Evolution of the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity
In 1915 already, the allied governments of France, Great Britain and Russia, as concerns the massacre of the Armenian population by the Turks, talked about “crimes against the civilization” and “crimes of lese humanity”, terms which were resumed also in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). This legal definition would be adopted in the trials of the Turkish martial courts against the responsible for the mass murders.
Yet, it was only after World War Two and the tragedy of the Holocaust that we felt the need to identify and accurately define the crimes against humanity within the frame work of International Law.
Also the term “genocide”, coined by Raphael Lemkin and defined as “systematic destruction of a national or ethnic group”, started to be used in the legal language (the neologism was used for the first time in a writing of 1944).
The agreement, signed in London on 8 August 1945 between the United States, France, Great Britain and the USSR, includes genocide in the “crimes against humanity”, which in turn are comprised in the broader category of “international crimes”.
From 20 November 1945 and 1 October 1946, the International Military Tribunal set up in Nuremberg tried the top Nazi officials. The charges under the court’s jurisdiction were the following:
- crimes against the peace, lodged against the culprits of the war of aggression;
- war crimes, based on the principle of individual criminal responsibility;
- crimes against humanity i.e. murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and any inhuman act perpetrated against the civilians, before or after the war, persecutions that constituted a violation of the law of the countries where they were perpetrated.
Raphael Lemkin played a key role in bringing the concept of genocide to the attention of the rising United Nations Organization, where delegates from all over the world discussed the terms of an international law against such a crime.
On 9 December 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations unanimously approved the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide”.
The definition of genocide is set to comprise “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 Convention provides that those who stain themselves with those crimes, be them state organs, civil or military officers, or common citizens, must be held as “personally” and “individually” responsible for the same crime and therefore tried before local or international courts. Genocide and crimes against humanity have no statute of limitations and entail compensation.
Key elements, whose presence qualifies the crime of genocide, are the following:
- the intent or planning of the elimination of the targeted human group;
- the state as agent that organizes such a planning;
- one or more criminal acts against people targeted as members of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. It is the entire group to be persecuted and genocide is thus deemed to be the most heinous of the crimes against the humanity.
The Convention came into force on 12 January 1951, ratified by over 20 countries. On 3 November 1988, under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, it was signed also by the United States.
The Convention, however, did not have the final say in the different notions of the concept of genocide. The discussion that unfolded over the years broadened its boundaries, trying to put a remedy to some omissions. For example, the lack of the inclusion in the definition of genocide of the social, gender and political groups, all of which were targeted after 1945.
The French criminal code, approved in 1992, defines as genocide the will to annihilate not only national, ethnic, racial or religious groups, but also any other group “determined according to an arbitrary criterion”. Thus it is sanctioned that, beyond all classifications, the victim group is the one that is targeted by the aggressor.
The Canadian criminal code, in the recent years, introduced the aspect of “complicity”. It in facts deems as crime against humanity also the “attempt, plot, complicity after the fact, advice, aid or abetting of the very fact”.