Judges at the International Court of Justice during the South Africa vs Israel hearing
South Africa accused Israel of genocide at the International Court of Justice

Genocide, 1940s: The crime of intentionally destroying part or all of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group

There are some human actions so terrible that naming them could be said to diminish their monstrousness. Perhaps “genocide” is one of these. Naming is a way of classifying things, placing them in comparison with others. So genocide is made up of the Greek word “genos” – meaning a “race” or “people” – and the Latin suffix “caedo”, meaning the “act of killing”. Consciously or not, this places “genocide” amongst other “-cides”, such as suicide and homicide, rather than in a field of its own. What if the term “genocide” is not sufficient?

Even so, new situations combined with new states of mind call for new words. Raphael Lemkin was a Polish lawyer who wrote the 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. His case study was Poland and he argued that through mass killings of Poles, planned deterioration of living conditions, mass physical and mental harm, transfer of peoples and the attempt to prevent births, there was a deliberate intent to eliminate the Polish identity. As the Holocaust of Jews and Roma was revealed, Lemkin’s term was used to refer specifically to these genocides, much of which took place in Poland.

Lemkin had at his disposal a Polish word ludobójstwo, meaning “killing of a people”. He possibly also knew of a German word völkermord, meaning “murder of a people”. Perhaps he had absorbed the idea that using Greek and Latin words dignifies a concept with precision and legality. However, this is an illusion, as we know from the difficulties people have had – and still have – over agreeing whether a specific mass killing is or is not a “genocide”.

And it leaves us with a difficulty. Once the evidence is clear that a mass killing has taken place, have we lumbered ourselves with a subsidiary problem in asking lawyers to decide whether these actions qualify as the crime of “genocide”? In such cases, we may find ourselves arguing over a word, when we already have the legal tools we need to sentence perpetrators of these atrocious crimes.

This article is a preview from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.