What is Genocide?

When the UN committees passed the Genocide Convention on December 9, 1948, they declared that genocide should be defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Originally, political and economic groups were part of that definition as well, but upon the objections of the USSR and other governments, that portion of the ‘official’ definition was eliminated. It was argued that adding political or economic groups to the mix would open up the possibility of international intervention in “domestic concerns.” Some contributing nations even believed that “genocide” should refer only to groups derived from the etymology of the world – from the Greek géno meaning “race” and the Latin cide meaning “to strike down or slay.”

And yet, many of the acts of genocide in the 20th century were committed against economic and political groups. Over the course of 20 years, the government of El Salvador instituted mass killings, rape, torture and even forced hysterectomies of the poor to eliminate those opposing the regime. In Argentina, from 1976 – 1983, up to 30,000 men, women and children were “disappeared” by the government for political opposition in a wave of terror took great pains to eliminate any and all evidence of murder during the reign in an ongoing policy of culpable deniability.

By eliminating the words “political” and “economic” from the formal definition of genocide, governments gave themselves a protective umbrella to still commit these atrocities without international repercussions. In a political move, the governments who approved of this final definition, were thereby sanctioning such motivated mass killings.

Is it time to allow the formal definition of genocide to evolve and include these groups in a naming of the reality already experienced? What doors would that open up? Does the global definition of genocide matter in the ultimate acts committed? And does it matter in the opposition to those acts?

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