United Nations — Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

United Nations.  Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Paris, 9 December 1948, United Nations Treaty Series, vol. 78, No. 1021.

The Contracting Parties agree that genocide is a serious matter that requires international cooperation. Furthermore, the Contracting Parties agree, in Article I, that genocide is a crime they will prevent and punish regardless of whether it happens in times of war or peace. Article II states “genocide means … acts committed with intent to destroy … a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (280). Article II describes five specific acts that would be considered genocide. The acts are killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions to bring about physical destruction, imposing measures intended to prevent births and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Article III explicitly states which acts will be punishable, including “complicity” in genocide. Article IV states that any person committing acts in Article III will be punished, even if they are “constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private citizens” (280). Article V states that the Contracting Parties “undertake to enact … necessary legislation to give effect to the provisions of the present Convention” and also to provide penalties for anyone who is guilty of committing genocide. Article VI states that any person who is charged with genocide or other acts described in article III will “be tried by a competent tribunal” (280). Article VII states that “genocide and the other acts enumerated in article III shall not be considered as political crimes” (282). Article VIII states that Contracting Parties may call on the United Nations to take action to prevent and suppress acts of genocide.

Article IX states that disputes between any of the Contracting Parties regarding the “interpretation, application or fulfillment” of the Convention will be submitted to the International Court of Justice at the request of the parties involved in the dispute.  Article X is regarding the date of the Convention, which is 9 December 1948. Article XI details the process of how the Convention will be open to signatures and how Contracting Parties should act accordingly. Article XII says that any Contracting Parties may extend the application of the Convention to any foreign territories it is responsible for. Article XIII details more about the process of ratifying the Convention, and when the Convention will come into force.

Article XIV states the Convention “shall remain in effect for a period of ten years” since it comes into force (284). After the initial ten years, it will remain in place for “successive periods of five years” as long the Contracting Parties have not denounced it six months before the expiration date. Article XV says that if the number of Contracting Parties decreases to less than sixteen as a result of denunciations, then the Convention will cease to be in force. Article XVI describes the means of writing revisions for the present Convention. Article XVII details that the United Nations will notify members and non-members of signatures, notifications, the date when the present Convention comes into force, denunciations and any abrogation of the Convention.

Article XVIII says that the original of the present Convention will be deposited in the archives of the United Nations. Article XIX says that the “Present Convention shall be registered by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the date of its coming into force” (287).

This United Nations treaty was adopted after World War II, because many people were horrified after the events of the Holocaust and how states were unable to prevent the murder of over six million Jewish persons, homosexuals, gypsies and other marginalized groups. It is important to note that out of the nineteen articles in this Convention about genocide, only seven of them are directly related to the act of genocide and how the international community would respond to the act. The other twelve articles are about the signature and ratification process of the treaty, as well as the processes it needs to go through before it can go into force.

The definition of genocide used in the Convention is “acts committed with intent … to destroy … a group.” This is interesting because it is virtually impossible to truly gauge intent. If Person A is murdered by Person B during a genocide, and Person A happens to be in the group that is being targeting during the genocide, how is it possible to truly know whether Person B was acting in a personal vendetta against Person A, or was part of the genocide? Should Person B charged with murder, or intent to commit genocide? Since there is no mechanism in place to determine or measure intent, it cannot be said.

Some of the acts described as punishable by the international community are not immediately clear. For example, Article III states that “complicity in genocide” is a punishable act. But it is not stated what complicity means in the context of genocide. Would a child who stood by idly while his family was murdered be complicit in genocide simply because he did not do anything to prevent it? Or does complicity only apply to persons who are at least eighteen years of age? The vagueness of this particular aspect of the Convention means that many people will either be accused of being complicit, and the ones who were actually complicit (such as local leaders and politicians) will get off easy. The lack of specificity widens the group of complicit people far too much.

This is not the only part of the Convention that is ambiguous. Article I of the Convention states that Contracting Parties will “prevent and punish” genocide. Although the methods of punishment are a bit clearer – Article VI states that anyone who is charged with genocide will be subject a trial – it is not sure exactly how Contracting Parties will “prevent” genocide. In order to fulfill this obligation, a Contracting Party may simply use diplomacy with another state that is committing mass acts of violence. A different Contracting Party may see armed intervention as a method of prevention. The deliberate use of vague language here suggests that it was done so that each states did not have to commit to actually doing anything to prevent genocide – it is included in the Convention simply because it reads well.

Furthermore, although a treaty is legally binding, it is well known that the U.N. does not have the means to enforce it. Although a state can legally be tried for failing to prevent genocide and punishing those who commit it, it is unlikely that the U.N. would the steps to do that. It would be impossible to try all of the parties who are signatories. Therefore the use of language in the Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide is deliberately left vague so that there is no absolute or single obligation that the Contracting Parties have to fulfill.

–Beejal Ved

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