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Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) coming into force

Before 1944, various terms, including “massacre”, “crimes against humanity“, and “extermination”[8] were used to describe intentional, systematic killings. In 1941, Winston Churchill, when describing the German invasion of the Soviet Union, spoke of “a crime without a name”.[9]

In 1944, Raphael Lemkin created the term genocide in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The book describes the implementation of Nazi policies in occupied Europe, and cites earlier mass killings.[10] The term described the systematic destruction of a nation or people,[11] and the word was quickly adopted by many in the international community. The word genocide is the combination of the Greek prefix geno- (γένος, meaning ‘race’ or ‘people’) and caedere (the Latin word for “to kill”).[12]The word genocide was used in indictments at the Nuremberg trials, held from 1945, but solely as a descriptive term, not yet as a formal legal term.[13]

According to Lemkin, genocide was “a coordinated strategy to destroy a group of people, a process that could be accomplished through total annihilation as well as strategies that eliminate key elements of the group’s basic existence, including language, culture, and economic infrastructure”. Lemkin defined genocide as follows:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished 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 the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.[12]

The preamble to the 1948 Genocide Convention (CPPCG) notes that instances of genocide have taken place throughout history.[14] But it was not until Lemkin coined the term and the prosecution of perpetrators of the Holocaust at the Nuremberg trials that the United Nations defined the crime of genocide under international law in the Genocide Convention.[15]

Lemkin’s lifelong interest in the mass murder of populations in the 20th century was initially in response to the killing of Armenians in 1915[16][4][17] and later to the mass murders in Nazi-controlled Europe.[5] He referred to the Albigensian Crusade as “one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history”.[18] He dedicated his life to mobilizing the international community, to work together to prevent the occurrence of such events.[19] In a 1949 interview, Lemkin said “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”[20]