The Definition of Genocide

Genocide is a term that has widely been debated ever since Raphael Lemkin coined it in 1943. The part of the definition that many scholars and politicians argue over is if killing is a necessary condition of genocide. This disagreement over the qualification of killing is something that has been an item of contempt for numerous years. The difference in people’s definitions of genocide can be seen when presented with two widely cited meanings. The first definition comes from Dutch law professor Peter Drost, “Genocide is the deliberate destruction of physical life of individual human beings by reason of their membership of any human collectivity as such.”[1] In this definition the term genocide is dependent on the destruction of individual human begins. Isidor Wallimann and Michael N. Dobkowski present the second widely used definition of genocide, “Genocide is the deliberate, organized destruction, in whole or in large part, of racial or ethnic groups by a government or its agents. It can involve not only mass murder, but also forced deportation (ethnic cleansing), systematic rape, and economic and biological subjugation.”[2] Here the definition of genocide is not reliant on killing as an essential part. Something such as rape or forced deportation can be considered genocide, these are actions in which killing is not a necessity. The difference between these two definitions falls with the interpretation of the person defining it. This can cause a plethora of confusion amongst those who are studying genocide.

In order to minimize the confusion of definitions in regards to this paper, I will utilize the definition of genocide that is defined by the UN convention of 1948. I have chosen to utilize this definition because it is a definition that is recognized by numerous nations around the globe. Thus, I believe it to be the most agreeable. The definition of genocide provided by the UN convention of 1948 is as follows, “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 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; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”[3] Based on this definition of genocide and for the purposes of this paper I will qualify the use of Indian residential schools as equaling genocide. The aspect of the UN definition that supports my qualification is “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” In 1891, the U.S Commissioner of Indian Affairs was authorized by Congress to make and enforce…such rules and regulations as will ensure the attendance of Indian children of suitable age and health at schools established and maintained for their benefit.[4] This act was then followed in 1893 by legislators who began to withhold rations, clothing and other annuities from Indian parents or guardians who refuse or neglect to send and keep their children of proper school age in residential schools. [5] This is clear evidence of the existence of indigenous communities forcibly having to give up their children. The Indian residential schools that were in effect in the United States and Canada from the period of 1870 until 1972 qualify as genocide.


Originally published by Center for Jewish History
Originally published by Center for Jewish History



[1] Adam Jones, Genocide a Comprehensive Introduction, (New York: Routledge, 2011), 16.

[2] Jones, 17-18.

[3] “Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG),” UN.ORG. OSPAG Analysis Framework, accessed October 16, 2014.

[4] Churchill, 16.

[5] Ibid.