Holocaust: How Have Understandings Of Genocide And Human Liberties Progressed Since And Do Modern Policies And Social Structures Reflect Those Changes

Written by Ekoja Okewu |
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“I once spoke to someone who had survived the genocide in Rwanda, and she said to me that there was now nobody left on the face of the earth, either friend or relative, who knew who she was…. Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction. You wish to have one more reflection on what it is to have been made the object of a clean sweep?”

– Christopher Hitchens

The United Nations Genocide Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such including the killing of its members, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately imposing living conditions that seek to bring about its physical destruction in whole or forcibly transferring children out of the group to another group while human liberty is the state of being free; enjoying various social, political, or economic rights and privileges.”


The Armenian genocide is acknowledged as one of the first modern genocides. It involved the systemic mass murder and expulsion of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in Turkey and the adjoining region by the Ottoman government between 1914 and 1923. It was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases – the wholesome killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscription and forced labour; followed by mass deportation of women, children, the elderly, and the infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert.

The Holocaust, also known as the Shoch, was the World War II genocide of European Jews carried out between 1941 and 1945. Nazi Germany and its collaborators murdered about six million Jews – around two-third of the European Jewish population. The murders were carried out through pogrom; by a policy of extermination through forced labour in concentration camps and the use of gas chambers and gas vans.

The Rwandan genocide was a mass slaughter of the Tutsi, Twa, and moderate Hutu ethnic groups in Rwanda. It took place between 7th April and 15th July during the Rwandan civil war, claiming the lives of an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans.


Human understanding of genocide and liberty has continued to progress from a crude to a more refined state. Terms used to quantify such occurrences ranged from massacre, extermination, to crimes against humanity; in 1941, Winston Churchill described the German invasion of the Soviet Union as “a crime without a name”. The term ‘genocide’ was coined by Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, after fleeing his native Poland during World War II: a succinct articulation of mass crimes against humanity.

From the case studies examined, it is evident that there was a reduction in the level of casualties as time progressed. This can be connected with the awareness campaigns and mechanisms put in place by the United Nations. During the Armenian genocide, for instance, the level of impact would have been minimal if anti-genocide policies and social structures were in place. Comparing the casualty figures from the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide to that of Rwanda shows a decline in the number of people who died during the latter.

The time frame of the genocide is also a pointer to the progress made. 9 years, 4 years, and 3 months were the time spans for the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide respectively. Increased scrutiny and accountability mechanisms put in place by the international community correlate to a reduction in the time spans for each of the genocides. The Nuremberg Trials mark a turning point in international law accountability mechanisms; in particular the trials of 22 major Nazi criminals before the International Military Tribunal; who were charged for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Not only did the Nuremberg trials mention ‘genocide’ for the first time in international law, but the court proceedings and categorisation of the crimes allowed for the development of international jurisprudence concerning war crimes resulting in the creation of the International Criminal Court.


Today, many nations have enacted anti-genocide bills into their constitutions. Senator Greig from the Australian parliament presented a bill for an act to give effect to the convention on prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, and for related purposes.

In the international sphere, the ICC is the first and only permanent international court with jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international crime of genocide. To consider a modern example, the Security Council on the 8th of November 1994 set up the Tribunal for Rwanda to prosecute those responsible for the genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda and neighbouring states. Additionally, the Rwandan government implemented a participatory justice system (Gacacas) in 2001, in order to handle the enormous backlog of cases. These courts gave lower sentences if the person showed repentance and sought reconciliation with the local community. Furthermore, as men were the primary victims during the genocide a new law giving women inheritance rights was put into place. This social structure gives males and females the equal right to inherit properties.

The formation of organizations like the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education centers empower individuals and communities to take action to prevent and end genocides. Contributions from the public in the form of essays, poems, and slogans are a clear reflection of the changes wrought regarding human understanding of genocide and individual liberty – for instance, international justice initiatives further help increase coverage of contemporary genocides.

Although awareness and accountability have increased over time, modern structures certainly haven’t prevented any instances of genocides; for instance, some activists and human rights experts have termed the Chinese government’s policy towards Uyghur Muslims as an ongoing genocide of a minority group through means such as suppression of religious practice, forced sterilisation, and contraception. The government’s policy of media censorship has made the above-mentioned structures difficult to enforce, as evidence of ongoing human rights violations is scarce. Uyghur Muslims in China is just one instance of a modern 21st-century genocide with others including human rights violations of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic, and many more.


The understanding of genocide and human liberty correlates with the passage of time. Tremendous progress has been made with the increase in knowledge, technology, and social structures; but the above instances of modern genocides serve as a sobering reminder of the progress that has yet to be made, and authoritative powers (such as censorship) that may hinder such progress. As the world becomes more complex, modern policies and social structures must be updated to meet the needs of a changing society. 


  • Legal definition of genocide, United Nations: 


  • Raphel Lemkin: The maa who coined the word ‘genocide’:


  • Australia: Anti-genocide bill gets the go-ahead:


  • The ICTR in brief: 


  • Activist urge Canada to recognise Ughur abuses as genocide:


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Author: Ekoja Okewu
I am Ekoja Solomon from Nigeria. I love engaging in writeups that spur humanity into action


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