The Genocide Convention


The Genocide Convention was adopted in 1948 in response to the many atrocities – most profoundly the Holocaust – committed by Germany during World War II.  Adoption followed UN General Assembly Resolution 180(II), 21 Dec 1947, in which it was recognized that “genocide is an international crime which entails the national and international responsibility of individual persons and states.”  The Convention came into force on 12 Jan 1951.  It has since been widely accepted by the international community and ratified by the overwhelmingly majority of States. As of 21 Jan 2020, 152 states are parties to the Convention.

Nothwithstanding the widespread adoption of the Convention, genocide has continued to plague the world community.  One website, The Combat Genocide Association, lists ten genocides since 1971:

  • Bangladesh 1971
  • Biafra 1966-1970
  • Bosnia 1992-1995
  • Burundi 1972
  • Cambodia 1975-1979
  • Darfur 2003-?
  • Guatemala 1981-1983
  • Rwanda 1994
  • Somalia 1988-1989
  • Uganda 1971-1985

The last three entries in the Further Reading section below raise a variety of concerns about the ultimate utility of the Genocide Convention.  A primary criticism is the lack of an adequate mechanism for prevention of genocide.


The steps leading to adoption by the United Nations

11 Dec 1946

General Assembly Resolution 96(I)

By Resolution 96(I) of 11 December 1946, the General Assembly, affirming that genocide is a crime under international law which the civilized world condemns, invited Member States to enact the necessary legislation for the prevention and punishment of that crime, recommended that international cooperation be organized to that effect and requested the Economic and Social Council to undertake the necessary studies, with a view to drawing up a draft convention on the crime of genocide. On instructions from the Economic and Social Council, the Secretary General, with the assistance of the Division of Human Rights and a group of three experts (Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, Raphael Lemkin and Vespasien Pella), prepared a draft convention accompanied by a commentary (E/447, 26 June 1947).

6 Aug 1947

ECOSOC Resolution 77(V)

By Resolution 77(V) of 6 August 1947, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) proposed to proceed as rapidly as possible with the consideration of the question of genocide, subject to any further instructions which it may receive from the General Assembly. States were invited to submit their observations on that draft (A/362, 25 Aug 1947).

21 Nov 1947

General Assembly Resolution 180(II)

By Resolution 180(II) of 21 November 1947, the General Assembly requested the Economic and Social Council to continue its work on the matter and to proceed with the completion of a convention without awaiting the receipt of observations by all Member States.

3 Mar 1948

ECOSOC Resolution 117(VI)

On 3 March 1948, the Economic and Social Council, by Resolution 117(VI), established an Ad Hoc Committee on Genocide composed of national representatives (United States of America, Soviet Union, Lebanon, China, France, Poland and Venezuela), which prepared a second draft convention with commentaries (E/794, 5 April-10 May 1948).

1948

Consideration by the 6th Committee of the General Assembly

The Sixth (legal) Committee considered this draft at its 63rd to 110th meetings and 128th to 134th meetings of the third session of the General Assembly in 1948 (See, Report of the Sixth Committee, A/760, 3 Dec 1948).  A detailed description of the deliberations of the Committee and General Assembly is in, Matthew Lippman, “Genocide”, in International Criminal Law: Sources, Subjects and Contents, edited by M. Cherif Bassiouni, pp. 403-435 (2008).

9 Dec 1948

Convention Adopted by General Assembly – Resolution 260(III)

The General Assembly, having entertained various proposals to amend the draft convention in its deliberations, adopted the Genocide Convention by unanimous vote of the 56 participants at its 179th plenary meeting, on 9 Dec 1948, by Resolution 260(III).  The Convention entered into force on 12 Jan 1951.


Raphael Lemkin

The central figure bringing about international recognition of genocide as a crime is Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent.  He escaped Poland shortly after the Nazi and Soviet invasion in 1939.  Most of his family perished in the Holocaust.  Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1943 and was one of three experts who prepared the first draft of the Genocide Convention.  Key writings of his on genocide [adapted from the website Prevent Genocide International]:

♦ “Les actes constituant un danger general (interétatique) consideres comme delites des droit des gens” Explications additionelles au Rapport spécial présentè à la V-me Conférence pour l’Unification du Droit Penal à Madrid (14-2O.X.1933). 

English translation: “Acts Constituting a General (Transnational) Danger considered as Crimes under International Law” Translation by James T.Fussell

♦ “Akte der Barbarei und des Vandalismus als delicta juris gentium” (Acts of Barbarism and Vandalism under the Law of Nations), Anwaltsblatt Internationales, Vienna,Vol. 19, No. 6, (Nov. 1933), p. 117-119

Lemkin wrote this German language article as an abbreviated version of the report ‘General (Transnational) Danger’ he originally presented in French at the 5th Conference for the Unification of Penal Law in Madrid, Spain in October 1933. The article was published in Anwaltsblatt Internationales (Lawyer Gazette International), a legal monthly based in Vienna, Austria and edited by Dr. Rudolf Braun.

Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress, Chap. 9, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944.

Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in November 1944, was the first place where the word “genocide” appeared in print. Raphael Lemkin coined the new word “genocide” in 1943 both as a continuation of his 1933 Madrid proposal and as part of his analysis of German occupation policies in Europe.

French translation: Le règne de l’Axe en Europe occupée, Le premier paragraphe de Chapitre IX: “Génocide” de Raphaël Lemkin, 1944

Spanish translation: Las Reglas del Eje sobre la Europa Ocupada, Primer párrafo de Capítulo IX: “Genocide” de Raphael Lemkin, 1944. Translation by Carlos Mario Molina Arrubla, May 2000

♦ “Genocide – A Modern CrimeFree World (New York), Vol. 9, No. 4, (April 1945), p. 39-43

This article is a summary for the general public of the concepts and proposals Lemkin originally presented in Chapter 9: “Genocide” of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Free World was a wartime “Non-Partisan Magazine devoted to the United Nations and Democracy.”

♦ “Genocide” American Scholar, Vol. 15, No. 2 (April 1946), p. 227-230

♦ “Le crime de génocide” La Documentation Francaise, 24 septembre 1946, Notes Documentaires et Etudes No 417 (Serie Textes et Documents. – L)

Spanish translation: “Genocidio” Translation by Carlos Mario Molina Arrubla, August 1999

♦ “Genocide as a Crime under International Law” American Journal of International Law, Vol. 41, No. 1 (1947), p.145-151


The International Court of Justice and Genocide

The jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice, which recognizes that the principles underlying the Convention are principles which are recognized by civilized nations binding on States, considers the prohibition of genocide as a peremptory norm of international law (See, Reservations to the Convention on Genocide, 1951 I.C.J. Rep. 15, 23; see also Case Concerning Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Co. (Belg. v. Spain), 1970 I.C.J., Rep. 3, 32).  (See, the ICJ’s pages on the Reservations case, and on the Barcelona Traction case)

In Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro), the ICJ addressed a number of issues concerning the Genocide Convention, in a proceeding which spanned a period of almost 14 years, from 1993 to 2007.  These issues included jurisdiction, determinations of guilt, state responsibility, and reparations.  There are extensive court records for both the 1993 application, and the 2001 Application for Revision of the Judgment of 11 July 1996, which sought to challenge the basis for jurisdiction over Yugoslovia

In Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (The Gambia v. Myanmar), the violence committed against the Rohingya population of Myanmar is the subject of the proceeding.  Gambia filed its application on 11 Nov 2019, and is seeking provisional measures.

Background on the ICJ can be found on this website and the Court’s website.


The International Criminal Court and Genocide

Genocide is defined in the same terms in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 6) as in the Genocide Convention.

Situation in Darfur, Sudan.  The situation was referred to the ICC by the United Nations Security Council: March 2005. 

The ICC investigation, which opened in June 2005, has produced several cases with suspects ranging from Sudanese Government officials, Militia/Janjaweed leaders, and leaders of the Resistance Front, and has involved charges that include the following crimes:

♦ genocide: genocide by killing; genocide by causing serious bodily or mental harm; and genocide by deliberately inflicting on each target group conditions of life calculated to bring about the group’s physical destruction;
♦ war crimes: murder; attacks against the civilian population; destruction of property; rape; pillaging; and outrage upon personal dignity; violence to life and person; intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a peacekeeping mission; and
♦ crimes against humanity: murder; persecution; forcible transfer of population; rape; inhumane acts; imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty; torture; extermination; and torture.

Background on the ICJ can be found on this website and the Court’s website.


Ad-Hoc Tribunals

The United Nations has established ad-hoc international tribunals designed to address specific conflicts and cases.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the UN Security Council in 1993 to try those responsible for crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed during the conflict of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established by the UN Security Council in 1994 to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes occurring between January 1 and December 31, 1994, in Rwanda.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia are hybrid domestic-international courts set up to try those responsible for atrocity crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war and the genocide in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge rule, respectively.


On-Line Resources

UN Office on Genocide Prevention
UN Audiovisual Library on International Law
Genocide under Municipal Laws
Prevent Genocide International
Rule of Law – Prevention of Genocide
Strengths and Flaws of the Genocide Convention


Further Reading

Hirad Abtahi and Phillippa Webb, The Genocide Convention: Travaux Préparatoires, 2 vols. (2008) 

Anton Weiss-Wendt, Documents on the Genocide Convention from the American, British, and Russian Archives, 2 vols. (2018)

Steven R. Ratner, B.G. Ramcharan, Payam Akhavan and Delissa Ridgway, “The Genocide Convention after Fifty Years“, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (American Society of International Law), Vol. 92, pp. 1-19, April 1-4, 1998

Matthew Lippman, “Genocide”, in International Criminal Law: Sources, Subjects and Contents, edited by M. Cherif Bassiouni, pp. 403-435 (2008)

Orie L. Phillips and Eberhard P. Deutsch, “Pitfalls of the Genocide Convention”, American Bar Association Journal, Vol. 56, No. 7, pp. 641-646 (July, 1970)

Paola Gaeta, “The UN Genocide Convention: A Commentary”, (2009)

Jacob Dolinger, The Case for Closing the UN: International Human Rights – A Study in Hypocrisy, Chap. 8, “The Modern Succession of Genocides” (2016)