Genocide — the gravest crime in international law


THE HAGUE – Genocide, which former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of Friday, is the gravest crime in international humanitarian law — and also the most difficult to prove.

Derived from the Greek word “genos”, for race or tribe, and the suffix “cide” from the Latin for “to kill”; genocide is defined by the United Nations as an “act committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

The word was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who took refuge in the United States, to describe crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.

It was used for the first time within a legal framework by an international military tribunal at Nuremberg to try Nazi leaders for their crimes in 1945. However, those accused were eventually convicted on charges of crimes against humanity.

Genocide has been recognised within international law since 1948, with the advent of the UN Convention.

The massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 was recognised in 1985 as genocide by the United Nations.

But even though the European Parliament recognised the Armenian genocide in 1987, only France, Switzerland, Belgium and Greece have followed suit in Europe.

The Rwandan genocide, in which the UN said some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in 1994, led to the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania.

It has handed out around 20 convictions since 1998 for the crime of genocide and complicity.

The massacre of almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica, in July 1995 during the Bosnian war, was recognised as genocide by the UN’s highest judicial organ, the International Court of Justice in 2007.

The Balkans war crimes court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has convicted several accused of genocide — and several trials, including that of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, are still underway.

In Phnom Penh, two former leaders of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79 are currently on trial for genocide and war crimes before a UN-sponsored tribunal.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on an arrest warrant for genocide related to crimes committed against Darfur’s civilian population.

The Hague-based ICC, created in 1992, is the only permanent international tribunal to try the perpetrators of genocide.

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