Genocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’

Authored by: Andy Aitchison

Handbook on Crime

Print publication date:  February  2010
Online publication date:  February  2010

Print ISBN: 9781843923725
eBook ISBN: 9781843929680
Adobe ISBN:


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The term ‘genocide’ was first coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 to label a range of acts which had, since 1933, involved the increasingly systematic destruction of targeted ethnic or national groups, including Jews, Poles and Gypsies in Germany, German occupied territory and other Axis states in Europe (Lemkin 1944). The importance and originality of Lemkin’s analysis was recognised immediately (Kuhn 1945: 361) and genocide was soon recognised as a crime by the nascent UN (UNGA 1946). Over two years the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide turned this initial declaration into a more detailed instrument which ultimately came into force early in 1951. While the term is of relatively recent invention, it was recognised that it described an ‘ancient practice in its modern manifestation’ (Kuhn 1945: 361) and has allowed the subsequent re-examination of the historical fates of a number of groups. Examples include the Armenians in Anatolia (Bloxham 2003), the Herero in German South West Africa (Madley 2005), indigenous populations of Australia (Van Krieken 1999) and further groups stretching back to antiquity (Chalk and Jonassohn 1990). Since the 1990s a further term, ‘ethnic cleansing’, translated directly from the Serbian/Croatian etničko čišćenje and having been applied to the forced population transfers and mass killings that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, has come into increasingly common use to describe particular forms of genocide.

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