It is common to hear people talk about the crimes committed by humans against animals and the environment on a daily basis. Recently, I’ve heard issues such as the extinction of certain animals and climate change due to human negligence discussed in bars, at parties, during conferences and on television. Unfortunately, it is not as common to hear about genocide, the most barbaric crime against humanity.
The term genocide was invented in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish-Polish lawyer who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. The word is a combination of the Greek word “genos” (race or tribe) and the Latin word “cide” (to kill). Five years later, during the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide the United Nations General Assembly produced an official definition for genocide.
According to Article II of the Convention genocide is “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group … including:
- 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.“
Lemkin’s definition of genocide was broader and included “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.”
Although the term genocide was coined and defined in the 1940’s, some argue that genocides have occurred in earlier centuries. There is reason enough to believe that horrible acts of genocide took place in America, Africa and Australia by various European colonial powers; these acts contributed to the oppression, exploitation and, in some cases, extinction of many tribes and indigenous peoples. In Australia, British settlers killed and displaced thousands of Aborigines. Brett Stone states in his article “Report Details Crimes Against Aborigines” that “genocidal practices perpetrated against Australian Aborigines were the outcome of policies adopted by all Australian governments from British settlement in 1788 until the present.” In this period, the population of Australia’s indigenous peoples decreased significantly.
On the other side of the world, centuries earlier, Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas, home to millions of Native Americans who were later violently killed and exploited by the European invaders. It is estimated that the North American Indian population was reduced from about 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900, a clear example of genocide. Native Americans continued to suffer even after hundreds of treaties were signed with European settlers. Most of these treaties were flagrantly violated and indigenous populations were forced off their lands. The effects of these genocidal practices reverberate through U.S. and Australian society to this day.
Yet, to save ourselves from continuing this cycle of atrocity we must spread awareness about genocide and its repercussions. It is time for genuine reparations and proactive measures to heal open wounds. We need to support the many regional and international efforts to end genocide through education and responsible policies.
As Albert Einstein reminds us, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.”
by Fatema Hayat