Whitehorn: A Brief Global History of Genocide, Crimes against Humanity, and Human Rights

The Armenian Genocide memorial complex, Armenia’s official memorial dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, built in 1967 on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan (Photo: z@doune)


Special to the Armenian Weekly



There are millions of refugees from the Syrian civilian war in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands have fled across the sea to Europe, including countless numbers of orphans. Far too many have died in the attempted crossings, including very young children. I recall in particular in 2015 the heartbreaking image of a three-year-old Kurdish boy, Alan Kurdi, lying dead, face down, on the Turkish shoreline. He and his family had failed to escape on a flimsy rubber raft.

As a grandfather, I have a grandson who, in that year, was the same age as that Kurdish refugee. Every time I looked at the photo of Alan, I thought how much he looked like my young grandson. It was heart wrenching. My agony was magnified for another important reason.

In terms of different generations, I am not only a grandfather, but also a grandson who recalls that my grandmother—my metzmama—100 years ago was a refugee on those same shores. She was an orphan of a genocide in the Ottoman Empire. Her entire family was killed by a tyrannical nationalist regime that was intent of destroying an ethnic and religious minority—the Armenian Christians.

So I have a special task to tell her story, but also that of the history of other orphans of genocide. I will select a few examples from history, but there are many, many more. Far too many. Too few genocides are known sufficiently.


The Deeds Predate the Words

How does one “think about the unthinkable?” How does one “describe the indescribable?” These are among the analytical and moral challenges in trying to understand genocide. As Raphael Lemkin, the originator of the concept of genocide, noted: Genocide occurred in history before the word ‘genocide’ was created. The history of humans is marked by episodes of great cruelty and mass killings, where groups that were different were targeted for persecution and slaughter.

In earliest times, humans lived in small clans or tribal communities. Technology was low and living conditions were often a great challenge. When confronted by nature, which appeared vast, unknown and powerful, it was natural for apprehension and fear to arise. Similarly when coming into contact with other peoples who were different, our instinct for survival often was to be cautious, perhaps apprehensive, or even outright fearful. When not speaking the language of others, it is far too easy for miscommunication. Fear and distrust of strangers are rooted in a lack of shared history and symbols. The perception of the ‘other’ was that of being outside of our community.


The Emergence of the Concepts of Genocide, Crimes against Humanity, and War Crimes

While initially formulated at different times in history, the three legal terms—war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide—are interrelated and overlap. They constitute key foundational pillars in international law relating to mass atrocity crimes. War was the common feature in the emergence of all three concepts.

The concept of war crimes arose from the Hague conferences in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These sessions sought to regulate the conduct of war in modern times. The 1907 Hague convention recognized the principle of the “laws of humanity” and the “laws and customs of war” that had been “established among civilized peoples.” Amongst the acts prohibited were: the deliberate harming of unarmed civilians, inhumane treatment, torture, compulsory slave labor, and willful killing of civilians.

The concept of crimes against humanity emerged in 1915 during WWI, when the Russian, French and British governments issued a formal joint international declaration that warned the Young Turk government about the mass deportations and massacres of Armenians within the Ottoman Empire. Earlier massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, despite repeated protests from European foreign governments.

During WWI, the Ottoman persecution and targeting of the Armenian Christian ethnic minority continued as hundreds of thousands were deported, starved, tortured and killed. In May 1915, Britain, France and Tsarist Russia issued a formal joint declaration about the ongoing “massacring” of Armenians and suggested these constituted “new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization’.

The concept of genocide emerged in a book by Raphael Lemkin during WWII, but it roots go back earlier. Following WWI, Lemkin, a Jewish university student in Poland wondered: Why were there domestic laws for the punishment of the murder of one person, but not international laws against mass murder by political leaders, such as the wartime Turkish military dictators?

A decade later in the 1930s, Lemkin proposed the precursor twin concepts of “barbarism” and “vandalism.” Amidst WWII, Lemkin formulated a synthesis of the two concepts with the creation of the new term ‘genocide’. This term first appeared in 1944 in a key book on the Nazi deportations and mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
Main Features of Genocide

In 1948, the United Nations passed the “International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” which included the following features: 1) Killing members of a group; 2) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group; 3) Deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; 4) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group; 5) Forcibly transferring children of one group to another.

A group focus was central to the definition and four groups were specifically listed for protection: national, ethnic, religious and racial. We can note the following observations: Random killing of individuals is not genocide. Genocide requires targeting of at least one of four types of groups. Not all possible groups are listed. In this regard, Crimes against Humanity is a more effective law to cover horrific crimes of mass killing.

In recent prosecutions at international tribunals and the International Criminal Court, the three terms—War Crimes, Crimes against Humanity, and Genocide—have tended to cluster together. They are important tools for punishing those guilty of past deeds and potentially deterring future genocides. It may be useful at this point to draw some examples from global history spanning several millennia to show how widespread genocide has been.

Ancient Greece and Melos

In the 5th century BCE, the island of Melos was caught up in a war between Sparta vs. Athens. Athens issued an ultimatum to the people of the island of Melos. They must be part of an Athenian military alliance or suffer consequences. Melos refused. Athenian troops then killed all the men of Melos of military age, while women and children were sold into slavery. The now empty island was replaced with Athenian colonists. It was an annihilation of an entire ethnic community by another. An entire community was targeted and punished, including children. What survives of the Melosian culture, language, and history? Why do we remember Athens in a positive way? Why do we not usually recall or speak of the mass killings at Melos? Who writes history? What genocides do we remember and write about? What genocides are forgotten or ignored?


Historic Rome and Carthage

In the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, Carthage was engaged in several wars with Rome. In the final war, Rome issued an ultimatum: Carthage must disarm, abandon its capital city, which was to be laid to ruin. This would be an economic catastrophe for the trading nation of Carthage and they refused. One Roman Senator boldly asserted: “Carthage must be destroyed.” The city endured a military siege, then destruction, with mass killings and finally dispersion of those who had survived. About 150,000 died; many starved, men of military age were killed, while surviving women and children were enslaved. The city largely disappeared from history and geographic records. Why do we remember the Romans in a positive way? What survives of the Carthaginian culture, language, and history? How many civilizations have been largely lost in this fashion?


The Spanish and European Colonial Conquest of the Americas and its Indigenous Peoples

In the 15th century, Columbus landed on the shores of the Caribbean. His arrival commenced the conquest by Europe of the Americas and its indigenous peoples. Columbus claimed the lands, the resources and wealth for the king of Spain. Spain forcibly deported the indigenous populations, families were separated, women were assaulted, adults enslaved, ill-fed, and forced to do hard labor. Vast numbers were killed or died from terrible conditions. The Spanish rulers later brought in African slaves to replace the vast numbers of dead indigenous peoples. The slave trade is thus crucially linked to genocide.

Other European imperial states also rushed in to grab indigenous peoples’ lands. The eventual overall death toll was tens of millions of the original first nations in the Americas. The process of colonial domination and exploitation occurred around the globe. These foreign imperialists claimed the lands as their overseas colonies. This was done in the name of a supposedly superior culture, religion, race, economy, technology and enforced by superior weaponry.

The Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, German and Russian empires grew and subjugated hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples, leading to untold millions suffering and dying. The painful legacy continued into later generations. Even the European settler colonies of the imperial states imposed their own genocidal rule. The histories of Australia, United States and Canada have needed to be rewritten to begin to recognize at long last these brutal facts. This is one of the hardest lessons to teach most Canadian students about genocide: the fact that many of our ancestors were guilty of allowing or doing such deeds.


Imperial Germany and the Herero

In the 19th and early 20th, European imperial states carved up Africa. A German colony was created in SW Africa (in what is now Namibia). With the discovery of diamonds, Germany began to build a railroad and gave German settlers ownership and water rights to the land on either side of the strategic railroad line. As a result, the Herero—the local indigenous people—lost their land and access to water in this arid region. They rebelled against such harsh and unjust foreign imperial rule. General von Trotha and the German military, utilizing vast superiority in weapons, drove the Herero further into the desert and prevented the Herero people’s escape. Vast numbers of Herero died from lack of access to water, food and shelter. By 1911, most of the Herero people had perished.

The European attitude was that of a sense of superiority over supposedly inferior African people who were portrayed as living in a more primitive culture and less advanced economy. Does one actually have to fire weapons to be charged with genocide? Why do so few persons know of this African example?


The Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian massacres and deportations of 1915 were much discussed during WWI and immediately after. Yet, half a century later in 1950s, it was referred by outsiders as the “Forgotten Genocide.” The year 2015 was the 100th memorial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and once again more people are aware. The Armenian Genocide involved the attempted annihilation of a nation that historically had lived for thousands of years in these lands around Mt. Ararat in the South Caucasus. Today only a minuscule fraction of Armenians are left in the historic Western lands, which now form the eastern part of Turkey.

The 1915 genocide occurred within the Ottoman Empire during WWI. There were several key causal factors. While the Ottoman Empire was one of the major multi-ethnic empires (14th to 20th), it declined dramatically in the 19th and 20th centuries and this caused increasing frustrations and tensions. Like all empires, the Ottoman regime was based on military conquest, political domination and social inequality, particularly in the form of ethnic and religious inequality and persecution. With the 1908 Young Turk coup and its violent revolutionary nationalism that sought to make Ottoman Turkey great again, the Christian religious minority Armenians were increasingly vulnerable. The declaration of war by the Young Turk triumvirate lead to increasingly ruthless dictatorial rule.

There were are number of phases to the Armenian Genocide. In Feb. 1915, Armenian conscript men in the Ottoman army were disarmed, put into labor units, and later most were killed. On April 24 in Constantinople (now Istanbul), hundreds of key Armenian leaders, clergy and intellectuals were arrested and most were later killed. By May, the mass deportations of the Armenians from their historic villages and towns occurred. Women, children and the elderly were sent out on long forced marches into inhospitable mountains and deserts (of what is now Eastern Turkey, Syria and Northern Iraq). In September, the now empty Armenian homes, farms and shops were confiscated by the Ottoman state. Several years later at the end of WWI, outside military intervention eventually stopped the genocidal slaughter. While most of the coverage has been focused on the Armenians, genocide of the Greeks and Assyrians also occurred during this period in the Ottoman Empire.

To this day, the Turkish government denies that the Ottoman Turkish state committed genocide. To even write or speak about it is punishable within Turkey. How do we confront genocide denial? Does denial created new pain and further injustice and, in the words of Elie Wiesel, constitute a form of ‘double killing’?


Nazi Germany and the Holocaust

Since the Holocaust is often written about and discussed at length, I will only make a few comparative comments. We should note that the number of victims during this period was vastly largely than what is usually stated. Millions of Jews were targeted and killed in the Holocaust, but millions of non-Jewish Russians, Poles and other East Europeans were also deliberately killed by the German Nazi regime. Hundreds of thousands of Roma (Gypsies) were targeted for death. Large numbers of other victims also were persecuted and murdered, but they are not listed under genocide. Rather they fall under another category: Crimes Against Humanity. Political rivals were the first targeted and killed by the Nazis. The handicapped were the first social group to be targeted for killing. Homosexuals were also arrested, ruthlessly treated and killed.

To fully comprehend the magnitude of the Holocaust, the post WWII Nuremberg Tribunal used a number of categories of criminal charges: Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes, War of Aggression (War Against Peace). The new term of genocide was mentioned, but was not formally part of the official charges.

The German government had been central in three major genocides of the 20th century: the Herero slaughter in the first decade, the Armenian Genocide in the second decade and the Holocaust in the third and fourth decades. Why so?


Belgian Colonialism and Rwanda

Rwanda is a small ethnically diverse country in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. Like so much of Africa, it was ruled by a European imperial power (Belgium from 1916 to 1962). The Belgian colonial regime accentuated existing class and racial divisions by imposing formal ethnic identity cards in the 1920s. The two major groups were the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. The Belgians used the Tutsi minority to help in maintain its colonial rule.

With Rwanda’s independence in the 1960s, there was a majority ethnic Hutu backlash towards the Tutsi. The inter-ethnic hostilities that emerged were mirrored in neighboring Burundi. After a civil war, Peace Accords had been signed, but on way back from a ceremony, the Rwandan President’s plane was shot down in 1994. This was a trigger for Colonel Bogosora’s Hutu ultra-nationalist coup and a swift and brutal genocide. Vitriolic hate radio agitated and targeted the Tutsi minority who were portrayed as ‘cockroaches’. Within 100 days, 800,000 were killed; mostly Tutsi, but also moderate Hutus. The Hutu nationalist militias (Interhamwe) used machetes to slaughter their former neighbors.

Amidst the reign of terror, UN peacekeepers under the leadership of Canadian general Romeo Dallaire tried to stop the mass slaughter (as described in his memoirs Shake Hands with the Devil), but the UN headquarters in New York and the major powers did not wish to get involved. The American public was more interested in the OJ Simpson celebrity murder trial. The Tutsi army (RPF) under General Paul Kagame eventually overthrew the Hutu nationalist genocidal regime to finally stop the mass killing. Subsequently, the International Tribune for Rwanda sought to convict those guilty.



It is difficult to cover all cases in detail, but it is important to understand that all genocides are important to remember. Some include Ukraine in the 1930s, Cambodia in the 1970s, the Balkans in the 1990s, Sudan and South Sudan during the first decade of this 21st century, Yazidi victims in Iraq in 2014, and the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar (Burma) in 2017.

To remember and know the history of genocide are key. We need to compare and find causal patterns, common paths and hopefully shared means of prevention. We can observe that there are a number of common reoccurring causal factors such as war, economic, social and political crises. There are also overlapping stages/phases of genocide, as I have described in the poem “Verbs of Genocide.”

Psychologists try to understand the group dynamics of genocide in terms of three major roles: perpetrators, victims and bystanders. The perpetrators are the instigators and hostile aggressors. They are not necessarily the largest group, at least not initially. The victims are the vulnerable civilians, who are often a distinct ethnic, religious or racial minority. The bystanders are a large number, perhaps the largest in a society. Their role, therefore, is crucial.

The bystanders are faced with several options: To join in the scapegoating and attacks; to stand up and try to stop the victimization; or to continue to be indifferent. The reasons often posed for not caring include: It does not affect me directly; it is not my family or people; it is too far away, too distant; or I am too busy and focused on something else. The sports celebrity OJ Simpson murder case in Los Angeles, not the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in Africa, is one such example in the 1990s.

Somehow, we must resist “sin of indifference.” Just as others helped an orphan child such as my grandmother for ten long years in refugee camps and orphanages a century ago. So too, we must reach out to help others in urgent need today. It is our only hope to survive together on this precious planet.



A version of this piece was presented by Professor Alan Whitehorn at Glendon College, York University, Toronto, on April 21, 2018.

Alan Whitehorn

Alan Whitehorn

Alan Whitehorn is an emeritus professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada and the author of several books on the Armenian Genocide, including "Just Poems: Reflections on the Armenian Genocide." He is also the editor of "The Armenian Genocide: The Essential Reference Guide."


  1. Very very good writer thank you very much the Turkish government will not bend to. Reconice the crimes committed every year we hope that they will a little decensi name genocide the real name off what was committed against the Armenian 103 year in denials . Thank you very much

  2. Very well researched and written. Thank you. Genocide has existed for thousands of years as you so aptly illustrate. Perhaps it will always be so. I hope not, but it seems ingrained in the species.

  3. I find it very odd that the Expulsion of 15 million Germans from central Europe after WWII with 2.5 million lives lost, is not mentioned here. German ethnic presence in the Sudetenland and what is now Kalinengrad Oblast and the “rewon areas” of Poland has been effectively wiped out. That is genocide and Lemkin himself said it was such in letters to German Expellee organizations. We should not forget that Theresienstadt Concentration Camp was kept open for innocent German prisoners of the Czechs until 1948. Nor that there were camps in Poland where child mortality among the German prisoners was 100%. Every year mass graves of those who were killed or died during the expulsion are found in Poland – one found on Usidom had the bodies of women who were kept as sex slaves and shot to death when they developed VD. Professor WHitehorn should be ashamed of himself for not mentioning this genocide against the Germans of Eastern and Central Europe. No restitution has ever been given to the Expellees and most of the expelling countries have not even apologized. Only Hungary has a national day of remembrance for the victims.

  4. The start of this article, equating accidental deaths on voluntary economic migrations with massacres and forced death-marches during genocide, is the least of its wrongness. The author probably thinks the only way the Armenian Genocide can be made interesting and relevant to a modern audience is to make trite false comparisons with modern events.
    However, that beginning is in keeping with the goal of the article: minimise and trivialise genocide in general and the Armenia Genocide in particular. Why? A few exceptions aside, European-tradition academics amongst Armenian Genocide deniers do not go down the outright denial route – they go down the “so what, it happened, it’s an historical event, one of many such tragic events, no big deal, they should just get over it” route. I have encountered such attitudes on numerous occasions. The “they” these academics are referring to are you, today’s Armenians.
    The author trolls through history in a scramble to stick a “genocide” label on events that bare no comparison to the Armenia Genocide and which have no relation to Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide. His aim is to minimize the significance of the Armenian Genocide by claiming genocide as a very common event throughout history – that is it an almost natural human thing. The crimes of those who committed the AG are thus minimized. The event itself is thus minimized. He claims “causal factors” within the Ottoman Empire lay behind the Armenian Genocide. His goal is to deny the Armenian Genocide as an exceptional event by claiming it was an inevitable historical event given the circumstances of the time. How can the inevitable really be an exceptional crime? How can those who merely took part in an inevitable historical event really be guilty of committing a great crime – they just happened to be there!

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