The issue of genocide has been a central aspect of the United Nation’s mission since its founding in 1948. One of the key reasons the international community felt that establishing the UN was in response to the atrocities committed leading up to and during World War II. States lacked adequate definitions for horrors such as the Holocaust, and developing legal descriptions is an important step to addressing genocides past, present, and future.
The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide officially defined genocide as “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, in whole or in part”. Adopted in 1948, this definition represents compromises that were made through negotiations while drafting the Genocide Convention. Also acknowledged by the International Court of Justice, the Convention’s principals are recognized as general customary international law. Thus, states which have adopted the Genocide Convention are obligated to prevent and punish it. While the formal definition of genocide is the direct result of negotiation between many states, critics say the definition is lacking in terminology that clearly defines when an act of genocide may be prosecuted, arguing that the “intent” behind an act of genocide is often difficult to prove.
Genocide is more than just the crimes themselves, and delegates should pay attention to the steps that are necessary for them to occur. The United Nations has developed frameworks to understand the risk factors that can be identified in states where genocide might occur. Understanding these is vital to developing solutions that not only punish those who have committed atrocities, but also prevent them from occurring in the first place.
The task of accurately defining genocides did not conclude after the 1948 Convention, and since that time the world has unfortunately witnessed a great number of atrocities that fall in a gray area outside of the strict definition adopted at that time. Improving upon the 1948 definition is no small task. It involves dealing with difficult histories that some states would prefer not to confront, and some may prefer their past not be categorized as genocide. Delegates will have to confront these challenges in a way that gives appropriate respect to victims and aligns with the mission of the United Nations.