The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Living Edition
| Editors: Immanuel Ness, Zak Cope

Genocide and Imperialism

  • Jeffrey BachmanEmail author
Living reference work entry



Under Article 2 of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide is legally defined as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: 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; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The historical relationship between imperialism and genocide is vast and well-established. This relationship is generally understood to be rooted in acts of physical violence perpetrated by imperial powers in the processes of conquest and territorial expansion. What is less understood is the connection between imperialism and genocide found in indirect physical violence and other forms of violence carried out by settler-colonial regimes and the colonial powers. There is a reason for this. The imperial and colonial powers actively worked to ensure that the legal definition of genocide codified in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948; abbreviated to Genocide Convention from this point forward) did not contain elements that would implicate them in the commission of genocide.

There are numerous and important texts that provide summary overviews and in-depth analyses of historical cases of imperial genocides. Less so are the texts that question the legitimacy of the Genocide Convention itself based on it being an example of colonial law – law significantly shaped by the imperial and colonial powers in ways that served their interests by protecting them from the scope of its reach. This essay seeks to address this gap by illustrating the ways in which the original concept of genocide changed during its drafting process from one that incorporated elements that directly tied genocide to imperialism to one that has been applied almost exclusively to mass killings perpetrated by authoritarian states. It begins by summarizing the evolution of Lemkin’s concept of genocide from its earliest stages to the one he included in the first formal draft of the Genocide Convention. Next, it provides an overview of the historical connections between imperialism and genocide, with mention of some of the significant texts in the field. This is followed by an analysis of the evolution of the legal meaning of genocide and the means by which Lemkin’s concept of genocide and its relationship with imperialism were excluded from the legal text. Bringing together the previous sections, the next part explains why the Genocide Convention is an example of colonial law. In the final section, suggestions are made regarding how to decolonize genocide.

Lemkin’s Concept of Genocide

Lemkin’s concept of genocide was “the culmination of a long tradition of European legal and political critique of imperialism and warfare against civilians. All of the instances about which he wrote for his projected world history of genocide occurred in imperial contexts,” such as the destruction of Carthage, the Crusades, massacres of the Herero, and genocides under Ottoman rule, or involved deliberate attacks on civilian populations in warfare (Moses 2010: 25).

The term “genocide” was first used in print by Raphael Lemkin in his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, published in 1944. Lemkin created the term “to denote an old practice in its modern development” (Lemkin 2005: 79) by combining the ancient Greek word genos, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin cide, meaning killing. Though Lemkin focused heavily on Nazi Germany and its transnational policies in his effort to illustrate his concept of genocide, it is clear in his larger body of writings on genocide, the evolution of his ideas and conceptualization of genocide, and his contributions to the first formal draft of what would become the Genocide Convention that Lemkin believed genocide was closely connected not only to German imperialism but the policies and associated impacts of imperialism more broadly.

Lemkin was particularly concerned with the cultural and physical destruction of national and social collectivities that occurred in conquest, territorial expansion, and colonization. In 1933, Lemkin presented his early ideas about genocide at the International Conference for Unification of Criminal Law. He proposed that “acts of barbarity” and “acts of vandalism” be considered “offenses against the law of nations.” Lemkin defined acts of barbarity as “attacks carried out against an individual as a member of a collectivity” with the goal being “not only to harm an individual, but, also to cause damage to the collectivity to which the latter belongs” (Lemkin 1933). Acts of vandalism were defined as “systematic and organized destruction of the art and cultural heritage in which the unique genius and achievement of a collectivity are revealed in fields of science, arts and literature” (ibid.). According to Lemkin, perpetrators of acts of barbarity and vandalism make evident their “asocial and destructive spirit” that is “the opposite of the culture and progress of humanity” (ibid.).

By 1944, Lemkin’s acts of barbarity and vandalism grew to encompass what he referred to as eight techniques of genocide in various fields. The eight techniques include political, social, cultural, economic, biological, physical, religious, and moral (Lemkin 2005). They represent the primary activities by which a perpetrator commits genocide. In simplest terms, Lemkin defined genocide as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group” (ibid.: 79). More specifically, Lemkin wrote, “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of the national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves” (ibid.). The objectives of genocide are to disintegrate “the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups” (ibid.).

As indicated in his reference to a “coordinated plan,” Lemkin saw the eight techniques of genocide when implemented together as a “synchronized attack on different aspects of life” (see Butcher 2013). Each of the eight techniques shares some relationship with one or more of the other techniques. For example, the political technique involves the destruction of local institutions necessary for self-government, along with the imposition of the occupier’s system of institutions and administration. This is accompanied by the elimination of any reminder of the former national character. Local political parties are replaced by those of the occupier, and streets and buildings are renamed, with the new names corresponding with the language of the occupier (Lemkin 2005).

The political technique merges with the social technique, as dissolution of local institutions and administrative capabilities are accompanied by the abolition of local laws and courts. As Lemkin wrote, “The social structure of a nation being vital to its national development, the occupant also endeavors to bring about such changes as may weaken the national, spiritual resources. The focal point of this attack has been the intelligentsia, because this group largely provides the national leadership and organizes resistance against [the oppressor]” (Lemkin 2005: 83). The political and social techniques also interconnect with the cultural technique. The abolishment of the local language is not limited to the naming of streets and buildings. The cultural technique prohibits the local population from using their language in schools and the printed word. Measures are also implemented to stymie expression of the national spirit (ibid.). The occupied must not be able to make cultural contributions as members of their formal collectivity because doing so would contribute to the maintenance of the group’s cultural vitality. Thus, “All persons engaged in painting, drawing, sculpture, music, literature, and the theater are required to obtain a license for the continuation of their activities” (ibid.: 84). Additionally, to deprive them of inspiration, the oppressor destroys national monuments, libraries, archives, museums, and galleries of art to be replaced by works produced by the occupier’s group.

As the spirit of the occupied is being broken, so too is their ability to resist. Lemkin describes the economic technique as the “destruction of the foundation of the economic existence of a national group” (Lemkin 2005: 85). Destruction of the foundation requires crippling the group’s development, even causing a developmental regression. According to Lemkin “The lowering of the standards of living creates difficulties in fulfilling cultural-spiritual requirements. Furthermore, a daily fight literally for bread and for physical survival may handicap thinking in both general and national terms” (ibid.). A weakened and despondent population is easier to forcibly remove, assimilate, or even exterminate, depending on the totality of the occupier’s objectives as well as the level of resistance mounted by the occupied peoples.

The biological and physical techniques intersect with the economic technique. Together, the biological and physical techniques represent two ways to eliminate the existence of the group by preventing future births and killing its members. The former can be achieved by imposing measures calculated to decrease the birthrate of the targeted group. Such measures include prohibiting marriages among members of the group, separating the group’s men and women, and keeping parents malnourished, which can have the effect of lowering the birthrate and “lowering of the survival capacity of children born of underfed parents” (Lemkin 2005: 86). Meanwhile, the physical technique takes three primary forms: discrimination in feeding, undermining the health of members of the group, and mass killing. Malnourishment that results from discrimination in feeding has health impacts beyond the biological; it will lead to a decline in overall health and increase the death rate. Other means of endangering health include denying members of the group adequate clothing and shelter, withholding medicine and medical care, and generally imposing living conditions inimical to the long-term health and survival of group members. Finally, the existence of the targeted group can be eliminated by organized murder of its members. With the final two techniques – religious and moral – the perpetrator seeks to disrupt the national, religious, and moral influences of the people (Lemkin 2005).

Lemkin emphasized the importance of a group’s “derived needs.” According to Lemkin, “These needs find expression in social institutions or, to use an anthropological term, the cultural ethos. If the culture of a group is violently undermined, the group itself disintegrates and its members must either become absorbed in other cultures which is a wasteful and painful process or succumb to personal disorganization and, perhaps, physical destruction” (quoted in Moses 2010: 25). Lemkin believed that national collectivities, even those without formal sovereignty, hold an inherent right to exist as such (Short 2010). It is in this regard that Lemkin opposed the forcible assimilation of weaker societies into stronger outsider ones.

As is indicated above, Lemkin was especially concerned with loss of culture. In 1946, he impassionedly wrote, “Our whole heritage is a product of the contributions of all nations. We can best understand this when we realize how impoverished our culture would be if the peoples doomed by Germany, such as the Jews, had not been permitted to create the Bible, or to give birth to an Einstein, a Spinoza; if the Poles had not had the opportunity to give to the world a Copernicus, a Chopin, a Curie; the Czechs, a Huss, a Dvorak; the Greeks, a Plato and a Socrates; the Russians, a Tolstoy and a Shostakovich” (Lemkin 1946: 228). Indeed, though Lemkin included a cultural technique of genocide, “culture” is not only what is produced by a national or social group but also the source of its production. Thus, Lemkin explicitly connected genocide and imperialism because of the resultant “specific losses to civilization in the form of the cultural contributions which can be made only by groups of people united through national, racial or cultural characteristics” (Lemkin 1947: 147).

Genocidal Imperialism

Lemkin’s concept of genocide is illustrative of a preoccupation with the occupation of land and peoples by foreign powers. This overwhelming concern makes even more evident the connection between Lemkin’s concept of genocide and imperialism. For Lemkin, the “destruction of a nation” was defined by two phases – destruction of the occupied group’s national pattern and the imposition of a new pattern. According to Lemkin, “This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization by the oppressor’s own nationals” (Lemkin 2005: 79). The process of genocide, then, involves a coordinated plan of different actions conducted by an outside group that aims to destroy a group by forcibly relocating its members, taking over their territory, and transforming it so that it reflects the occupier’s institutions and values or by imposing the occupier’s institutions and values on members of the group and the territory on which they reside.

Conquest, territorial expansion, and colonization employ a variety, if not all, of Lemkin’s eight techniques of genocide and progress through the two phases referred to above. As Norman Naimark states in Genocide: A World History, “Genocide has been a part of human history from its very beginnings…. Extended families, clans, and tribes routinely engaged in genocidal actions against their rivals, just as ancient empires and modern nation-states enacted their murderous hatred for imagined or real enemies in mass killing” (Naimark 2017: 1). What some refer to as “modern genocide” finds its origin in the beginnings of the world order that continues today. This world order is largely dominated by western imperialist states, harking back to Spain’s conquest of the “New World,” Britain and France’s conquest of North America, US expansionism, and European conquest of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Asia.

There are significant works by some of the leading genocide experts who have chronicled the innumerable cases that exemplify the relationship between imperialism and genocide. In his massive work, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur, like Naimark, Ben Kiernan notes the likelihood that genocide was a phenomenon present at the earliest stages of human history. With a primary focus on its modern manifestations, Kiernan records 600 years of genocide. Beginning with the 1400s, he discusses the genocidal nature of Spanish conquest, which “devastated the most populous islands and destroyed the most powerful kingdom of the New World, dispatched massive quantities of plunder back to the Old, opened up the Americas to other European powers and settlers, and established grim new precedents for their murder of indigenous peoples” (Kiernan 2007: 72). Kiernan also documents cases of genocide and genocidal massacres during territorial expansion and ethnic conflict in East Asia to 1800, as well as genocidal massacres committed by Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists in Southeast Asia from the 1500s to 1800. Regarding these latter acts of genocide, Kiernan writes, “In all these cases, aggressive territorial expansion combined with cults of antiquity, and pastoral ideology of cult of agriculture to form an intellectual backdrop to mass killing” (Kiernan 2007: 133).

In addition to works like Kiernan’s, there are others that take a predominantly theoretical approach to conceptualizing genocide, including its association with imperialism, such as Leo Kuper’s Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century (1982), Claudia Card’s Genocide and Social Death (2003; see also Card 2010), and Martin Shaw’s What is Genocide? (2007). Some focus on a particular region including, among others, Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present (1997), Andrew Woolford’s This Benevolent Experiment: Indigenous Boarding Schools, Genocide, and Redress in Canada and the United States (2015), Benjamin Madley’s “Patterns of Frontier Genocide 1803–1910: The Aboriginal Tasmanians, the Yuki of California, and the Herero of Namibia (2007),” and Kelly Maddox’s “Genocide in the Japanese Empire: Tracing the Genocidal Dynamics of Japanese Imperialism (2015).” Still others address the issue of cultural genocide and its connection to imperial and colonial history, such as Lindsay Kingston’s “The Destruction of Identity: Cultural Genocide and Indigenous Peoples (2015),” Elisa Novic’s The Concept of Cultural Genocide: An International Law Perspective (2016), and Lawrence Davidson’s Cultural Genocide (2012).

In his aptly titled Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, Adam Jones addresses colonialism and neocolonialism (see also Kiernan 2007: 165–390). On colonialism, Jones writes, “The units that we know as states or nation-states were generally created by processes of imperial expansion…. The designated or desirable boundaries of the state were first imposed on coveted lands through imperialism, then actualized, rationalized, made ‘legible’ and exploitable by the imposition of members of the dominant group or its surrogates upon adjacent or nearby territories and populations” (Jones 2017: 90). Where there was resistance or further desire to expand territorial control, the colonizer’s actions “inevitably assumed a genocidal scale and character, and continues to do so” (ibid.: 91). What is implied in Jones’ discussion of colonization is made explicit in Aimé Césaire’s claim that “no one colonizes innocently” (Césaire 2000: 39). Furthermore, according to Césaire, a “nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment” (ibid.).

This sickness, as Césaire refers to it, is especially evident in settler-colonial contexts, but can also be seen in the process of decolonization and the continued reach of former and new colonizers through neo-colonization. Regarding the former, writes Patrick Wolfe, “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism. Land is life – or, at least, land is necessary for life. Thus contests for land can be – indeed, often are – contests for life” (Wolfe 2006: 387). Similarly, writes Jürgen Zimmerer, “Space is a finite quantity for which people (by definition indefinite in their numbers) compete. The need for land can be real or imagined (it can include imaginative landscapes, for example, plans for settlements, economic or agricultural use, or fear of land shortage)” (Zimmerer 2014: 273). The sickness is not merely found in the move to expand and settle the land of others; it is in the placing of the settler’s needs, often non-derived needs, ahead of the most basic of needs of the settled peoples. Put simply, “Settler colonialism destroys to replace” (Wolfe 2006: 388).

Decolonization was sometimes accompanied by periods of extreme destructive violence between those attempting to preserve the colonial restraints and those attempting to throw off the binds of colonization. France’s resistance to Algerian self-determination exemplifies a genocidal response to a decolonial movement. As the suppression of cultural rights intensified, some members of the oppressed population began to organize and consider armed resistance. Rather than accept the demands of the colonized people, France resorted to force to maintain its control over Algeria. Describing France’s use of force to suppress the legitimate rights of Algerians, Muhammad El-Farra wrote in 1956, “Entire villages are shelled, bombed, or burned; acts of genocide are committed against the inhabitants of towns and villages; an indiscriminate campaign of extermination is now taking place…These are acts of genocide committed against people whose only crime is their love for liberty and their desire to preserve their own culture” (El-Farra 1956: 7).

The period of decolonization has been followed by new forms of imperialism and with them new forms of physical and structural violence. A primary driver of colonial genocide was the pursuit of economic expansion by the colonial powers (Short 2016). Hence, resistance to decolonization and the advent of neocolonialism were rooted in, first, the maintenance of economic, as well as political and cultural, control and influence and, second, the development of new forms of control and influence. Indeed, Jones writes that under neocolonialism “formal political rule is abandoned, while colonial structures of economic, political, and cultural control remain. The resulting exploitation may have genocidal consequences” (Jones 2017: 91).

Despite the obvious connection between Lemkin’s concept of genocide and its associated techniques to imperial and colonial genocide, the application of Lemkin’s concept of genocide to the treatment of occupied and colonized peoples that does not involve mass killing has been deemed controversial or mistaken by some in the field of genocide studies. This is at least in part because significant elements of Lemkin’s concept of genocide, including many of the elements that connected imperialism and genocide, were omitted from the adopted text of the Genocide Convention and are similarly omitted from some of the prevailing scholarship.

Imperializing Lemkin’s Concept of Genocide

There are significant disagreements among scholars in the field of genocide studies regarding what constitutes the crime of genocide, leading Jones to conclude that genocide “will forever be an ‘essentially contested concept’” (Jones 2013: 5–6). Perhaps the most significant source of this disagreement is the definition of genocide codified in the Genocide Convention. The concept of genocide Lemkin presented in 1944 in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe remained largely unchanged when he participated in the creation of the Secretariat Draft (1947) of the Genocide Convention in 1947. Though Lemkin was one of three experts tasked with developing the initial draft of the treaty, Lemkin’s influence on the text is readily apparent (Novic 2016).

What was likely a pragmatic change for purposes of a legal document, Lemkin narrowed his eight techniques of genocide to three methods – physical, biological, and cultural. All three of the methods were included together in Article II of the Secretariat Draft (1947), illustrating their interconnectedness. Retaining various elements of Lemkin’s eight techniques, physical genocide was defined as “causing the death of members of a group or injuring their health or physical integrity.” Acts of physical genocide included the following:
  1. (a)

    Group massacres or individual executions

  2. (b)

    Subjection to conditions of life which, by lack of proper housing, clothing, food, hygiene and medical care, or excessive work or physical exertion, are likely to result in the debilitation or death of the individuals

  3. (c)

    Mutilations and biological experiments imposed for other than curative purposes

  4. (d)

    Deprivation of all means of livelihood, by confiscation of property, looting, curtailment of work, and denial of housing and of supplies otherwise available to the other inhabitants of the territory concerned

Biological genocide involved the restriction of births among members of a group by:
  1. (a)

    Sterilization and/or compulsory abortion

  2. (b)

    Segregation of the sexes

  3. (c)

    Obstacles to marriage

Meanwhile, cultural genocide was defined as destruction of “the specific characteristics of the group.” Acts of cultural genocide included:
  1. (a)

    Forcible transfer of children to another human group

  2. (b)

    Forced and systematic exile of individuals representing the culture of a group

  3. (c)

    Prohibition of the use of the national language even in private intercourse

  4. (d)

    Systematic destruction of books printed in the national language or of religious works or prohibition of new publications

  5. (e)

    Systematic destruction of historical or religious monuments or their diversion to alien uses and destruction or dispersion of documents and objects of historical, artistic, or religious value and of objects used in religious worship


Seven of Lemkin’s eight techniques of genocide – political, social, cultural, economic, biological, physical, and religious – those that draw a clear line from imperialism to genocide, were included in the Secretariat Draft (1947) definition of genocide. However, during the subsequent drafting process that involved states negotiating the terms of the treaty, meaning its provisions, prohibitions, and obligations, imperial and colonial powers chipped away at Lemkin’s concept of genocide, leaving little of it and its connection to imperialism remaining in the legal definition included in the adopted text of the Genocide Convention.

Established in March 1948, the Ad Hoc Committee on Genocide comprised of seven states, including the United States, Soviet Union, France, China, Lebanon, Poland, and Venezuela, produced the second formal draft of the Genocide Convention. Using the Secretariat Draft (1947) as a foundation from which to work, the Ad Hoc Committee retained Lemkin’s three methods of genocide, but isolated cultural genocide in Article III from physical and biological genocide, which were included in Article II. This was done primarily at the behest of the United States, with France’s support, in order to allow the United States to recognize the legitimacy of physical and biological genocide in Article II while also rejecting the concept of cultural genocide in Article III (Bachman 2018).

Perhaps because it was separated from the physical and biological methods, the Ad Hoc Committee Draft (1948) of the Genocide Convention retained much of Lemkin’s concept of cultural genocide. However, the erosion of Lemkin’s methods of physical and biological genocide in the text is evident. In the Ad Hoc Committee Draft, physical and biological genocide are limited to killing members of a group, impairing the physical integrity of members of the group, inflicting on members of the group measures or conditions of life aimed at causing their deaths, and imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. The specifics of Lemkin’s concept of genocide are imperative for our understanding of what the above acts entail. Gone from the Ad Hoc Committee Draft were the political, social, and economic techniques, as well as much of the physical and biological techniques.

This trend would continue when the Ad Hoc Committee Draft was opened for broader discussion and revision at the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly in late 1948. Just as Lemkin’s political, social, and economic techniques of genocide were essentially eliminated from the Genocide Convention, and the physical and biological techniques were significantly abridged, cultural genocide was, for all intents and purposes, omitted altogether. All that remained of Lemkin’s technique and method of cultural genocide when the Sixth Committee sent its draft to the General Assembly for adoption was the forcible transfer of children from one group to another. However, in the final text, the forcible transfer of children is not viewed as an element of cultural genocide but rather a means by which to commit biological genocide by impeding members of a group from producing new members of the group (Moses 2010).

As with negotiations at the Ad Hoc Committee, the United States was the most vocal opponent of the inclusion of cultural genocide. However, the United States was no longer satisfied with isolating cultural genocide from physical genocide. Instead, it insisted on cultural genocide’s removal entirely. The United States even went so far as to threaten to undermine support for the Genocide Convention if cultural genocide were retained. Notably, at the time of the negotiations, the United States was engaged in many of the acts included in Lemkin’s concept of cultural genocide (Bachman 2018). As Ward Churchill asserts, in successfully excluding cultural genocide from the Genocide Convention the United States accomplished “a maneuver serving to exempt a range of its own dirty linen from scrutiny” (Churchill 1997: 365).

With the omission of cultural genocide, which Lemkin referred to as “the most important part of the Convention” (quoted in Moses 2010: 37), the final blow to Lemkin’s concept of genocide, and its direct connection to imperialism, had been landed. Lemkin was treated as if he did not understand genocide, “despite the fact that he invented the term and went to great trouble to explain its meaning” (ibid.: 21). Gone were the explicit connections to war, settler colonialism, colonization, neocolonialism, and structural violence. The imperial and colonial powers used their positions in the negotiations to ensure that their policies, whether those that were ongoing or those in their recent pasts, could not be used to implicate them in the commission of genocide. Even with their accomplishments in hand, they did not stop there.

At the 11th hour, the United Kingdom proposed the following text, which is included in the Genocide Convention under Article XII: “Any Contracting Party may at any time, by notification addressed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, extend the application of the present Convention to all or any of the territories for the conduct of whose foreign relations that Contracting Party is responsible.” In explaining its proposal, which the Soviet Union referred to as the “colonial clause” (Abtahi and Webb 2008: 1824), the United Kingdom claimed that it had been custom over the previous 20–30 years for multilateral treaties to contain such language. In addressing criticism of its proposal, the United Kingdom argued that opposition was based purely on “political motives” in order to “create difficulties” for the colonial powers (ibid.: 1815). Seemingly without any recognition of the irony, the United Kingdom also claimed that it could not decide for its colonies whether they would accept and be bound by the Genocide Convention and, more importantly, whether they could be victims of genocide. Essentially, the United Kingdom argued that because colonial territories were not present to represent themselves at the negotiations, as only states could participate, colonial territories could not be obligated to abide by the terms of the Genocide Convention by the colonial powers without first obtaining their consent. The United States supported the United Kingdom’s position, stating that it was “extremely reasonable” (ibid.: 1816).

With the inclusion of Article XII in the adopted text of the Genocide Convention, the imperial and colonial powers achieved the final success in severing the genocidal relationship between the occupier and the occupied. What remained of the imperial characteristics of Lemkin’s concept of genocide was made essentially inapplicable. The imperial and colonial powers exploited the timing of the Genocide Convention negotiations just as they exploited the people, land, and resources under their direct and indirect control. Had the Genocide Convention originated years later, there might have been a very different outcome.

Colonial Law

Though the Soviet Union referred only to the United Kingdom-proposed and United States-backed Article XII as “colonial,” the entire Genocide Convention is an example of colonial law. At the time of the negotiations that shaped the final text of the treaty in ways that greatly benefited the colonial powers, as well as those states that faced significant internal political opposition, colonization and threats to the existence of indigenous peoples as such remained a widespread reality, a threat that continues to this day.

When the United Nations was formed in 1945, there were 51 original members. At the time, among these members, nine maintained trust and/or non-self-governing territories, including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These 9 states accounted for 93 of the 105 trusts and non-self-governing territories. The other 12 territories were administered by Italy, Portugal, and Spain, which themselves did not become UN members until December 1955. The 105 trusts and non-self-governing territories birthed 79 independent states over the next 54 years.

To put this into greater perspective, at the time the text of the Genocide Convention was negotiated and then voted on for approval at the General Assembly on December 9, 1948, only four African countries were eligible to participate – Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, and South Africa. These four countries accounted for only 7% of the total vote (LeBlanc 1988). Therefore, the most colonized continent in the world was unable to participate in a process that could have allowed the colonized to retain in the Genocide Convention the very practices they were subjected to by the colonial powers. Asia accounted for 22.5% of the votes, with 13 voting members (ibid.). Notably absent from the voting rolls was much of colonized Southeast Asia. Europe accounted for nearly 30% of the votes and the Americas encompassed 38% of the vote. The remaining 3.5% of the vote was represented by the Oceanic countries of Australia and New Zealand (ibid.).

Territories under colonial control that would later gain their independence were denied the right to participate in the drafting of the Genocide Convention, its negotiating process, and in voting to determine whether it would become open for ratification in the form it ultimately took. Furthermore, it is doubtful that it would have taken its final form had formerly colonized territories and representatives of indigenous groups been permitted to participate in the drafting and negotiating processes. Related to this latter point, Haiti – itself made up of people who had to utilize extreme violence to gain their independence – proposed at the Sixth Committee that members of groups affected by genocide have legal standing to call upon the United Nations for their own protection. Haiti argued that if only states were able to report genocide, and not the members of victimized groups, the possibility remained that a state could be both the perpetrator of genocide and the only organ with the authority to initiate protective proceedings (Abtahi and Webb 2008). Haiti’s proposal failed to elicit any debate. The chairman of the Sixth Committee noted that Haiti’s amendment had been read at the 101st meeting. Unfortunately, the chairman noted, the Haitian delegation was not present at the time. None of the negotiating parties present at the meeting spoke in favor of the Haitian amendment, so it was presumed that minds were made up on the subject (Abtahi and Webb 2008). This raises some questions: Why wasn’t Haiti present? Was the Haitian delegation aware that its amendment would be read at the 101st meeting? Why didn’t any other negotiating parties speak in favor of the amendment? The answer to these questions, as well as to the question of why indigenous and colonized peoples were not included in the Genocide Convention’s drafting and negotiating processes, is a simple one; most states had no interest in empowering their victims – past, present, and future.

Had the Genocide Convention been drafted and negotiated after wider decolonization, Leo Kuper argues that the “representatives of the colonial powers would have been somewhat on the defensive, sensitive to criticism of their policies in non-self-governing territories” (Kuper 1982: 31). Thus, colonial powers that were vested in protecting their interests were allowed to colonize the law just as they had colonized significant portions of the world, while the very groups impacted by colonization were unable to ensure that the relationship between imperialism, colonialism, and genocide was made explicit in the law that defined and prohibited the crime. This historical reality significantly shaped the resultant text of the Genocide Convention.

Decolonizing Genocide

Decolonizing genocide requires the reinstitution of a Lemkinian concept of genocide that explicitly reconnects genocide to imperialism in both its historic forms, including conquest, territorial expansion, settler colonialism, and colonization, and its more modern iterations, such as wars of aggression, including in some cases “humanitarian intervention,” neocolonialism, economic and cultural imperialism, and structural violence.

Decolonizing genocide also requires the inclusion of the voices of victims and survivors – the voices of resistance – and not on the terms of the states that have committed genocide and colonized the Genocide Convention but rather on the terms of the affected peoples. Decolonization cannot take place when the colonizer dictates the terms. If we are to have a concept of genocide for the twenty-first century, one that reflects the realities of group-based violence – cultural, physical, and structural – that threaten the survival of peoples as such, it must incorporate the lived experiences of those who have been targeted with such violence. Anything less is an abdication of control over defining genocide to the very powers that have benefitted the most historically from the original drafting and negotiating processes and will gladly continue to reap the benefits in the future.

Finally, decolonizing genocide requires that past genocides not be left in the past, including those that preceded the adoption and entry into force of the Genocide Convention and those that do not fit neatly under the legal definition codified within. Perpetrators of genocide must not be permitted to ignore and whitewash their histories on founding myths, revolutionary ideologies, and claims of benevolence. There must be redress for past, as well as present and future, acts of genocide.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of International ServiceAmerican UniversityWashingtonUSA