The first juridical definition in mass persecutions matter dates back to 1915 and concerns the massacres of Armenian people by Turks, followed by the responsible court-martials trials. In the Sèvres Treaty of 1920, the great Powers used the terms of “crimes against civilization” and “crimes of injured humanity”. At the end of World War Second, facing the tragedy of Shoah, the Military Court of the Nuremberg trial against Nazi hierarchs established, in the opening, the crimes in the court jurisdiction:
Crimes against peace, ascribed to the ones responsible of the assault war;
War crimes based upon the principle of individual penal responsibility;
Crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, slavery, deportation and any other inhuman act committed against civil people, before or during the war, or persecutions, amounting to a violation of the rights of the country where the crimes were perpetrated.
On the 9th of December 1948, the General Assembly of United Nations approved unanimously the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, considered as the most wrong crime against humanity:
Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial 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 in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The crime of genocide includes:
- The purpose, interpreted as the planning of the elimination of a given human group;
- The state, as agent managing such planning;
- One or more criminal acts towards people inasmuch members of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
In a genocide, a person is persecuted because of his / her belonging to a group; the act is often perpetrated by the group in power, identified with the government. For genocide and crimes against humanity there is no interruption of the prescription period.
In some nations the concept of genocide has been broaden.
French penal code of 1992 introduces the will of annihilation of a human group, identified on the basis of inexistent premises: genocide is a crime defined as the “execution of a concerted plan leading to the total or partial destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, or of a group determined on the basis of any other arbitrary criterion”. Canadian penal court considers the “attempt, conspiracy or complicity after a fact, advice, help or support regarding the fact itself” as a crime against humanity as well, inasmuch part of the evaluation of individual responsibility, in the thorny relation between executioners and instigators, on the one hand, and between executioners and spectators or testimonies on the other hand.
The historical research is still far from applying this conceptual extension; it started recently to study genocidary crimes, both of the first part of Twentieth Century (Armenians, Kulaks, etc.) and the most recent years (Khmer in Cambodia, Tutsi in Rwanda, ethnic cleanliness in ex-Yugoslavia).