A common occurence in the Bible, as god repeatedly ordered the Israelites to eradicate this or that group of people completely, supposedly to allow the "chosen ones" to get land that they deserved. Remember that one of the worse war crimes imaginable was supposedly repeatedly ordered by someone who is considered to be a loving and benevolent god.

Another explanation was that the Hebrew people of the time were just very warlike, and justified their killing by convincing themselves and each other that some god thought them special and that they were supposed to do all this killing. (A reversal of the causality - the personality of their god created to fit their actions, not their actions to fit the orders of their god.)

Genocide is a horrible thing, regardless of the reason, as there cannot ever be a good reason.

Let us remember that genocide isn't only the elimination of a given racial group, but can also be the elimination of a given nation.

Genocides of the twentieth century:

- The Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey): From 1915 to 1923, the rebellious Ottoman Young Turk government ruthlessly slaughtered 1.5 million Armenians and deported over 1 million others. The Christian Armenians were seen as an obstacle for Muslim Turks who wanted to expand the Empire eastward in hopes of creating a pan-Turkic state. Known as the Armenian Genocide.

- Soviet Union: Soon after Lenin's death, from 1929 to 1953, the Communist government of present-day Russia, controlled by Stalin, cracked down on a whopping total of 20 million supposed anti-Communist and anti-Stalinists living in the Union.

- Germany: Probably the most famous incident of genocide, Hitler-ruled Nazi Germany massacred an estimated total of 13 million Jews, Gypsies, Anti-Nazis, homosexuals, and others, over the period of 1933 to 1945. The Holocaust, as it came to be known, was the tragic implementation of Hitler's proposed "Final Solution".

- China: Mao-ruled Communist China has had 3 time periods of genocide: From 1949 to 1952, the victims were anti-Communists; from 1957 to 1960, the rural population became the target; finally, from 1966 to 1976, the pro-Reform groups were annihilated. Total dead: 20 million.

- Guatemala: About 100,000 Maya Indians were killed from 1960 to 1981 by the racist Guatamalan government.

- Cambodia: During the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975 to 1979 led by Pol Pot, over 1 million Cambodians, mostly educated people, were tortured and/or executed in what some have called a campaign of "auto genocide".

- Rwanda: Between April and July, 1994, more than 800,000 Tutsi civilians were slaughtered in a genocidal campaign organized by Hutu hardliners.

Genocide as a word (from the Greek genos, race or tribe and the Latin -cida or -cidium, meaning "killer" or "killing," respectively), did not exist prior to 1943. It was coined by Polish-born lawyer Raphael Lemkin (1901-1959) and explained in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

At the Hague, in 1907, "war crimes" had been first defined. Lemkin felt that this particular crime did not fit the definition of a war crime. It was not a transgression of the "rules of war," but rather as a crime against humanity, itself. In 1933, he visited the Legal Council of the League of Nations in Madrid. He tried proposing that acts that he would later call "genocide" be outlawed. His proposal was not adopted.

Using the Armenian holocaust at the hands of the Turks and what was known at the time about what the Nazis had done (his documentation was primarily from 1940-1941), Lemkin formulated his concept of genocide. Unlike the rather broad way it has come to be used (pretty much any large mass slaughter or only such as that typified by Hitler's Final Solution with the Jews via the concentration camps), Lemkin felt it to be much more than the mass killing of large groups of people (related by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, et cetera) and defined it this way:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.
He also felt that
Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals.
In the book, Lemkin listed several ways through which the Nazis had implemented this: political, social, cultural, economic, biological (actions that decreased the birth rate), physical (which included racial discrimination in feeding, endangering health through deprivation of medicine and shelter as well as deliberate overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions, and mass killing), religious, and moral (diverting the people's thought from moral thinking by creating an environment that encourages the more base instincts).

He recommended that there be international law against such things and was able to encourage the United Nations in 1948 to enact the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. It followed Lemkin's basic model defining it:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The convention passed 55-0 and would become international law after the twentieth country ratified it, which happened in 1950. Interestingly, the United States resisted ratification until 1988, feeling that it would compromise its sovereignty, and then only with what was referred to as "reservations" and "understandings. These basically say that the United States will cede authority to the International Court of Justice, but only when it decides. When and how the Convention may be applied to itself will be determined by the United States. (To be fair, some other countries concur with some of the "reservations and understandings.")

(Sources: various websites. The relevant chapter material from Lemkin's book and the text of the Convention are also available online; quotes from there.)

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