by Ned Richardson-Little
The term “genocide” is often used colloquially to denote mass killing as part of a plan of total extermination, but the formal meaning of the word as defined in international law and by the person who coined the term itself is not limited to this alone.
The idea of genocide is not simply killing every member of a group, here is the definition in law from Article 2 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which was created in 1948.
Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as
…any of the following acts commited with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its phyiscal destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.1
For Raphael Lemkin, who invented the term, genocide was the effort to destroy a group as a group. Or as Lemkin himself put it:2
For Lemkin, the destruction of cultural foundations was an essential element of genocide, rather than a separate kind of genocide that belonged to a lesser category. From his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe:
[G]enocide does not nececssarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accimplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, relgion, and the economic existance of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even thelives of the individuals belonging to such groups.3
When Lemkin described the process of genocide, he focuses on the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but also had a larger world historical view and saw colonialism and settler colonial policy towards indigenous people in the Americas as part of his definition of genocide.
Lemkin applied the term to a wide range of cases including many involving European colonial projects in Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and the Americas. A recent investigation of an unfinished manuscript for a global history of genocide Lemkin was writing in the late 1940s and early 1050s reveals an expansive view of the Lemkin termed a “Spanish colonial genocide.” He never began work on a project chapter on “The Indians of North America,” though his notes indicate that he was researching Indian removal, treaties, the California gold rush, and the Plains wars.4
To claim that applying the term genocide to Canadian treatment of native groups devalues and distorts the word directly contradicts the interpretation of the term genocide put forth by the person who invented it, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who had fled Nazi terror.
One of the motives behind this appeal to authority (which is ahistorical and wrong on the law,) is that it often comes from those who support policies of forced assimilation, which under the definition of Lemkin and international law, constitutes genocide.
Our leaders, meanwhile, keep telling themselves, in the face of all evidence, and the ancient traditions of illiterate hunter-gatherers can somehow be welded to a modern economy; as if the cruel march of history could be defated by an act of collective good will.
Jonathan Kay, the Case for Assimilation, National Post, December, 8 2001.
Cited passages from Lemkin were taken from two sources: Dirk Moses’ @dirkmoses article, “Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide” and Genocide and American Indian History by Jeffrey Ostler. And check out this special issue on Canada and genocide.
Originally from Canada, Ned Richardson-Little has published extensively on human rights. He is currently leading the research project “The Other Global Germany: Transnational Criminality and Deviant Globalization in Germany” at the University of Erfurt.
Discard Studies readers:
You may have noted that the citations and tweets in this essay constitute a conversation that appears to be exclusively among white men. This seems to fly in the face of Discard Studies’ commitment to foregrounding voices of BIPOC thinkers and our ethos of “nothing about us without us.” And it does. But as the managing editor of Discard Studies that also happens to be Indigenous, today I am exhausted, the day after the Inquiry report came out. My rage and grief are loud but inarticulate at the moment. We need settlers and people with privilege to collect their fellow settlers and educate them. If you are settler or of privilege and you want to be an ally when difficult discussions about Indigenous genocide (or DNA controversies, or forced adoption, or…) arise, look for the #settlercollector hashtag on Twitter or just listen to people in the lunch room and step in to educate and stand in the way of the violence of ignorance that perpetuates ongoing genocide–yes, genocide–so that we can grieve and gather our strength. If you’re looking for Indigenous voices on this topic, read the Inquiry’s report. It’s 1200 pages of Indigenous testimony. We’re done.
Dr. Max Liboiron (Michif)
Managing Editor, Discard Studies
- United Nations. (1948). Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crimeofgenocide.aspx
- Moses, A. Dirk. (2010). “Raphael Lemkin, culture, and the concept of genocide.” In The Oxford handbook of genocide studies: 21.
- Lemkin, Raphael.(2005). Axis rule in occupied Europe: Laws of occupation, analysis of government, proposals for redress. The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd.: 79.
- Ostler, Jeffrey. (2015). “Genocide and American Indian History.” American History: Oxford Research Encyclopedias.
- The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (2019). Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Government of Canada.