The Genocide Convention for the prevention of genocide and the punishment of the organizers of genocide arose out of a general reaction to the Nazi crimes against the Jewish people. Though several mass liquidations had already previously occurred in the history of mankind, none of these had reached the proportions and planning of the slaughter of European Jewry by the Third Reich. After World War II, a movement developed demanding that such acts be condemned as an international crime, and their perpetrators be punished. This condemnation was to be upheld by the coordinated activity of all civilized nations. The term "genocide" was coined by the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael *Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Europe (1944), 79–95. It was also due to a large extent to his personal efforts over the years that the Convention was later ratified.
The Genocide Convention was directly connected with the trials of the major Nazi war criminals at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, where the Nazi plan to exterminate Jews wherever possible was publicly revealed in all its brutality. The *United Nations, which in the preamble to its Charter had renewed the affirmation of basic human rights and the recognition of the value of human life, could not ignore what had happened in this sphere. Consequently, at its first session on Dec. 11, 1946, after it had confirmed Resolution No. 95 (I) on the principles of international law which had been introduced by the legislation of the Nuremberg tribunal, the General Assembly adopted Resolution No. 96 (I), condemning genocide as a crime in international law, and determining that all nations have an interest in punishing such cases. After two years of preparation the text of the Convention was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly of the U.N. (Dec. 8, 1948). By January 1969, 67 countries had ratified it, some with important reservations. As of 2008, 140 countries were party to the Genocide Convention.
The Convention outlaws not only mass murder but also several other actions of a less extreme nature, taken against groups of individuals. It does not give a legal definition of the term "genocide." The characteristic trend of all the actions which can be defined as genocide is their inherent intention to destroy, wholly or partially, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group per se. The following actions are classified as genocide: the killing of persons belonging to the group; the causing of grievous bodily or spiritual harm to members of the group; deliberately enforcing on the group living conditions which could lead to its complete or partial extermination; the enforcement of measures designed to prevent birth among the group; the forcible removal of children from one group to another.
Since the Convention aims at the prevention as well as the punishment of genocidal action, it determines that not only those who carry out such actions are liable to punishment, but also those who take certain measures liable to bring about genocide, such as a plot to carry out genocide; direct and public incitement to genocide; an attempt at genocide; participation in such action. This list clearly shows that the activities included within the framework of genocide are related only to the biological and physical existence of the group in question. The Genocide Convention has been much criticised for its limited scope.
Only a handful of individuals were held accountable for genocide in the decades following 1951, when the Convention came into effect. Few and far between, these trials were held by national courts, which often used national adaptations of the international law of genocide. For example, Adolf Eichmann was prosecuted under an Israeli law very similar to “genocide,” but covering crimes against the Jewish people.
In 1993, in response to massive atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the United Nations Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). It was the first international criminal tribunal since Nuremberg and the first ever mandated to prosecute the crime of genocide. A year later, in response to devastating violence in Rwanda, the Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Nearing the completion of their mandates, both of tribunals have contributed detail, nuance, and precedent to the application of the law of genocide.
In 1998, the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court (ICC) established the first permanent international criminal court. The Rome Statute’s drafting process and the ICC’s ongoing case against the president of Sudan have added further clarifications to the international law of genocide. In 2007, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which hears cases between states, issued a landmark decision addressing state responsibility to prevent and punish genocide in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro.
Law grows through the setting of precedents. Understanding the intricacies of the definition of genocide is just the first step to understanding the law, which evolves through legal judgements in cases before the tribunals and courts.