Genocide and Cultural Genocide

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The study of genocide has become a regular feature of higher education in many parts of the world. Moreover, the discourse on genocide has permeated policy dialogues in various fora of the United Nations and other international governmental and non-governmental organizations, human rights networks, and civil society platforms. The wide cascading of genocide discourse, however, does not necessarily imply a complete comprehension of the genocide phenomenon, nor a full understanding (or even acknowledgement) of all the multitudinous aspects in which this human predicament presents itself. One key but overlooked aspect of genocide is—arguably—its cultural dimension. This claim rests on a terminological debate that is as much academic as political.

The term ‘genocide’ is attributed to the Jewish-Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin who coined the term in winter 1942 whilst lamenting Nazi atrocities against Jewish people and other targeted minorities during World War II (WWII). Lemkin’s new nomenclature was a combination of the Greek word ‘genos’ which means ‘race’ and the Latin word ‘cide’ which means ‘to kill’—and was introduced in the literature via his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, one of the first detailed documented accounts of war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against Jewish people and other targeted groups in the course of WWII. For Lemkin, ‘genocide’ was an extreme form of violence waged by a state with the purpose of national extermination (Lemkin 1944).

He attached fundamental value to group identities for the sake of culture and civilization, for the lives of their members as well as the existence of groups themselves. In his words, ‘the engine of all human creativity was the possibility of living in a plural world animated by diversity, to allow for the free exercise of subjectivity, and to allow individuals to experience different subjective positions’ (Lemkin cited in Irvin-Erickson: 247). Because the architects and perpetrators of genocide aim to deprive humanity of the richness stemming from group identities, genocide can be considered a crime against all humankind (Irvin-Erickson: 234). It can be inferred therefore that the notion of cultural genocide was intrinsic to Lemkin’s thinking on genocide. Indeed, he conceived cultural genocide as a method of genocide.

Together with other distinguished figures such as René Samuel Cassin, John Peters Humphrey, Hersch Lauterpacht, and Eleanor Roosevelt—Lemkin was part of a movement dedicated to reconfiguring human rights institutions and humanitarian law after WWII. Their work laid the ground for the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which entered into force in 1951 (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Genocide Convention’ or ‘the Convention’). Article II of this Convention, defines genocide as:

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 transferring children of the group to another group (UN 1948).

According to the above definition, genocide is a group-based crime. It is a socio-political process undertaken with the intent to destroy human groups in whole or in part. One noticeable aspect of the evil of genocide is that it involves twofold murder, or a double murder, that is, killing at two levels: (i) murder of individuals as a means to (ii) the destruction of the group. But it is the second level—targeted destruction/murder of the group—that is a feature of genocide which distinguishes it from both individual murder and mass murder (Lang 2016: 22, 51). Genocide is more than mass murder due to its key feature of special intent (or dolus specialis) that is the mental factor—known in juridical terminology as mens rea—to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, or religious group, as such (Schabas 2009: chapters 4, 5). The special intent (dolus specialis) that genocide perpetrators entertain towards group destruction is a key feature that distinguishes genocide from other related crimes, such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘crimes against humanity’.

The main distinctive feature between genocide and ethnic cleansing is intent. The contributing factor to this difference consists in the fact that whilst the intent of genocidaires is the destruction of the targeted group, the intent of ethnic cleansers is—primarily—the forced displacement / uprooting and dispossession of the targeted group. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has concluded that notwithstanding this distinction, there exist cases where ethnic cleaning may form part of the material element (actus reus) of the crime of genocide. A case in point is when measures are adopted with the intent to destroy a targeted group rather than remove that same group from the land territory it occupies (ICJ 2007: 190). When a community with a territorially bounded culture is intentionally and forcefully uprooted—as a consequence of which individual members cannot maintain the cultural and social ethos of their community—then the latter will suffer deprivations and harms characteristic of the crime of genocide (Abed 2007: 47-8). From this interpretation it appears that ethnic cleansing is a direct expression of cultural genocide—destruction of the culture of a targeted people without necessarily destroying these people in the physical sense.

‘Cultural genocide’—like ‘ethnic cleansing’—is not what lawyers call a ‘term of art’, that is, it lacks both a legal definition and a body of case law. It is instead a term used by sociologists / social scientists and journalists to describe a phenomenon that is not—strictly speaking—defined by law. Jeffrey Bachman has written about the context of drafting and negotiating the wording of the UN Genocide Convention in the process of which cultural genocide was deprived from a central place in the text of this Convention (Bachman 2019). Whilst elements of cultural genocide feature in the Convention’s definitional elements of genocide (acts a-e) the term ‘cultural genocide’ does not feature in the text of the Convention. The drafters of the UN Genocide Convention—and subsequently the adopting states—have interpreted genocide primarily as a phenomenon of catastrophic physical destruction of a human group by means of mass killing. This notion of genocide, therefore, is constrained to acts which threaten the physical survival of targeted groups, although it is implied that cultural destruction can accompany genocide.

The UN Convention’s definition of genocide has been scrutinized and contested from many angles, which the space available here does not permit to fully unpack. Suffice to mention, however, that many such criticisms can be understood to have implicit or explicit in their rationales the issue of culture which, nonetheless, is not explicitly included in the text of the Convention. Indeed, the legal definition of genocide is criticized on various other grounds—including (i) questioning the existence of groups (what defines a group in cultural terms?); (ii) narrowly focussing on only four protected groups (national, ethnical, racial, and religious) thus explicitly excluding other biological, cultural or political groups; and (iii) the adoption of a high threshold of genocidal intent (such that, for instance, cultural destruction may not suffice to prove genocidal intent) (Aquilina and Mulaj 2018). The existing legal definition of genocide is therefore a strict one. However, should a wider definition of genocide be adopted for the purposes of analysis—as some scholars of sociology, philosophy, and anthropology suggest (Chalk 1999; Card 2003; Curthoys and Docker 2008)—then cultural genocide can indeed be brought into the mainstream, and cases of genocide can be broaden widely (in comparison with those according to the narrow definition of the UN Genocide Convention) to include harms, for instance, done to aboriginal peoples as well as other native peoples in colonial settings, as postcolonial scholars keenly argue (Woolford, Benvenuto, and Hinton, 2014; Hasian Jr 2020). Should this path be adopted, nonetheless, the benchmarks for proving ‘genocide intent’ would have to be relaxed and this may—arguably—undermine one key criterion that defines genocide, and sets it aside, from other crimes (that key criterion being ‘genocide intent’). Legal scholars tend to resist the idea of relaxing the bar for proving such intent (Schabas 2009). This disciplinary divide is far from resolved.

Considering what distinguishes genocide from other atrocities, what makes genocide the specific evil that it is, philosopher Claudia Card has suggested that it is social death that distinguishes genocide from other mass murders (Card 2003: 63). Central to genocide, social death involves major loss of social vitality, loss of identity, and a serious loss of meaning for one’s existence. ‘Social vitality is destroyed when the social relations—organizations, practices, institutions—of the members of the group are irreparably damaged or demolished’ (Card 2003: 65). The injustice of genocide is an evil because it inflicts such high levels of harms to victims that makes their lives—and deaths—indecent and unbearable. When a group with a distinct identity is made a target of genocide, its survivors are left with a weaker heritage, tradition, and intergenerational bonds. Therefore, the harms of genocide do not pertain merely to physical death in very large scale, but also to social death, in Card’s sense, because genocide attacks social connections and social contexts that make dying bearable and life meaningful (Card 2003: 63, 73).

Cultural damage—and sometimes cultural destructions—are intrinsic features of genocide, even if genocide rarely exterminates targeted people completely. The performative effects of genocidal violence, its generative powers and capacity to act as a mechanism for survival and change are not fully explored in the genocide literature. Genocide should be conceived as violence that destroys bodies and material culture, violence that attacks elements of being and understanding group (and individual) identity. As postgenocide Bosnia and Rwanda attest, genocide gives way to contests via which genocidal violence is delegitimized and contested by survivors’ communities and (sometimes) re-interpreted and justified by the community of perpetrators. The experience of suffering and loss in genocide provides additional meaning to the value of life, culture, and identity of the surviving groups and peoples. Lastly, genocide is a fatal attack on the dignity and ontological / security of groups and their individual members subjected to such attack. Destruction of culture is a means to physical destruction of a targeted group, just as the attraction to culture and identity are forces that guide survival and recovery in postgenocide settings. A holistic, processual understanding of genocide is not possible without factoring in the analysis the impact of culture both in the destructive policies of genocidaires and the pursuit of survival and recovery by surviving communities.



Mohammed Abed, ‘Clarifying the Concept of Genocide’, in Claudia Card and Armen T. Marsoobian Eds., Genocide’s Aftermath: Responsibility and Repair, Malden, MA: Blackwell 2007.

Kevin Aquilina and Klejda Mulaj, ‘Limitations in Attributing State Responsibility Under the Genocide Convention’, Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2018.

Jeffrey S. Bachman, ‘Introduction: Bringing Cultural Genocide into the mainstream’, in Jeffrey S. Bachman Ed., Cultural Genocide: Law, Politics and Global Manifestations, Routledge, 2019.

Claudia Card, ‘Genocide and Social Death’, Hypatia, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2003.

Frank Chalk, ‘Redefining Genocide’, in George J. Andreopoulos Ed., Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Ann Curthoys and John Docker, ‘Defining Genocide’, in Dan Stone Ed., The Historiography of Genocide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

International Court of Justice, Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro. ICJ Reports 2007 (I)

Douglas Irvin-Erickson, Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Marouf Hasian Jr, Debates on Colonial Genocide in the 21st Century, Springer International Publishing, 2020.

Berel Lang, Genocide: The Act as Idea, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.

William Schabas, Genocide in International Law: The Crime of Crimes, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

United Nations, UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, 1948, available at

Andrew Woolford, Jeff Benvenuto, and Alexander Laban Hinton, Eds, Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America, Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

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