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Symposium on the Genocide Convention: Codification of the Crime of Genocide – a Blessing or a Curse?

Published on May 15, 2019        Author: 
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Editor’s note: This is the first post in our blog symposium arising out of the Nottingham International Law and Security Centre conference to mark the 70th Anniversary of the Genocide Convention. 

Codification of the crime of genocide

A lot has been written about the origins of the crime of genocide that need not be repeated here. It is well known that Lemkin originally saw genocide as a broad concept, i.e. as different acts aimed at destroying the culture and livelihood of groups (Axis Rule in Occupied Power, pp. 79-82). Along the same lines, the 1946 UN General Assembly Resolution 96 described genocide as the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups – including political ones. However, the scope of the definition adopted in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was significantly narrower. Cultural destruction and forcible population transfer were not included in the final text, protected groups were restricted, and jurisdictional reach limited. Yet, the Convention must be understood in the context of time. Indeed, having in mind the historical background, it is quite remarkable that the Convention was adopted at all – and broad support was generated by making concessions and imposing more stringent requirements.

Since the Genocide Convention defined and codified the crime of genocide as an independent crime, the definition of genocide has remained firmly settled in international law. Perhaps prematurely, the ICJ had already proclaimed its customary status in 1951, which was subsequently fortified by the verbatim reproduction of Article II of the Genocide Convention in the statutes of international ad hoc tribunals (here and here) as well as the Rome Statute of the ICC. This surely contributed to legal certainty and, from this perspective, codification can be viewed as a blessing for the relatively consistent application of the definition of genocide at the international level. Yet, simultaneously, it was a curse, preventing the crime from undergoing a development similar to that of crimes against humanity and even war crimes. This downside of the early codification could have been at least partially addressed through teleological and evolutive interpretation of the offence. The international tribunals, however, failed to realize the potential of the definition and thus contributed to frustrations surrounding prosecutions of genocide as well as to claims that genocide today is a redundant crime. Read the rest of this entry…