By Prof. William A. Schabas
The United Nations marks December 9th as the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. William A. Schabas, a renowned Professor of International Law explains the historical significance of this important day of commemoration. The UN resolution was presented on the behalf of 84 co-sponsors by the Republic of Armenia and adopted on December 9th, 2015.
On December 9, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations, sitting in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot, unanimously adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Three years later, after obtaining the requisite 20 ratifications, the Convention entered into force. Describing the crime of genocide as an “odious scourge,” the Preamble of the Convention states “that at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity.”
The Convention defines genocide as acts committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” For the first 50 years or so of its existence, there was very little judicial application of the Convention. More recently, however, the definition in the Convention has been interpreted by the most important international tribunals, including the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, the European Court of Human Rights and the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
For many years the Convention definition of genocide was criticised as being too narrow. Many atrocities, both on-going and historic, did not seem to fit within is parameters. In the 1990s, the gaps left by the codification of genocide were filled, but not by amendment of the definition of genocide, which has remained unchanged since 1948. Instead, atrocities that appeared to escape the scope of the 1948 text were covered by an enlarged understanding of the cognate concept of crimes against humanity.
With rare exceptions, judges have adopted a relatively restrictive interpretation of the definition, confining it to acts aimed at the intentional destruction of substantial parts of a national, ethnic, racial or religious groups. Because of the broadened approach to crimes against humanity, there was no longer any need to encourage interpretative expansion of the definition of genocide.