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  • Memorial commemorating the 1915 mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in Yerevan (SBS)Source: SBS
April 24 1915 is the date Armenians consider to be the start of what they regard as a genocide by Ottoman Turkish forces. Turkey admits that in a series of events under Ottoman rule, many thousands of people died - but it strongly opposes the use of the word "genocide".
Greg Dyett / SBS

24 Apr 2015 - 10:10 AM  UPDATED 24 Apr 2015 - 2:27 PM

Some other countries and historians also recognise the killings to be genocide but there's certainly no international consensus.

Whether mass killings can be defined as genocide has been a highly controversial issue ever since the word first came to be used.

In 1944, American news commentator Quincy Howe told his CBS audience about a new word and introduced them to the man who coined it.

"Genocide is a new word combining the Greek word genos, genos meaning race or group with the root of the Latin caedere meaning to kill. Doctor Raphael Lemkin, who is a Professor of Law at Yale University, specializing in teaching matters about the United Nations. Doctor Lemkin is the man who created the word genocide, Doctor Lemkin could you give us a little background on how you came to be interested in this genocide?" (Lemkin) "I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times, it happened to the Armenians and after the Armenians, Hitler took action."

Doctor Raphael Lemkinwas a Polish-born lawyer who campaigned for international laws defining and forbidding genocide.

His advocacy helped shape the wording of the Genocide Convention adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide restricts the application of the word genocide to four particular types of victim groups based on nationality, race, ethnicity and religion.

Doctor Gideon Boas (Boaz) from Monash Law School says that's meant any target group that was persecuted which fell outside of those categories was not considered to be a victim of genocide.

"One of the great examples given is the massacre of Cambodians under Pol Pot's regime, that was considered to be a group defined by politics rather than any of the four categories so in relation to the vast majority of people killed in Cambodia, it's never been considered to be genocide."

Dr Boas says the legalistic definition created problems for the former US Secretary of State Colin Powell who went to the UN Security Council in September 2004 to demand action over what he considered was a genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

He says this pressure galvanised the Security Council and action was taken but it was found, at least initially, not to be a genocide. 

"A UN inquiry found although there were widespread crimes against humanity there the definition of genocide couldn't be fulfilled and genocide hadn't occurred there. I note, however, that since then the International Criminal Court has accepted a case of genocide against the Sudanese President Al Bashir."

Doctor Melanie O'Brien, from the International Association of Genocide Scholars, cites another example.

"The debate over what happened in the destruction the torture and execution of people during the military junta in Argentina, so there's a lot of great scholars that are out there arguing for a slightly different interpretation of how we can apply the definition of genocide to these kind of situations where, for example, genocide destroys the social fabric of a group."

For mass killings to be defined as genocide under the convention there must also be findings in relation to intent.

Doctor O'Brien says: "So every crime has to be committed with a general intent, you have to intend to commit the crime. However, with genocide there's also what is called a special intent and that special intent means that to commit genocide you must intend to destroy that targeted group and it's that specific intent that is extremely difficult to prove."

Doctor O'Brien says that has enabled countries to argue that they are not guilty of genocide.

"They either argue that it was political, the reason for the violence that occurred or they argue that there was no genocidal intent, so they might argue there was no genocidal intent and in fact what it was was an armed conflict, that's a very, very common argument."

Dr Gideon Boas says so far, no-one has been able to come up with a better definition for genocide than the one adopted by the UN in 1948.

But he says there's a strongly and widely held view that the category of politics should be added to the current four categories of nationality, race, ethnicity and religion.

Dr Boas says there's an obsession with defining widespread criminality, in particular crimes against humanity, as being genocide because there's a particular stigma that's attached to the term genocide - for understandable reasons.

 "The crime itself is the endeavour to exterminate an entire group, erase it from human history and memory. That's what is so powerful about the term genocide. But it's a term only because the reality is that prosecution of crimeswhich may constitute genocide can just as powerfully be dealt with as crimes against humanity and war crimes in courts."


(from World News Radio script)