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What is Genocide?

The term – from Greek and Latin roots meaning "the massacre of a family, tribe or race" was coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish legal scholar from Poland. In the 1930s, Lemkin sought unsuccessfully to get the League of Nations to recognize such killings as an international crime. As examples, he cited the massacre of Armenians during World War 1 and the slaughter of Assyrians in Iraq in 1933.

After World War II, Lemkin's idea of genocide as an international crime became one of the legal bases for the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

In 1948, the United Nations adopted the modern definition of genocide, listing "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Those acts included:

• killing or causing serious physical or mental harm to members of the group,

• forcing the group to live in conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction

• Forcibly preventing births among the group, or forcibly sending its children to be reared by members of another group.

The U.N. convention on genocide didn't become law until 1951, after 20 U.N. members had signed it. The United States was the last of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to sign it – in 1988 – and it didn't begin to be enforced until the 1990s, with prosecutions for genocide in Kosovo and Rwanda.

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