An analysis of the United Nations Genocide Convention


By: The Time-Crunched Traveler

The following is a policy analysis paper …. originally published by the author in 2006

“I was reminded of a conversation I had with an American military intelligence officer who was having a supper of Jack Daniel’s and Coca-Cola at a Kigali bar…

‘I hear you’re interested in genocide,’ the American said. ‘Do you know what genocide is?’ I asked him to tell me. ‘A cheese sandwich,’ he said. ‘Write it down. Genocide is a cheese sandwich.’ I asked him how he figured that. ‘What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?’ he asked. ‘Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Crimes against humanity? Where’s humanity? Whose humanity? You? Me? Did you see a crime committed against you? Hey, just a million Rwandans. Did you ever hear about the Genocide Convention?’ I said I had. ‘That convention,’ the American at the bar said, ‘makes a nice wrapping for a cheese sandwich.‘”  (Gourevitch, 1998)

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, also known as the Genocide Convention, was approved by the UN General Assembly on December 9, 1948 in response to the methodical, systematic slaughter of six million Jews and five million Poles, Slavs, and other ethnic minorities during the Holocaust of World War II. The contracting parties of the Convention established a protocol both defining and criminalizing the act of genocide, which “whether committed in a time of peace or war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish” (UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948). In an effort to “liberate mankind from such an odious scourge” (UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948) and to ensure that never again would a particular people group be targeted and executed because of their race, ethnicity, or religious beliefs, on December 9, 1948, “fifty-five delegates vote yes to the pact. None voted no … the General Assembly had unanimously passed a law banning [genocide]” (Power, 2002). But since the United Nations criminalized the act of genocide nearly six decades ago, has it actually been successful in upholding the promises of the Convention — preventing and punishing genocide?

Overview of the policy under analysis

The Nature of Genocide

Prior to the Jewish Holocaust, the world did not have a name for what the United Nations termed “the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups” (Power, 2002). The act was generally referred to as mass murder or an atrocity, until 1944, when Raphael Lemkin settled upon genocide, “a hybrid that combined the Greek derivative geno, meaning ‘race’ or ‘tribe,’ together with the Latin derivative cide … meaning ‘killing’” (Power, 2002). The United Nations, under the Genocide Convention, later determined that genocide, more specifically:

“means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as:
a.) Killing members of the group;
b.) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c.) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d.) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e.) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”
(UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948)

In addition, the Convention says the following acts are punishable: genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempt to commit genocide, and complicity in genocide (UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948).

Context of the Genocide Convention

The UN Genocide Convention, which highlights genocide as “contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations” (UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948), supports the UN’s commitment “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person … to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom” (Annan, 2005). After World War II, the United Nations, under the influence of the Western world, began to perpetuate the use of the phrase “never again” in connection with genocide, vowing that such an atrocity would never again be allowed to occur. The UN’s Genocide Convention establishes the protocol to ensure that this phrase becomes reality, calling for the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide by all contracting parties.

Historical Analysis

Addressing Genocide Prior to the UN Convention

Before the realities of Hitler’s death camps were exposed across Europe, the world knew so little of this crime to exterminate entire people groups, or perhaps chose not to acknowledge it, that it did not even have a term for the act. But just because the world had little knowledge of the crime did not mean it was a new phenomenon. On the contrary, genocide had been perpetuated earlier in the twentieth century by the Ottoman Turks against ethnic Armenians. In 1915, nearly one million Armenians were targeted and slaughtered. But genocides such as these were not isolated incidents; nor were they reserved for distant, struggling countries. In fact, a large portion of the United States was settled through a genocide perpetrated against Native Americans, forcing them from their land, mentally and physically abusing them, and killing them. It could even be argued, based on the UN’s inclusion in the Convention of the causing of serious mental harm to members of a certain group, America’s practice of slavery was a form of genocide against those of African descent. Unfortunately, however, the world did not awaken to the reality of this crime until the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust were revealed — and even then, this realization came after the extermination of over ten million people, six million of whom were Jews. Thus, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was the first policy to ban the egregious act and to attempt to hold the international community accountable to preventing and punishing the crime. Furthermore, “it marked the first time the United Nations had adopted a human rights treaty” (Power, 2002).

The Evolution of the UN Genocide Convention 

The Genocide Convention — indeed, the word genocide itself — was the result of the exhaustive efforts of one individual: Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin, a Polish Jew who sought refuge in Sweden during Hitler’s extermination campaign, dedicated his life to advocating for international recognition of genocide and for its prevention and punishment. In order to assure international support for the Convention, he understood “he would have to appeal to the domestic political interests of UN delegates” (Power, 2002). Lemkin knew this was not only important for the initial approval of the Convention, but it was also vital to transforming the document from mere rhetoric to action as “UN member states that had voted for the ban in the General Assembly had to ratify it domestically in order for the treaty to become official international law” (Power, 2002).

Although the Convention was approved by the General Assembly in 1948, it would still have to be both signed and ratified by member nations in order for them to be bound by the mandates of the document. This proved a significant impediment to the enforcement of the Convention. For example, although “the UN passage had been an American effort in many respects … nearly four decades would pass before the United States would ratify the treaty” (Power, 2002). Finally, the United States, a key actor in the vote to ban genocide in 1948, ratified the Genocide Convention in 1989. The lack of American support for the Convention until that point, however, significantly hindered the ability of the international community to enforce the Convention to prevent and punish genocide. Without U.S. support, it was difficult to convince the rest of the world that genocide, indeed, was a legitimate crime against humanity warranting international intervention. Because of U.S. influence within the UN, “ratification in the U.S. Senate would have signaled to the world and the American people that the U.S. believed genocide was an international crime that should be prevented and punished, wherever it occurred” (Power, 2002).

Several factors contributed to the United States’ persistent opposition to the Convention. First, America remained confused as to what really constituted genocide. Because “the Convention’s plain wording was not terribly specific about the nature of the violence that needed to occur in order to trigger a global or national response” (Power, 2002), the U.S. upheld the intrinsic ambiguity of the Convention was reason enough not to ratify, especially regarding “the question of how many individuals have to be killed and/or expelled from their homes in order for mass murder or ethnic cleansing to amount to genocide” (Power, 2002). Second, the Convention could actually be used against America as “some U.S. senators feared the expansive language would be used to target Americans” (Power, 2002). This, again, related to the quantification issue as one U.S. Senator posited, “Let us assume there is a group of 200,000. Would that mean you would have to murder 100,001 before a major part would come under the definition?” (Power, 2002). Many U.S. lawmakers fear that if the U.S. failed to label an act as genocide because of the small number of people impacted, it could be used later to accuse the government of ignoring blatant genocide. The U.S. also feared that such a policy would put them under a microscope and past injustices perpetrated by Americans themselves against particular racial or ethnic groups would be exposed as genocide as “some suggested that U.S. ratification would license critics of the United States to investigate the eradication of Native American tribes in the nineteenth century” (Power, 2002). But the fear was not limited to mere exposure, but rather also to prosecution as “legislators warned that the Convention would empower politicized rabble-rousers to drag the United States … before an international court” (Power, 2002). Thus, the U.S. opted not to ratify the Convention until four decades and multiple generations later.

Incorporating the Lessons of History

The Holocaust of World War II was a sobering reminder to the nations of the West that mass murder and ethnic cleansing were not just events of the distant past or tactics employed only by savage, uncivilized peoples. No longer did the crime of genocide seem to discriminate; it could happen anywhere and anytime, even in the most industrialized countries in the world. Although the UN Genocide Convention was intended to ensure that “never again” would such an atrocious crime be perpetuated against a particular people group, it has neither prevented the crime from recurring nor punished those responsible in places where it has. Unfortunately, despite all the world has learned about the crime — warning signs, motives, long-term effects — it has allowed it’s “never again” rhetoric to disguise the reality that genocide, since the UN Genocide Convention, continually happens again and again.

In 1975, it happened in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge emerged victorious in the country’s five-year civil war, overtaking the capital of Phnom Penh, forcing Cambodians to abandon their homes. The brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge continued for three and a half years, leaving over two million Cambodians dead out of a population of just eight million (Power, 2002). Despite the existence of a Genocide Convention, the international community paid little attention to the plight of the Cambodians, whose country had been plagued by war and internal conflict for years. The United States, both its government and its citizens, dared not intervene in the Cambodian genocide for “once U.S. troops had withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973, Americans deemed all of Southeast Asia unspeakable, unwatchable, and from a policy perspective, unfixable” (Power, 2002). Nonetheless, genocide was happening again.

In 1994, it happened in Rwanda as the Hutu minority group enacted a campaign to systematically exterminate the Tutsi majority. During the Rwandan genocide, “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century … some 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were murdered” (Power, 2002) in only 100 days. At the time of the genocide in Rwanda, the United States had already ratified the UN Convention. But the term genocide was not officially used by the UN or the United States at the time of the extermination. In fact, the U.S. government was afraid to use the term because it would bind them to take specific action in accordance with the Genocide Convention. State Department spokeswoman, Christine Shelley, cautioned, “‘There are obligations which arise in connection with the use of the term.’ She meant that if it was genocide, the Convention of 1948 required the contracting parties to act. Washington didn’t want to act. So Washington pretended that it wasn’t genocide” (Gourevitch, 1998). Regardless of what it was labeled then, the horrific events of 1994 in Rwanda are today an undeniable example of genocide happening once again.

Therefore, although the UN Genocide Convention was drafted on the premise that genocide would never again be allowed to happen, those contracting parties bound to both prevent and punish the crime have stood on the sidelines as millions are slaughtered again and again.

Social Analysis

Current Knowledge of Genocide

As of 2005, 17 countries were identified as experience genocide on the Stage Seven: Extermination level (Stanton, 2005). These countries include Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Nepal, and the Chechnya region of Russia among others. In the Darfur region of Sudan alone, it is estimated that since 2003, 400,000 people have been killed and over two million displaced — targets of genocide simply because of their ethnic identity (Source, 2005). One of the main tactics of the Janjaweed rebels in Darfur is the systematic rape and torture of women. Rape is seen as a powerful tool in genocide as it not only physically damages women, but also psychologically. Janjaweed surround Darfurian villages and, as the women fetch water for their families or work in the fields, they are gang-raped. This is especially significant in a Muslim culture like that of the Darfurians as “rape draws heavy social disgrace, victims are often ostracized by their own families and communities … even punished for illegal pregnancy as a result of being raped” (Source, 2005). Although facts regarding the atrocities in Darfur are often uncertain because of the lack of access to the region, there is no mistake that it is genocide. In fact, both former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice have labled the massacres as genocide. But despite its bold use of the term, the United States has yet to take decisive action to end the genocide in Darfur.

Past Efforts to Curb Genocide

The international community repeatedly fails to uphold the requirements of the Genocide Convention, breaking its promise of “never again” as it ignores the overwhelming evidence around the world. One reason it is difficult, however, to uphold the Convention is because of the ambiguous wording of the policy. First, it does not clearly differentiate between civil conflict and genocide. The crime of genocide is not qualified. When is it genocide? When is it mass homicide? Therefore, it is up to the international community to determine how many deaths constitute genocide and warrant international intervention. Second, the policy does not outline clear guidelines for the prevention of genocide. As a result, any outside intervention — if the situation has not yet escalated to the phase of genocide — could be interpreted as a violation of a nation’s autonomy. In fact, action to prevent genocide could be viewed as “fundamentally at odds, as so much as the internationalist experiment has proven to be, with the principle of sovereignty” (Gourevitch, 1998). Third, the policy seems more specific in terms of punishing genocide by establishing tribunals to prosecute perpetrators and conspirators of the crime. Therefore, the UN has more direction as to how to comply with this aspect of the policy, rather than prevention, and has successfully established tribunals to try suspects in both the Rwandan genocide and the genocide in the Former Yugoslavian Republic.

Regardless of current efforts to prosecute those who perpetrated genocide over a decade ago, however, this does not justify the virtual inaction of the United Nations and the United States in the wake of past and current genocidal campaigns. In Rwanda, for example, the international community did not act to prevent genocide — or even stop it after knowledge of the extermination was widely publicized; instead, “Rwanda had presented the world with the most unambiguous case of genocide since Hitler’s war against the Jews, and the world sent blankets, beans, and bandages to camps controlled by the killers, apparently hoping that everybody would behave nicely in the future” (Gourevitch, 1998).

Goals of the UN Genocide Convention

The manifest, or stated, goals of the Convention include confirming that genocide is a crime punishable under international law, defining genocide and acts of genocide which are punishable, and providing guidelines for establishing State-sponsored or international tribunals to prosecute those accused of acts of genocide. A goal which is explicit in the Convention’s title, but remains ambiguous in the text of the document, is the latent goal of prevention of genocide. The Convention serves the latent purpose of ensuring that genocide, as witnessed in the Holocaust of World War II, never again occurs.

Although influential member nations like the United States finally ratified the Convention, the UN still appears uncertain as to how to enforce the guidelines of the agreement. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the United Nations refused to acknowledge the acts as genocide. In Darfur today, the United Nations and the United States readily admit the atrocities qualify as genocide, but as a result of the vague nature of the Convention in addressing prevention and intervention, the UN remains uncertain as to how to stop such a horrific crime. Thus, even though there is consensus among nations who have ratified the Convention as to the importance of treating genocide as a violation of international law, there is still reluctance when it comes to actually intervening. As a result, the policy that was created to prevent and punish such an international crisis actually allows it to continue.

Economic Analysis 

Economic Effects of the Policy 

The costs of acting in accordance with the UN Genocide Convention would impact both the UN organization and its member nations in multiple ways. First, prevention and intervention would be costly in terms of commitment of troops, or peacekeepers, equipment and supplies, and also in terms of the lives of soldiers that could be lost as a result of the intervention. Second, intervention would also potentially cost the leaders of the UN and the United States in terms of their credibility and political support. If the United States were to commit troops in the Sudan right now, regardless of how much the American public condemns the genocide, there would likely be significant opposition to such a decision because of our continued troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, if further military action was taken, the credibility of UN and U.S. leadership would be further damaged. Such a military operation would also require an increase in the defense budget of member nations and could take away from other needed social programs. Third, the mandates of punishment would cost the UN, member nations, and nations impacted by the genocide as they would have to establish tribunals — either internationally or within the affected member state — to prosecute perpetrators of genocide. This could add further financial strain to economies that are struggling to recover from the devastation caused by genocide.

Opportunity Costs of the Convention

Although acting in accordance with the requirements of the Genocide Convention could cost the United Nations and the United States billions monetarily, the cost of inaction could actually cost more in terms of future security, global stability, and the protection of human rights. By disregarding human life and allowing genocide to perpetuate, the UN and the U.S. send the message to to the rest of the world that not every life is worth saving — that people have to die in mass numbers in order for it to matter — and that only certain regions are worth risking the costs of intervention. But with genocide, numbers are not the issue. What separates genocide from mass murder, from ethnic cleansing, from civil war, is not the number of people killed, but rather the motivation behind the killing. Indeed, “What distinguishes genocide from murder, and even from acts of political murder that claim as many victims, is the intent. The crime is wanting to make a people extinct. The idea is the crime” (Gourevitch, 1998). By allowing genocide to perpetuate across the globe, the United Nations and the United States only fuel the fire of such intent. Furthermore, the selective response of world powers to genocide, like NATO intervening in Bosnia but not Rwanda, suggests the motivation behind such interventions may not be the protection and restoration of basic human rights, but rather may be based on racial prejudices or self-serving domestic interests. For example, the genocide in Darfur began in 2003, the same year the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom to supposedly bring freedom and justice to the people of Iraq. Why did America choose to liberate Iraq, but not Darfur? Was the decision based on the level of human rights violations in one country in comparison with the other? Or was there an alternative motivation?

Despite its War on Terror, a campaign based on the premise of providing security and ensuring freedom, the U.S. serves as a passive bystander while millions of people worldwide affected by genocide are denied those very rights. Thus, the United States and the United Nations have a moral obligation to take necessary action to restore those rights where they have been abolished through acts of genocide. These two world powers, through the enforcement of the Genocide Convention, have the ability to shape how the world views genocide and how the world responds to genocide. As Illinois Senator Barack Obama said, “If we care, the world will care. If we act, then the world will follow” (Associated Press, 2006). Thus, it is not a question of whether or not it is cost-effective for UN member states to uphold the Genocide Convention; rather, it is a moral imperative to act to protect human rights.

Political Analysis 

Major Stakeholders 

Those with the largest stake in the enforcement of the UN Genocide Convention include those United Nations member nations — in particular the United States — who have signed and ratified the Convention, pledging to uphold it. The credibility of the entire organization is at stake as failure to take action to stop genocide, particularly in Darfur, will result in a lack of confidence in and a lack of respect for the power of the organization to affect positive change, causing UN conventions to be viewed as mere rhetoric, rather than as laws to actually be enforced. The United States also has a particular responsibility to uphold the Convention as it wields more influence at the UN than other countries. In fact, it has more power to influence the response to genocide than any other nation in the world as “the United States’ decisions to act or not to act have had a greater impact on the victims’ fortunes than those of any other major power … Since World War II, the United States has had a tremendous capacity to curb genocide” (Power, 2002).

As the most widely accepted international policy criminalizing the act of genocide, the Convention also serves to impact the victims of past, present, and future genocides. The document serves as the legal justification for preventing, ending, and punishing genocide. Without the Convention, genocide is not legitimized as a criminal act, nor are UN member states justified in intervening in such a conflict. Although the Convention has not prevented all genocides nor punished everyone who perpetrated them, it has opened the door for the international community to intervene. It has facilitated the prosecution of suspected perpetrators of genocide in both Rwanda and Bosnia through its provision for tribunals. The authority to intervene in times of genocide granted to the international community through the Convention is provided through the power of the UN as the world’s largest decision-making body. Justice for past victims and protection for future victims rests on the authority of the United Nations to dictate international law through conventions like the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Political Aspects to the Implementation of the Policy

Although the Genocide Convention criminalizes the act of genocide, making it punishable under international law, the actual implementation of this policy is very political. Several examples help to illustrate the complications with implementation and enforcement. First, when the international community, particularly the United States, learned of the horrific massacres in Rwanda, it was extremely resistant to applying the term genocide to the events. In fact, “the Clinton administration opposed the use of the term” (Power, 2002). The administration’s dance around the g-word exemplified one of the major complications involved in implementation of the Convention as the State Department explained, “before we begin to use [the] term, we have to know as much as possible about the facts of the situation, particularly about the intentions of those who are committing the crimes … it’s something that requires very careful study before we can make a final determination” (Power, 2002). During the time it took the United States to conduct its careful study in order to avoid a semantic blunder, nearly one million Rwandans were slaughtered. Thus, despite the Convention’s intentions on preventing and punishing genocide, its implementation requires a drawn-out, bureaucratic process of discussions, investigations, and decisions before any fruit from the policy can be seen. In the case of Rwanda, this process proved fatal.

Second, it is not only the determination of whether or not a conflict is genocide that takes a long time, but also the decision as to how to best respond to genocide once it is identified. For example, when Colin Powell visited Sudan in 2003, it did not take him long to make the assertion that the situation in Darfur qualified as genocide. But three years later, the UN faces stark opposition from the Sudanese government, cannot gain access into the country, and has recently witnessed the African Union’s failure to negotiate a peace treaty between the citizens of Darfur, the government of Sudan, and the rebel Janjaweed militia (Reuters, 2006).

The problem with implementation of the Genocide Convention is not that the UN does not want to prevent or punish genocide. On the contrary, in 2004, UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, outline his “Action Plan to Prevent Genocide,” in which he emphasized, “If there is one legacy I would most wish to leave my successors, it is an Organization both better equipped to prevent genocide, and able to act decisively to stop it when prevention fails” (Annan, 2004). Among other recommendations in the proposal, his final recommendation stressed “the need for swift and decisive action when, despite all our efforts, we learn that genocide is happening, or about to happen” (Annan, 2004). Despite his passionate rhetoric and commitment to combat genocide, two years have passed and the citizens of Darfur still wait for the pale blue barets of the UN to fulfill the obligations of the Genocide Convention. Thus, the UN can agree with the Convention in theory, but the bureaucratic process involved in its implementation may come far too late for those whose lives depend on its interpretation and implementation.

Analysis of the Policy

Outcomes of the Convention in relation to Goals

Although it is called the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the goals of the policy seem to focus mostly on the punishment of the crime, rather than its prevention. After Article I of the policy criminalizes the act of genocide and Article II defines it, the proceeding Articles all focus on punishing the act. Perhaps this is a major factor contributing o the UN’s difficulty in taking action to stop genocide while it is still occurring.The provisions of the Convention specify guidelines for prosecuting the crime, not intervening to end it. The Convention, however, has succeeded in establishing tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslav Republic. This is, however, little consolation to the millions of victims and survivors of genocide since the Convention’s approval in 1948. While the international community vowed to prevent future genocides, promising “never again,” millions were and continue to be slaughtered. Thus, “this forward-looking, consoling refrain of ‘never again,’ a testament to America’s can-do spirit, never grappled with the factthat the country had done nothing, practically or politically, to prepare itself to respond to genocide. The commitment proved hollow in the face of actual slaughter” (Power, 2002). As a result, the Convention has done little but establish genocide as a crime punishable under international law. It has not prevented this unspeakable crime from happening.

Unintended Consequences of the Convention

Although the basic intent of the Genocide Convention is admirable, several unintended consequences result from the policy. First, the UN’s failure to prevent genocide from occurring after the approval of the policy weakens the credibility of the organization to influence international law and to protect human rights. Second, the policy suggests several actions which threaten the autonomy of individual nations. The policy givens the United Nations the authority to determine whether internal violence within a country is genocide, intended to exterminate a particular people group. This could seemingly limit the ability of governments to operate in a way they deem most advantageous for their people. UN intervention also involves continued presence in each country, long after the overseeing criminal tribunals. This suggests to the citizens of that particular country that their government and their citizens are incapable of recovering from genocide without the intervention of the United Nations. Third, the UN must remain static in its interventions of genocide and its punishment of the crime as inconsistency could be interpreted as an intervention in a particular region of the world based on domestic interests or racial prejudice.

Proposals for Policy Reform

Without reform, the UN Genocide Convention will remain little more than a nice wrapping for a cheese sandwich, enclosing the crime of genocide in the bureaucratic red tape of the United Nations’ regulations and procedures. The Genocide Convention should be amended to include more detailed provisions for preventing and stopping genocide. These provisions should include in-depth guidelines for identifying genocide so as to reduce the amount of time spent investigating the alleged genocide and to improve the speed with which the international community can respond. If detailed guidelines for identifying genocide were incorporated into the policy, then member nations would be without excuse for their failure to respond. Furthermore, the Convention should be amended to require immediate attention be paid by the UN Security Council to reported acts of genocide. For example, if the Secretary General outlines a strategy to better curb genocide while a legitimate genocide is occurring, the implementation of those recommendations should not take over two years. Such recommendations should be acted upon immediately as genocide is one of the more urgent and heinous crimes known to humanity.

Finally, the Convention should include a provision holding member nations accountable to the terms of the document. Not only should the Convention account for the punishment of perpetrators of genocide, but also it should expand Article III, point (e) addressing acts punishable by the Convention to read “Complicity in genocide, including failure by member states to act in response to confirmed genocide.” If the guidelines for identifying genocide are more explicit, then member states will be less likely to deny the act is occurring. If they cannot deny genocide is occurring, such a revised mandate would direct action. The current wording of Convention allows for the mere denouncement of the crime, but does not facilitate the prevention of it. This is little consolation for the victims of genocide as “… denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good” (Gourevitch, 1998).


It should be noted that despite the failure of the Genocide Convention to prevent genocide and its mediocre successes in punishing it, the United Nations strongly denounces the practice of genocide and is working diligently to help the people of Darfur. But for the victims of genocide — past, present, and future — passionate rhetoric and sincere intentions, if not supported by decisive and immediate action, result only in death and destruction. Therefore, it is imperative that the UN, in acting to curb genocide, remember the human element of the policy — the historical significance of the Holocaust which initiated the approval of the policy and the lives that have been lost to genocide over the last sixty years. Even though collectively millions have lost their lives, it is individuals like nine-year-old Sidbela Zimic of Sarejevo who motivate the enforcement and reform of the 1948 Genocide Convention.

“On June 25, 1995, minutes after Sidbela kissed her mother on the cheek and flashed a triumphal smile, a Serb shell crashed into the playground where she, eleven-year-old Amina Pajevic, twelve-year-old Liljana Janjic, and five-year-old Maja skoric were jumping rope. All were killed, raising the total number of children slaughtered in Bosnian territory during the war from 16,767 to 16,771” (Power, 2002).


Re-visiting this paper has left my heart heavy. So much has transpired in my life since I penned these words nine years ago. My approach to the “issues” of the world has shifted from a policy focus to a practical application; from an analysis of policy to an acknowledgement of reality. I could not have known then what I know now. I had academic knowledge, but not practical, real-world experience. I was naive. I was hopeful. I was missing the human element to my argument. And really, I was missing the point. 

Since I wrote this piece, I have come face-to-face with the reality of genocide and violent conflict all over the globe. Although I have not witnessed war or genocide myself, I have sat with refugee families who have been the targets of sectarian and ethnically motivated violent attack in Syria, Iraq, and Burma (Myanmar). I have played with children orphaned from genocide in Uganda. I get my hair cut from a family who survived genocide in Kosovo. I have witnessed first-hand the lasting and devastating social consequences — human trafficking, substance abuse, and endemic poverty, just to name a few — for nations like Cambodia and Bosnia emerging from the aftermath of genocide. I have friends who are survivors of genocide. And I have visited memorials erected to genocide victims in the exact places they were killed in Germany, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Cambodia. These experiences have been transforming and lasting. 

Genocide is no longer an “issue” to me, but something that is very real and we are separated from it by less than we would like to think. In graduate school, I still held on to the hope that policies could change lives — and for the better. And although I still believe they can, I do not believe they can do so in isolation. 

Genocide is not combated simply by having an effective policy. It is combated by the actions of actual people. I have come to place my hope more in the humanitarian workers and the everyday peace-builders — locals — who are committed to seeking and restoring peace in their communities. I place my hope in those who are determined to overcome adversity and heal from the injustice they’ve experienced. And I place my hope in the average citizens all over the world, whose voices and finances have the power to affect change and hold governing bodies accountable for both their actions and their inaction.

I also question what it really means to “take action” or to “combat genocide.” Is this limited to military action? Sanctions? Both have some effectiveness, but it is limited. Also, do I really want to advocate combating violence with more violence? Surely there is another solution.

Part of that solution lies in prevention. Prevention can include anything from community development, peace and reconciliation programs, economic development initiatives that create viable, gainful employment opportunities for communities at risk, and most importantly, education. This is how genocide is prevented. This is how genocide is combated.

I could go into a detailed analysis of my current thoughts on the Genocide Convention in lieu of my increased knowledge and expanded experiences; I could poke holes in all of my own arguments shared above. But I don’t really think it’s worth it. I think it just offers a temporary band-aid for a deeper, festering wound.

Genocide is one of the most horrific and tragic things I have encountered in all of my time overseas. And I really don’t ever want to visit another memorial that commemorates a genocide in a place where I visited previously — a genocide that could have been prevented if only we’d invested more in that which actually prevents; if only we — as global citizens — had recognized our power to support vulnerable nations and communities by using our skills and financial resources in a way that protects others rather than promotes ourselves. So for now, I’ll leave the policy analysis to the wonks in Washington and instead, I’ll spend my time engaging with people in places like Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Myanmar, and northern Thailand, to name a few, helping to empower and equip them to be effective change-makers in their communities. And they will be the ones to bring healing to their nations. 



Annan, K. (2005) In larger freedom.

Annan, K. (2004). UN action plan to prevent genocide.

Associated Press (2006). Celebrities, activists rally for Darfur.

Gourevitch, P. (1998). We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families. New York: Picador.

Power, S. (2002). A problem from hell: America and the age of genocide. New York: Harper Perennial.

Reuters (2006). Darfur peace deadline extended.

SaveDarfur (2005).

Stanton, G.H. (2005). Genocides, politicides, and other mass murder since 1945.

United Nations (1948). Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.



2 thoughts on “An analysis of the United Nations Genocide Convention

  1. Hi,

    I am a student that would like to cite you in my work about the application of the Genocide Convention in Rwanda. Under what alias or name would you like me to refer to you?

    Many Thanks.

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