Featured weekly article: Identity Construction and the Causes of Genocidal Mass Murder

Identity Construction and the Causes of Genocidal Mass Murder

By Daniel Chirot and Daniel Karell

Volume 14, Issue 3, pages 484-499



What kinds of groups are targets of genocidal mass murder? To answer that we need to know the causes of genocide, but also how various kinds of identities come to define groups of people, and why in some cases they come into conflict with each other.

Defining genocide is difficult. The word, first introduced by Raphael Lemkin in his 1944 book on occupied Europe, referred to the German Holocaust (or Shoah) of the Jews then going on. Lemkin also considered the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915 to be genocide. A definition of genocide was then adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It said that genocides were acts ‘committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group,’ carried out by:

Killing members of the group; … [c]ausing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; … [d]eliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; … [i]mposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; … [f]orcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

(Quoted in Kuper 1982:19)

The Genocide Convention implies an obligation by the members of the United Nations to intervene to stop genocide. The very first article states: ‘The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish’ (quoted in Kuper 1982:210).


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