Preventing Genocide

Gravestones at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial
Photo by Martijn Munneke via Flickr

Governments around the world have promised to punish genocide. But what about preventing it? Liz Waid and Luke Haley look at the efforts of governments to punish and prevent genocide.

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Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2 

And I’m Luke Haley. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

You may have heard a Spotlight program on Raphael Lemkin. He lived during World War II. At this time, the Nazis killed millions of Jewish people in Europe. This included many of Lemkin’s family and friends. Lemkin named this mass killing “genocide.” He used this word to mean killing a group of people because of their race, nationality, or religion. Lemkin spent his life working with governments and the United Nations. He wanted to make genocide illegal under international law. In 1948, the United Nations recognized genocide as a crime in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Many countries signed this agreement to prevent and punish genocide.

Voice 2 

Lemkin wanted the UN to recognize genocide as a crime. He hoped this could prevent genocide from ever happening again. But naming genocide did not stop the crime. Some people claim that the UN Genocide Convention does not work. They say that naming the crime of genocide does not stop people from doing it. Today’s Spotlight is on the difficulties around preventing genocide.

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The UN Genocide Convention presents a detailed definition of genocide. It says that genocidal acts have the intent, or purpose, to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. This intent can be to destroy “in whole” or “in part.” These acts can be punished under international law. Michio Ozaki and Rena Dam share the acts that the convention considers genocidal:

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Killing members of the group.

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Causing serious harm to a the bodies or minds of the members of the group.

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Causing bad conditions that attempt to destroy the group in whole or in part.

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Attempting to prevent births within the group.

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Moving children of the group to another group by force.

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Not everyone agrees with this definition. Some say that it is too wide, and difficult to prove. How can you tell if someone has the INTENT to destroy a whole group? Genocidal acts often happen during times of war. In a war, ethnic and religious groups often act against each other. It can be difficult to prove the intent to destroy a whole group of people. Also, people ask: what does “in part” mean? What if an army general killed ten members of a particular ethnic group during a war? Could he be charged with genocide?

Voice 1 

People claim that too many situations could be called genocide. Then the word loses its powerful meaning. Alain Destexhe is the former head of the international medical organization Doctors without Borders. He wrote a book on genocide in the 20th century. He said,

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“Genocide is a crime on a different level than all other crimes against humanity. It involves the intent to completely destroy the chosen group. Genocide is both the most serious and the greatest of the crimes against humanity.”

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People like Destexhe want to keep genocide as an extreme, unusual crime. They want to make sure that an extreme crime can receive just punishment. They claim that too many people can use the word “genocide” for many different crimes in war. Then, they say, no one acts against it.

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Not everyone agrees with this way of thinking. Gregory Stanton is the president of the international organization Genocide Watch. Stanton believes that using the word genocide more often will not make people punish it less seriously. He writes,

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“I am a former policy-maker. I can say that policy makers do not act because of a special word. Even if a special word is named, if they do not want to act for other reasons, they will not.”

Voice 2 

Other people say that naming genocide has no purpose because genocide still happens. The country of Rwanda is a tragic example of this. For many years, there had been political disputes in Rwanda between the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes. In April of 1994, members of the Hutu tribes began killing Tutsis. In 100 days, more than 800,000 Rwandans died. No country acted to stop this mass killing. The countries that signed the Genocide Convention did not do anything. Although the convention states that nations must punish genocide, it does not say they must prevent genocide.

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Punishing genocide does happen. In 1995, one year after the genocide in Rwanda, another genocide happened in Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. During this war, three different ethnic groups were in conflict with each other: the Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats. They were fighting over territory. But in July, the Serbs captured the town of Srebrenica. They forced 25,000-30,000 Bosnian women, children, and older people to leave. During this time, the Serbian military killed more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys. International courts have ruled this event as genocide. These courts have charged more than 30 people on genocide charges in Srebrenica. International courts have also made charges against individuals involved in the Rwandan genocide. They have tried, and punished, almost 30 people.

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But is this enough? Is this what the UN Genocide Convention is for - punishing people after horrifying events happen? The Genocide Convention was a chance for the world to name a horrible crime. It was a chance to declare that the global community will stand against it, and punish it. But these moral positions also gave the world the responsibility to prevent genocide.

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The United Nations recognizes that the international community does not always do this. So in 2004, the UN created two Special Advisor jobs. One is for the prevention of genocide. The other is on the responsibility to protect against genocide. These advisors work together. They investigate, spread information, and call governments and organizations to act.

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Adama Dieng is the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide. In December of 2014, on the 66th anniversary of the UN Genocide Convention, Dieng gave a speech in New York. He expressed the same aims as Raphael Lemkin and all people who dream of completely ending the crime of genocide. He said,

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“We remember the millions of men and women who have lost their lives to genocide. We owe to them, and to ourselves, and to future generations, to create a world free of genocide. We are still far from that. But we aim to make it happen. We need to think about the importance of the Genocide Convention. We need political leadership from Member States. We need courage to take steps that are not always easy.”

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Jennifer Hawkins. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, “Preventing Genocide”.

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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What do you think is the most effective way for governments to prevent genocide? What should a punishment for genocide be?


Avatar Spotlight
said on May 21, 2015

in my opinion, genocide is an unacceptable crime. it strongly happened in the past, mostly in the 20th century. a time that we were insensitive, we had no humanity, humaneness to each other. but now, we are living in a peaceful, modern and developed world, we must respect the sacrifice of our predecessors, the death of many innocent people in the genocide. and i think, only one way to stop genocide is stopping war. no war, there would be no death. finally,i think a punishment for the killers in genocide must be life imprisonment. the pang of conscience will make them live like having died.

Avatar Spotlight
said on May 23, 2015

I think that genocide is a big crime, and I don’t understand why they happen.
All the governments must punish severely the leaders that commit genocides
with life imprisonment.

Avatar Spotlight
said on May 24, 2015

Thnk you spotlight for interesting program,god bless you

Avatar Spotlight
said on May 24, 2015

History leaves us big lessons. Not good things cause tragedies. We are responsible to everyone. We are responsible to the life. We build for beautiful good things. We build our families to be good and beautiful. We build our communities to be good and beautiful. We build our world to be good and beautiful. We try much to push not good things away. We believe in beautiful good things. We live our lives for beautiful good things. We die for beautiful good things. The good can overcome the evil. We try much to become good persons.

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on May 11, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight program
Subject: answer to the question above
Date: Wednsday 11, May 2016
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Liz Waid, Rena Dam, Jennifer Hawkins, Luke Haley, and Michio Ozaki:

First of all, I want to thank you for more one great program that you have developed for us readers and learners of English.
I think that the governments should investigate each extrange person who looks like a genocide and genocide should be punished with death penalty.

Your regards,
Severino Ramos

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on June 05, 2016

I think that democracy is a first means for preventing genocide and the free world must help the third world about that.
The life imprisonment is an appropriate punishment for the criminal of genocide (Not for execution).

Avatar Spotlight
said on June 15, 2019

Crimes against groups are recurrent in the history of humanity. When King Herod determined to kill all the boys in the population of Judea; he was practicing a genocide, but people only think about what is happening immediately in their time and in their neighborhood. Attila; Genghis Khan; Hitler; Lenin; Stalin; Mao Tse Dong; Pol Pot and other big criminals have made more and more and more absurd and no one seems to remember that.
And how about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And Pizarro, in Peru? And Hernan Cortes, in Mexico?

Avatar Spotlight
said on June 16, 2019

At first, I hope some government leaders should be out of those countries’ genocide at well because I don’t believe that there is another power larger than the government’s military to make the genocide. Secondly, international courts should treat any countries having genocide as complicity. And, finally, we need to find out which countries give that ugly humanless behavior organizations weapons and treat them like terrorism, too.