The UN genocide convention

An empty promise to prevent genocides after 1945?

Bachelor Thesis, 2011

30 Pages, Grade: 8.0


Table of contents

List of abbreviations

1. Introduction

2. Analytical framework
2.1. The CNN effect
2.2. The policy-media interaction model

3. Historical analysis
3.1. The drafting of the Convention

4. The failures of the Genocide Convention
4.1. Genocide in Rwanda
4.2. Genocide in Darfur

5. Conclusion


List of abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

1. Introduction

Genos (Greek: a people) cida (Latin suffix: to kill)

The hybrid term genocide was modeled by Raphael Lemkin and used for the first time in his book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation - Analysis of Government - Proposals for Redress” (1944) and sought to describe the cruelties and mass murdering committed by the Nazis in the Second World War. Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who himself was persecuted by the Nazi system, thereby created “a new term and a new conception for […] the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group” (Lemkin, 1944, p. 79). A term that henceforward was used in order to depict the “crime of crimes” (Schabas, 2008a, p. 4), crimes that could not have been named before.

Though Lemkin’s hybrid term was taken up in the terminology of world politics, the definition of the term was still contested. However, the end of the Second World War and in particular the crimes committed during Hitler’s reign “served as a catalyst to defining a crime to deal with efforts to wipe out a people” (Quigley, 2006, p. 4) so that those crimes could be prevented and punished in the future. The United Nations, founded in 1945, pushed for a legally binding definition for the crime of genocide in order to accomplish their set-out goals which have always included the saving of “succeeding generations from the scourge of war” (United Nation, 1945) or the reaffirmation “of faith in fundamental human rights” (ibid.).

In December 1946, the United Nations Secretariat started drafting a document that was supposed to define the term ‘genocide’ and to legally bind the nation’s signatories to prevent and punish the crime. After two years of work, the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations agreed upon a final document which was formally adopted on December 9, 1948 as General Assembly Resolution 260. The document which thenceforward was known as the ‘Convention for the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide’ (CPPCG) entered into force on January 15, 1951 and was the first human rights treaty adopted in the history of the United Nations (Schabas, 2008b).

By the very first Article of the CPPCG, the back then 41 contracting parties were obligated to prevent and punish “genocide, whether committed in time of peace or time of war” (United Nations, 1948). Moreover, Article 2 of the Convention lists several acts committed with the intention to systematically and deliberately “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (ibid.). These crimes are thereby defined as crimes of genocide. From a historical perspective the CPPCG has to be regarded as a “milestone in preventing genocide” (Bildt, 2008) due to two reasons. Firstly, the definition of genocide includes the possibility of ‘peacetime genocide’ and is not limited to genocide committed during war. Secondly, it sets up a list of acts that define genocide and therefore should be prevented and punished on a legal basis.

It seemed that the international community, hereby represented by the United Nations, had learned its lessons from the past in order “to prevent recurrence of the horrors of extermination such as […] the Nazi Government’s Final Solution” (Sunga, 1992, p. 67). Nevertheless, the CPPCG had to face sharp criticism from scholars and peace activists who denounced that the persecution of political groups was excluded from the Convention or that ‘cultural genocide’ was not defined as a crime constituting genocide. Besides the limited scope of the Convention, the UN was also criticized for not establishing a monitoring mechanism in order to accomplish the goals of the CPPCG (Paul, 2008; Schabas, 2008a). However, one has to emphasize that the criticism was based on theoretical occurrences because an application of the Convention could only be vaguely anticipated.

This severely changed in the 1990s when the world witnessed the atrocities in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia which were later on judged to be crimes of genocide. Both incidents served as negative examples for the ineffectiveness of the CPPCG because genocide was only punished afterwards but not prevented in the first case. Therefore, the UN came under major criticism for being “a reactive, rather than a proactive, body” (Totten & Bartrop, 2005, p. 123). More recently, in light of the conflict in Darfur which started in 2003, this claim was taken up again referring to 300,000 people who had been killed or starved to death because of the conflict whereby no action was taken by the UN (House of Commons International Development Committee, 2005). Darfur constitutes the third major incident of the last twenty years in which the UN did not successfully apply the CPPCG and did not prevent the crime of genocide. Resulting from this, Chris Herlinger and Paul Jeffrey speak “of the international community’s predilection for empty words” (2009, p. 11).

Taking up this debate on the effectiveness and applicability of the CPPCG and the UN, this paper aims to investigate whether the accusation of Herlinger and Jeffrey is legitimate and justifiable. Therefore, the CPPCG as well as the incidents in Rwanda and Darfur will be analyzed in order to show how the UN has dealt with the situations and why it remained inactive. It will be depicted why provisions such as the persecution of political groups were excluded from the Convention and which problems the UN Secretariat had to cross in the process of drafting the CPPCG. Moreover, it will be investigated in how far other stakeholders besides the UN and its member states, in particular the United States (U.S.), are able to influence the decision to take action against the crime of genocide. Here, models and concepts like Peter Livingston’s extensive research on the ‘CNN effect’ or Piers Robinson’s ‘policy-media interaction model’ will be applied in order to point at the media’s role to raise awareness for the crime of genocide if committed and to influence policy decisions.

The paper is divided into four main sections. The first section will set up an analytical framework which should provide the most important information on the models and theories applied throughout the paper. Secondly, the CPPCG will be presented within a historical analysis. The drafting process of the Convention will be depicted in order to explain shortcomings or flaws stemming from historical reasons. Thirdly, the incidents of Rwanda and Darfur will be taken up, serving as examples for the ineffectiveness of the UN and the CPPCG. It will be investigated why the UN has been unable to prevent the genocides and which factors have contributed to the failure. The genocide in former Yugoslavia, in particular the massacre of Srebrenica will not be analyzed, as it happened during the time of the genocide in Rwanda. Thus, it is more important to analyze in how far the international community has learned its lessons from the two cases of genocide in the 1990s. Fourthly, the paper will conclude with a summary of the events and failures of the Genocide Convention. It will be discussed whether the CPPCG is just an empty promise of the UN to prevent genocides. Moreover, anticipated changes and modifications of the Convention shall be presented that could lead to a more effective and proactive operational working of the United Nations.

2. Analytical framework

2.1 The CNN effect

After the end of the Cold War the so-called ‘CNN effect’ became a buzzword for the ability of media to influence domestic and most importantly foreign policy decisions of states. Even though it firstly only referred to the power of U.S. media having an effect on U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy, the term is nowadays used throughout the world without any state specification. Therefore, the abbreviation of the Cable News Network (CNN), the first television channel to broadcast a 24-hours all news coverage, has to be regarded as a symbol “of all real time news coverage” (Belknap, 2001, p. 1) today.

Steven Livingston argues that due to the advances in communication technology, media is able to have a serious effect on the conduct of policy making. He identifies three distinct understandings of the media’s effect on the policy process. Only two of them will be presented here as they will be applied in the paper. Firstly, Livingston identifies an impediment type of the media’s effect on policy making. He discusses the ‘power of images’ which is able to influence the emotions and the perception of recent events in the public sphere. Livingston takes up the example of images depicting dead U.S. soldiers during the First Gulf War, which led to protests against the military intervention. Secondly, working vice versa, Livingston explains that media can take up the role of an agenda setting agent. The images of people being chased down by enemies or children starving to death have great influence on policy making if taken up by media. Public demonstrations and the demand for intervention multiplied by ongoing media coverage puts a lot of pressure on policy makers to take action so that the “policy agenda itself is at times merely reflection of news content” (Livingston, 2007, p. 6). Both understandings shine a light on the media’s possibilities to influence the political decision whether or not to take action in case of an ongoing genocide.

2.2. The policy-media interaction model

The policy-media interaction model by Piers Robinson in particular focuses on the effect of media coverage during humanitarian crises. The model takes up Livingston’s understandings of the CNN effect which can influence the policy making process. However, Robinson points out that the relationship between the media and the process of policy making has not yet been clearly theorized and therefore proposes his model in order to “identify [different] instances of media influence” (Robinson, 2000, p. 613).

Robinson’s theoretical starting point is the assumption that the media’s influence on the policy process is not always given and not always equally strong. The effect of media coverage is particularly determined by the factors of policy certainty and uncertainty. Robinson explains that policy uncertainty becomes evident if an urgent “issue arises and no policy is in place, or if there is disagreement, conflict of interest or uncertainty between the executive subsystems” (ibid., p. 617). Vice versa, policy certainty is to be seen as the opposite of the described observations. With this factor at hand, Robinson emphasizes that the media can only take considerable influence on the policy process if policy uncertainty dominates. Policy uncertainty makes governments and political institutions vulnerable to media coverage. However, Robinson stresses the point that the coverage has to be “extensive and critical” (ibid., p. 615) in order to have a significant influence on the policy process. Only if both policy uncertainty and extensive and critical media coverage are present, the policy process can be influenced. In such a situation any government or political institution is “forced to do something or face a public relations disaster” (ibid.).

Concluding, one can say that Robinson takes up the idea of Livingston’s understanding of the CNN effect working as an agenda setting agent but emphasizes that the effect is bound to the condition of policy uncertainty. Throughout the paper it will become evident that the media is an important stakeholder able to influence policy decisions. However, the two cases of crimes constituting genocide also depict good examples for the limitations of the media’s influence.

3. Historical analysis

David Crabtree emphasizes the “importance of history” (1993) for any analysis of today’s world and problems. The analysis of the past enables researchers to identify the roots of many events and problems of the present (ibid). Therefore, this paper starts with a historical analysis which sets out to explain the shape and working of the CPPCG during the crimes of genocide in Rwanda and Darfur.

3.1. The drafting of the Convention

The drafting process of the CPPCG included several factors shaping the final version of the document. First of all, William Schabas points out that the Convention was drafted under enormous time pressure and very hastily (2000). After the General Assembly of the UN had officially requested the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN “to undertake the necessary studies, with a view to the drawing up a convention on the crime of genocide” (United Nations, 1946), it took only four months for the ECOSOC to adopt Resolution E/325. This Resolution instructed the Secretary-General to undertake all necessary means to draw up a draft convention (United Nation, 1947a). The Secretary-General was eager to present results and handed in the first draft of the Convention on June 26, 1947.

Interestingly, the first ECOSOC draft is not only longer than the final version of the Convention but it also contains a much broader definition of the crime of genocide. The first draft by the ECOSOC includes inter alia a definition of genocide that entails the persecution of “linguistic […] or political groups” (United Nations, 1947b), which has been excluded from the final version of the CPPCG adopted in 1948. This observation cannot only be explained and justified by the speed of drafting and adopting the Convention. Here, a second feature of the drafting process becomes obvious.

The protection of national interests and sovereignty of domestic politics has to be seen as a very important feature shaping the final version of the CPPCG. After the ECOSOC had presented the first draft, the member states of the United Nations had to discuss about the provisions and had to decide on it. Taken a number of back then 40 member states and the time pressure described in the section above, the process of finding an agreement on the draft was quite challenging. Angela Paul points out that the meetings of committees and ad-hoc groups following the presentation of the first draft have shown disagreement and discussions about the draft. In particular the discussion whether to include the persecution of political and linguistic groups, the latter often used interchangeably with cultural groups, to the list of crimes constituting genocide was a serious and heated one (2008). Benjamin Whitaker, who has extensively studied and researched for the United Nations on the field of genocide prevention, emphasizes that cultural groups were excluded from the list because “such a provision was inescapably vague and would invite the risk of political interference in the domestic affairs of States” (1985, p. 17).

Moreover, he states that the discussions raised the perception that “the protection of minorities' culture should be the responsibility of other international bodies” (ibid.) unveiling the fact that several member states had not only deliberately tried to avoid this provision but also “rejected universal jurisdiction for the crime” (Schabas, 2008a, p. 2). As a result the CPPCG does not contain a provision on universal jurisdiction for genocide. It only states in Article 6 that trials shall be held “by a competent tribunal of the State in the territory of which the act was committed” (United Nations, 1948). Article 6 hints at an “international penal tribunal” (ibid.) which could have universal jurisdiction in case it would be established and accepted by the contracting parties.

The inclusion of the persecution of political groups to the list of crimes constituting genocide has even been more controversial. Even though political groups had been part of the list from the first General Assembly Resolution of 1946 (United Nation, 1946) until the first ECOSOC draft, they were excluded from the final version after several heated debates in the committees and ad-hoc groups. Angela Paul points out that in particular the Soviet Union opposed the inclusion of political groups to the list (2008). While important actors such as the U.S. or China supported the inclusion, the Soviet Union and other communist states disapproved this category, claiming it would not fit into the scientific definition of genocide. In their argumentation an inclusion of political groups would weaken the Convention and would hinder the fight against genocide. Interestingly enough, the Soviet Union was supported in their opinion by several non-communist countries as well. Countries like Argentina, Brazil or South Africa anticipated a situation in which they would be accused of genocide because they were fighting against political revolutionary groups. Thus, one was able to observe a paradox situation in which communist countries joined forces with their right-wing opponents. Both feared a possible intervention of the United Nations due to their domestic policies which, in the case of the Soviet Union under Stalin, has often been described to constitute a terror regime (Whitaker, 1985; Naimark, 2010).

Moreover, Naimark emphasizes that the state insisting on including the category of cultural groups to the list of possible victims of genocide, was, in fact, the Soviet Union. Given the strong opposition to that provision by other member states, Naimark highlights that the Soviet Union was able to take a strong bargaining position during the drafting process of the CPPCG because the Convention had to be adopted with an unanimous vote. During the last decisive meetings of the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, the Soviet Union was able to wear down the members by insisting on the provisions to include cultural groups and opposing the inclusion of political groups (ibid.). Due to time pressure, various differing opinions and the obligation to adopt the Convention unanimously, a compromise had to be found. In this difficult situation, the omission of both political and cultural groups was regarded as being the easiest solution. As a result most member states voted against the inclusion of political and cultural groups or abstained from voting in order to guarantee a unanimous adoption of the final version of the Convention (Paul, 2008).


Excerpt out of 30 pages


The UN genocide convention
An empty promise to prevent genocides after 1945?
Maastricht University
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ISBN (Book)
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UN, United Nations, Genocide, Genocide Convention, Rwanda, Darfur, CNN effect, media, Völkermord
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Tobias Henze (Author), 2011, The UN genocide convention , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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