kagame took control.

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Democratic Republic of Congo

"Mugungu 2," a UNCHR refugee camp in Goma, Congo

Since 1996 until today, those living in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo remain victims to mass killings, torture, and rape.

Ignited by the First and Second Congo Wars, the violence is violation of human rights on a mass scale. Most of the fighting today is taking place in North and South Kivu on the Democratic Republic of Congo/Rwanda border. Some of the fighting results from the tension caused by the Hutu refugees from the Rwandan genocide, while other fighting results from international demand for natural resources. As many as 5.4 million people have been killed so far.

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Genocide in Darfur

Janjaweed soldiers on camelback

In the western part of Sudan in Darfur, as conflicts increased between African farmers and nomadic Arab tribes, violence and mass murder began as a response from the Sudan government who unleashed the Arab militias known as Janjaweed.

Sudanese forces and Janjaweed attacked and destroyed villages and displaced civilians. Ongoing today, those living in Darfur are being displaced and murdered by the Janjaweed. This genocide has taken 400, 000 lives and displaced 2,500,000. Hundreds continue to die every day while the Sudanese government denies any connection with the Janjaweed. In 2009, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for his campaign of mass killing, rape, and pillage against the Darfuris. However, violence and destruction will continue until the region becomes more stable and peace is agreed upon.

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