Genocide, a "serious crime": the 1948 Convention


Genocide is a serious crime under international law. It is currently defined in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted on 9 December 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. Alain Aeschlimann, jurist and head of protection activities at the ICRC, explains:

Genocide is described as a specific act (killing, serious bodily or mental harm, etc.) “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, religious or racial group, as such”. The parties to the Convention (at present almost 120 States) undertake to enact the necessary legislation to ensure its application, and in particular to provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide.

Persons charged with genocide are to be tried by a competent tribunal of the State in the territory of which the act was committed, or by a specially constituted international tribunal. Genocide is never to be considered as a political crime for the purpose of extradition.

Lastly, the Convention provides that the States party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the United Nations Charter as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide (for the text of the Convention see Schindler/Toman, The Laws of Armed Conflicts , 1988, pp. 231-249).

 Scope of the law "compromised"  

Following protracted negotiations in 1948, the States decided not to include political and cultural genocide in the Convention. In addition, the scope of the Convention was seriously compromised by the reservations made by the Soviet Union and its allies concerning the provisions relating to the implementation of international obligations.

The wor d “genocide” is very often used in error and exaggeratedly. In the eyes of the public, it has an incriminatory connotation.

The term “genocide” is not used in the Geneva Conventions or in their Additional Protocols. It is nevertheless obvious that all the acts that constitute genocide are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and represent war crimes if they are committed in the course of an international armed conflict (Articles 50/51/130/147 of the Geneva Conventions; Article 85 of Protocol I). By the same token, any act that constitutes genocide and is committed in the course of a non-international armed conflict is a violation of common Article 3 and of Protocol II.

Read also:

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide , 9 December 1948.

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