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Genocide in the 20th Century

Imperialism, nationalism, economic control, racism, political supremacy, and diverse forms of prejudice were some of the major catalysts for genocides and crimes against humanity that occurred across the world in the 20th century. These genocides include: The Holocaust, Nama and Herero Genocide, The Cambodian genocide, The Rwandan genocide, Armenian genocide, genocide in the Balkans region among a host of other genocides and mass killings that have only tended to be described as crimes against humanity.  At best, this century can be described as the century of genocides as all the continents experienced genocide and mass atrocities against civilians.

Despite overwhelming evidence of major atrocities having been committed during this century, animated debate has raged on regarding whether to characterize some of the atrocities as genocide (Chalk & Jonassohn, 1990; Lewy, 2007). Crimes against humanity and atrocities committed against native Indians and African Americans are among those atrocities that scholars have continued to debate whether they can be categorized as genocide.  The major thesis of these arguments has always been whether genocide can be said to have taken place when there is a lack of intent to annihilate a people despite the existence of atrocities against civilians (Lewy, 2007). However intent to destroy the whole or part of a national, ethnic, or religious group has however been the benchmark set by the Genocide Convention in 1948 when determining whether acts of killing or destroying groups of people constitute genocide.

How society handles genocide and its aftermath tends to greatly influence the kind of justice that is normally put in place and the speed with which the healing and reconciliation process can take place. Immediately after the Holocaust, the German society accepted the mistakes that Nazi Germany made and accepted that perpetrator of the Holocaust be punished. This approach is in sharp contrast to the Armenian Genocide where the Turkish government, even to this day, does not accept that there was an Armenian genocide have tried to cover up or offer contradictory perspective to that held by Armenians (Kévorkian, 2011). Differences in the version of events in the former Yugoslavia regarding genocide in this region still exist and raw emotions tend to be exhibited between nationalists of the different groups involved in the conflict (Miller, 2006). Prejudice still runs deep as some perpetrators indicted and found guilty of committing crimes of genocide have ended up being exalted as heroes by their supporters.

Immediately after the Holocaust, the international community was mobilized and condemned the mass killing of Jews and other groups of people that the Nazi wanted eliminated. It is the movement to condemn these crimes that the led to the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide in1948 where the crime of genocide was defined despite heated debates regarding atrocities that European colonial governments were committing in their colonies around the world and what was described as the cultural elements of genocide (Wilt, 2012).  This convention has become the most influential regime in the fight against genocide around the world.  

Genocide survivors and humanity as a whole normally want Justice to be done. After the end of the Second World War, several international adhoc courts were established to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity that had been committed between 1939 and 1945, a time when the Holocaust was taking place. The Tokyo and Nuremberg trials were established after the Second World War The Nuremberg trials ran from 1945-1949 while the Tokyo war crimes trials were conducted from 1946-1948. These two courts have been criticized by some scholars as being courts of victors. The process the trials were conducted and their verdicts have received recent scrutiny over whether justice was done (Jardim, 2012).

As a result of the genocide in the Balkans region, the Rwanda genocide and prior genocides, the international community for the first time established a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) on 17th July 1998 after the adoption of the Rome Statute. The ICC was to be based at the Hague and its work is to try persons accused of the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against humanity. This court has been relatively successful in its mandate although it has so far only prosecuted crimes committed in Africa. Despite having ICC, prior ad hoc courts crimes against genocide continued to operate side by side and include the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) established in 1993 and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) which is in the process of winding up its mandate that is to finally come to a close in 2014.

To ensure that justice has been done and at the same time communal healing is taking place, several countries that have experienced genocide have resorted to transitional justice mechanisms. Formal court mechanisms in those countries might either have not been able to cope with the sheer number of cases or that kind of justice could not necessarily bring about justice, healing and reconciliation which are long term objectives of any post conflict society. Gacaca courts in Rwanda has been effective in survivors feeling that justice has at last been done and at the same time being a healing mechanism (Butera, Porch, & Roberts, 2012). Other mechanisms such as Truth and Reconciliation commissions have been utilized in other countries such as South Africa, Argentina, Sierra Leon, Yugoslavia, East Timor among other countries. These commissions are important although they have had varying degrees of success.

To create awareness of atrocities committed in genocide and to teach the next generation to fight genocide in all its manifestations, genocide education ought to be an important component of the curriculum. Genocide education at all level of education gained momentum and recognition after the 20th Century.



Butera, G., Porch, D., & Roberts, N. (2012). Rwanda Gacaca traditional courts an alternative solution for post-genocide justice and national reconciliation (pp. xii, 71).  Retrieved from

Chalk, F. R., & Jonassohn, K. (1990). The history and sociology of genocide : analyses and case studies. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jardim, T. (2012). The Mauthausen trial : American military justice in Germany. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Kévorkian, R. (2011). The Armenian Genocide A Complete History   Retrieved from

Lewy, G. (2007). Can there be genocide without the intent to commit genocide? Journal of Genocide Research, 9(4), 661-674. doi: 10.1080/14623520701644457

Miller, P. B. (2006). Contested memories: the Bosnian genocide in Serb and Muslims minds. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(3), 311-324. doi: 10.1080/14623520600950054

Wilt, H. v. d. (2012). The genocide convention : the legacy of 60 years. Leiden: Brill.