Issue Briefings
  Genocide & Ethnic Cleansing  

“In Germany they first came for the communists; and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews; and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists; and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics; and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Catholic. Then they came for me – and by that time there was nobody left to speak up.”

– Martin Niemoller

Despite the presumed advance of civilization the phenomenon of mass hate and killing continues. The impact of historical cases of genocide remains a potent root cause of the ethnic and religious divisions that fuel current violent conflicts.

The Jewish Holocaust has been ingrained in the world’s collective memory, but it is not the only case of genocide, nor even the worst. The Irish, Armenians, Chechens have all suffered the similar human devastation. In Africa, the killing fields of Rwanda have not yet recovered, and the memory of Khymer Rouge is still fresh in the minds of Cambodians. In Russia the purges of the Stalin era were among the worst cases of crimes against humanity.

Genocide, as defined by the United Nations in 1948, means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including:

  • 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
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

What remains unclear is the question of when institutionalized killing rises to the level of ethnic cleansing, or genocide. The answer depends on whether events are seen through the eyes of victims or perpetrators. More important is whether the international community recognizes genocide and whether it is prepared to act to stop it.

The Irish Famine  [1845-1850]

Estimated Death Toll: 1,500,000, Refugees 1,500,000

Even today, anti-British murals on the walls of West Belfast proclaim: “There was No Famine,” as many of the Irish argue that England exploited the potato famine of the early 1840’s to decimate the population of its unruly colony - Ireland 

The Irish Famine of 1846-50 took as many as one million lives from hunger and disease,
and another one million emigrated and many died on the “coffin ships” to America, Australia and Canada. As a result of the famine, disease and emigration, Ireland's population decreased by an estimated 3 million people. From this tragedy sprang a renewed fervor for Irish nationalism that would lead to independence for part of the island and decades of war for Northern Ireland. 

Additional Information:
The Irish Famine BBC by Jim Donnelly
Northern Ireland Country Briefing at

Stalin’s Purges and Forced Famine[1932-1938]

Estimated Death Toll: Approx. 100-200,000 Jews; 5 million Ukrainians killed 1932-33, 14-15 million Soviet peasants 1930-37, and at least 3 million "enemies of the people" 1937-38.

During Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia and the Soviet Republics his regime killed or starved an estimated 15 million peasants, 5 million Ukrainians, 200,000 Jews; and as many as 3 million enemies of the state. Stalin used mass annihilation as a tactic to control dissent, force cooperation with state policies and to unify an incredibly diverse population people by targeting specific scapegoat groups.

Soviet Jews were killed as scapegoats, Ukrainian peasants were killed as part of Stalin’s collectivization pogrom and political opponents and intellectuals were killed as enemies of the state. The combined tragedy of the Soviet’s political genocide exceeds even the scope of the Nazi Holocaust. 

Today’s revolts in Chechnya, Georgia and other former republics of the U.S.S.R., have deep roots in the atrocities of the Stalin era.

Additional Information:
Soviet Union at The Campaign to End Genocide

Stalin's Forced Famine at The History Place

Chechnya Country Briefing at

Armenians in Turkey [1915-1918]

Estimated Death Toll: Approx. 1.5 million killed, 500 thousand expelled

After a group of “Young Turks” seized full control of the Turkish government in 1913, Christian Armenians, representing about 10% of the population were branded as infidels (non-believers in Islam). The Turks first disarmed the entire Armenian population and issued orders to provincial governors to arrest and kill the Armenian leaders and intellectuals, and then proceeded to round up all Armenians and deport them. During long overland marches deportees were killed, or died. An estimated 2 million Armenians were killed, while as few as 500,000 survived the deportation to Syria and Iraq. By 1918, an Armenian resistance emerged that resulted in establishing an the independent Republic of Armenia. Today, the region remains a focus for conflict involving Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Additional Information:
Armenians in Turkey at The Campaign to End Genocide

Armenians in Turkey  at The History Place

Nagorno-Karabakh Country Briefing at

The Japanese Invasion of China [1937-38]

Estimated Death Toll: Over 300,000 people

In the prelude to World War II, Japan invaded China in 1937. In December, the Japanese Imperial Army marched into China's capital city of Nanking, murdering an estimated 300,000 out of 600,000 civilians and soldiers in the city. Challenged to assert control over a population many times larger than its army, the Japanese resorted used  mass murder to terrorize the Chinese. The so-called, Rape of Nanking was considered the single worst atrocity during the World War II era.

Additional Information:
Rape of Nanking: at The History Place

The Nazi Holocaust  [1938-1945]

Estimated Death Toll:  6 million Jews, 5 million others including 500,000 Gypsies, 6 million Poles, 5,000 to 15,000 homosexuals

Adolf Hitler came to power after Germany’s defeat in World War I, and blamed the Jews for Germany’s failures. He launched a sophisticated propaganda campaign demonizing the Jewish scapegoats and glorifying the Germanic Aryan race. The Nazis expelled Jews and imposed pogroms of forced migration, but as World War II demanded more decisive action, Hitler adopted his Final Solution. State-sanctioned anti-Semitism and persecution gave way to liquidation squads and concentration camps. The Nazi leaders developed intricate programs to capture and kill Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and homosexuals in factories of mass destruction. While the estimate that the Holocaust claimed the lives of 6 million Jews is well known, historians also estimate that, the Nazis exterminated an additional 5-6 million non-Jews. 

Additional Information:
the Holocaust  The Campaign to End Genocide

Nazi Holocaust: at The History Place

Cambodia and the Khymer Rouge [1975-1979]

Estimated Death Toll: Approx. 1-3 million killed in Cambodia

After fighting a vicious insurgency campaign since 1970, the Khymer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975 after the U.S. withdrawal from Viet Nam and Southeast Asia. Once in power Pol Pot launched his plan to establish an agrarian utopia forcing millions of city-dwellers to perform virtual slave labor in Cambodia’s “killing fields.” Those who resisted were killed, others died from starvation and labor abuses.  In January 1979, an invasion by Vietnamese forces deposed Pol Pot, ending one of the centuries most notorious reigns of terror. .

Additional Information:
Cambodia at The Campaign to End Genocide

Pol Pot in Cambodia: at The History Place

Indonesia [1965-66; 1972 & 1999]

Estimated Numbers: Approx. 500,000 killed in Indonesia, 500,000 arrested; 200-300,000 killed in East Timor

After a failed coup blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), the army retaliated against the PKI, killing an estimated 500,000 PKI supporters and arresting 500,000 others, mainly civilians. In 1967, Suharto became president of Indonesia, and with continued U.S. backing, was relentless in repressing communists until 1998. Indonesia invaded the island of east Timor in 1975, the day after a visit to Jakarta by President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Indonesian. Despite U.N. appeals, the subsequent occupation by Indonesia  claimed over 200,000 lives, or 1/3 of the population.

Additional Information:
Indonesia at The Campaign to End Genocide

Rwanda [1994]

Estimated Numbers: 500,000-1 million killed, 1.5-2 million refugees

Rwanda is comprised of two main ethnic groups, the Hutu (85-90%) and the Tutsis (10-15%) The Tutsis were the ruling class.  After independence from Belgium in 1962, the Hutu majority seized power, oppressing the Tutsis, many of whom fled and formed a rebel guerrilla army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The Tutsi rebels invaded Rwanda and forced the Hutu President to accept a power-sharing agreement. 

In October 1993 the first elected Hutu president of Burundi was assassinated, sparking conflict and a U.N. 2,500 strong peacekeeping force was sent to preserve a cease-fire while Rwandan and Burundi presidents met to work out a peace plan. After their airplane was shot down the Hutus began an unprecedented killing spree, while the international community watched in horror and did nothing. In July 1994, Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutus, stopping the genocide, which had claimed over 800,000 lives, more than 10% of Rwanda’s population.

Additional Information:
Rwanda at The Campaign to End Genocide

Rwanda: at The History Place

Bosnia-Herzogovina [1992-1995]

Death Toll: Est. 200,000

Yugoslavia has a long history of conflict between a very diverse mix of ethnic and religious groups. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, fighting erupted between various ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, leading to independence for Slovenia and Croatia. When Bosnian Muslims declared independence, Yugoslav president Slobadan Milosevic attacked to support the Serbian minority. As the Serbs forces advanced, they began to systematically eliminate Muslims and Muslim villages, in what became known as “ethnic cleansing.”  Over 200,000 Muslim civilians were murdered and 2,000,000 fled as refugees before NATO forces intervened to halt the genocide. After agreeing to a cease-fire in Bosnia, the Serbs focused their attention and ethnic cleansing on Kosovo, which led to the NATO air war and the arrest of Milosevic on war crimes charges.

Additional Information:
Bosnia-Herzegovina  at The History Place

Kosovo Country Briefing at

Sudan [1983- present]

 Estimated Death Toll: Approx. 2 million killed, 4-5 million displaced

In 1948, Britain granted independence to Sudan, a divided country dominated by Arab Muslims in the North and Christians, or native animists in the South. Since then , the government in Khartoum has tried to impose Islamic rule over the entire country and has pursued a policy of genocide or ethnic cleansing to eliminate the non-Muslim populations. According to the US Committee for Refugees, around 2 million people have been killed and 4 to 5 million internally displaced since 1983. Refugee organizations report that, as of 1999, 420,000 Sudanese refugees are dispersed across 7 countries. To add to the hardship, the UNHCR estimates that 391,500 external refugees from neighboring conflicts have fled into Sudan over the past 35 years.

Sudan at The Campaign to End Genocide

South Sudan: A History of Political Domination – A Case for Self-Determination, by Riek Machar

The Eight Stages of Genocide:

Gregory H. Stanton

  • Classification
  • Symbolization
  • Dehumanization
  • Organization
  • Polarization
  • Preparation
  • Extermination
  • Denial

Genocide Research Project:


The Balkans



The Holocaust


Sri Lanka



Center for the Prevention of Genocide

Related Resources:

The Campaign to End Genocide

Holocaust & Genocide Studies

Genocide Watch

Prevent Genocide International

Web Genocide Documentation Center

The Genocide Research Project [Teaching Guides]

The Psychology of Ethnopolitical Warfare Web Pages

Freedom, Democracy, Peace; Power, Democide, and War – Prof. R.J. Rummel

Democide: The murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.

Women and Global Human Rights [Women’s Issues Related to Genocide]

Applicable International Law Treaties:

The UN Charter
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide
Regional Treaties
International Treaties on Warfare
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Punishment of Persons Guilty of War Crimes, Crimes Against Peace and Against Humanity

The United Nations

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December 9, 1948.

Article I.

The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.

Article II.

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; e) Forcibly transfering children of the group to another group.

Article III.

The following acts shall be punished: a) Genocide; b) Conspiracy to commit genocide; c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide; d) Attempt to commit genocide; e) Complcity in genocide.

Article IV.

Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Artcle III shall be punished, whether they are constituinally responsible rulers, public officials or private indiniduals.

Article V.

The Contracting Parties undertake to enact, in accordance with their respective Constitutions, the necessary legislation to give affect to the provision of the present Convention and, in particular, to provide effective penalties for persons guilty of genocide or of any of the other acts enumerated in Article III.

Article VI.

Persons charged with genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article III shall be tried by a competent tribunal of the State in the territory of which the act was committed, or by such international penal tribunal as may have jurisdiction with respect to those Contracting Parties which shall have accepted its jurisdiction.

Article VII.

Genocide and the other acts enumerated in Article III shall not be considered as political crimes for the purpose of extradition. The Contracting Parties pledge themselves in such cases to grant extradition in accordance with their laws and treaties in force.

Article VIII.

Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in

Article IX.

Disputes between the Contracting Parties relating to the interpretation, application or fulfillment of the present Convention, including those relating to the responsibility of a State for genocide or for any of the other acts enumerated in Article III, shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice at the request of any of the parties to the dispute.



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