Skip to main content

A Short Reading List for Defining Genocide

The word was created to have a set, legal definition so that perpetuators could be prosecuted for their crimes.
The cemetery at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery to Genocide Victims. (Photo: Michael Büker/Wikimedia Commons)

The cemetery at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery to Genocide Victims. (Photo: Michael Büker/Wikimedia Commons)

Today, Armenia and its diaspora commemorate the mass killings of Armenians—via starvation and massacre—by the Ottoman Empire in 1915. World leaders paying their respects have stirred up debate about who is willing to call the killings a genocide. Turkey disputes Armenia's count of the dead, 1.5 million, and says there was no focused campaign against Armenians as an ethnic group. Meanwhile, the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, and Russia have acknowledged the Armenian genocide. In a speech yesterday, President Barack Obama called the deaths an "atrocity," but did not say "genocide." While in office, United States presidents generally avoid the word, out of fear of damaging relations with Turkey.

The word obviously has emotional significance for the descendants of the sufferers of the Armenian genocide. Beyond that, unlike many words, "genocide" also has a short, traceable, written history. We've provided a short reading list below.

"Genocide" was created to have a definition under international law, so perpetuators could be prosecuted for their crimes. International courts have tried leaders of genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. Its application can mean real consequences for people, although in the case of the Armenian genocide, there is no one left to prosecute.

  • This BBC analysis lays out some points of contention in the U.N. definition, which some critics say is too narrow and excludes serious crimes that threaten groups. At the same time, others worry about the dilution of the word's meaning if it's applied to too many crimes with differing motivations.
  • The first definition of "genocide" appeared in a book about World War II by a Polish Jewish lawyer who had dozens of family members die in the Holocaust. Raphael Lemkin's lobbying led to the U.N. Convention on Genocide and to the inclusion of the word in the indictment of Nazis in the Nuremberg trials.
  • Can the power of the word be counter-productive sometimes too? In 2010, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagem told NPR, "Fixating on the term hinders our understanding both of what happens and what should happen," while historian Charles W. Ingrao said the word "has a political dimension that makes it counter-productive." But its political consequences are the point and its use, or not, is telling about different nations' relationships and motivations.