What it is: The deliberate and systematic extermination of a racial, national, religious or ethnic group. The word was coined in 1944 to refer to the Holocaust. An international law, the Genocide Convention, was drawn up in 1948. The Convention defines genocide as acts carried out with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the targeted group. These acts might include '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; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.' All of these things were done during the Holocaust.

What it means: After 1945 many people thought that genocide was so terrible that it would never happen again. The Genocide Convention, they thought, would make sure it was prevented. But there have been several genocides since the Holocaust, and they were not prevented. One was in Africa. In April 1994 the Hutu president of Rwanda was killed. Within hours Hutus, in groups or on their own, began killing. They first murdered Hutus who did not share their hatred of Tutsis, and then began killing Tutsis wherever they found them. Roadblocks were set up and telephone lines cut by Hutu militias to prevent Tutsis escaping, and information was given out naming the locations of people to be killed. The radio stations controlled by the organisers of the genocide broadcast words of encouragement to the killers: 'Take your spears, clubs, guns, swords, stones...Hunt out the Tutsi. There is no way the rebels should find alive any of the people they claim as their own'.  Tutsis were hacked to death, shot, burned alive, thrown into pits and latrines to die, and sometimes forced to murder their own friends and relatives. The killing went on until the beginning of July. Members of the United Nations knew about the genocide from the start, but 'the will to act was not there', said the UN Secretary-General. Another genocide took place in Europe a year later. Serb forces besieging the Bosnian town of Srebrenica carried out a massacre of up to 7,000 Muslims. Evidence, said a war crimes trial judge, described 'scenes of unimaginable savagery: thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson. These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history'.

Think about it: People talk about 'unimaginable savagery', but it has really happened and so cannot be beyond human imagination. So what are the circumstances in which genocide can happen, and why? And why have genocides in, for example, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia not been prevented? One problem is that while the Genocide Convention states clearly that genocide should be stopped, it does not specify how that should be done; or, put another way, how the Convention can be enforced. (The US government went to some trouble trying to avoid using the term 'genocide' at all to refer to the atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia. How useful is it to give some kinds of massacre a special name? ) Another problem is that the Convention does not cover the killing of targeted political or cultural groups, so that (for example) in those cases state leaders may feel there isn't enough backing from international law to allow them to intervene. In any case, armed humanitarian intervention brings legal and political problems of its own. However, international war crimes tribunals were set up to bring to justice committers of genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia - if they could be arrested and charged. By 2005 only a relatively small number had been tried in court. One of the most important things to consider is how any individual, or crowd of individuals, can feel able to turn on other people so cruelly and violently. Might they be afraid of ignoring the organisers of genocide? Can 'hate speech' in the media make people feel they are allowed to commit atrocities? Are they caught up in a kind of hysteria, that in fact could be defused?

Here is what a Croatian writer says about the spread of the sort of hatred that can lead to killing: think about how what she says might apply to other events you know about, in history or your own experience. 'The mechanism of exploiting fear is simple and well known. As an individual you may feel lost and confused, swept away by the speed and magnitude of historical events. Suddenly there is someone offering you shelter, a feeling of belonging, a guarantee of security. We are of the same blood, we belong to the same territory, our people first (so goes the rhetoric). To scared ears it is soothing to hear old-fashioned words like "blood", "soil", "territory", 'Us", "Them". You feel stronger, no longer alone, confronted by the "Others", by too many immigrants, Muslims, Turks, refugees, Africans, asylum seekers, Gypsies...Once you have found the pleasure of belonging, "Others" don't frighten you any longer. From the fear of the unknown to the creation of the "known" enemy is often only a small step. It doesn't need much more than that vague sense of anxiety, plus a political leader who knows how to exploit it: the media will do the rest.'

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