Genocide has mired the history of humanity for centuries. In the 20th century alone, arguably, there have been multiple acts of genocide.
The profession of social work, with its continued commitment to human rights, has worked with populations who are most vulnerable. Social workers have assisted survivors of traumatic events like genocide since the inception of the profession. Survivors of genocide have received assistance from social workers in their home countries, where the attempted annihilation of their group occurred.
The knowledge that mental anguish continues after the physical trauma has persuaded many social workers to aid victims after the turmoil ends. In addition, social workers have advocated for individuals who have fled their home country and sought protection in neighboring and also, if and when possible, in First World countries. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) is committed to continuing this work. An examination of the various causes of genocide is necessary to provide a strong stance on the issue.
On December 9, 1948, the United Nation’s General Assembly adopted the international treaty Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which states:
“…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (Article 2)
According to the Convention, the acts of genocide—conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempt to commit genocide, and complicity in genocide—are punishable. Individuals or groups committing these acts will be punished regardless of their status—that is, whether they are responsible rulers, public officials, or private individuals.
Genocide has claimed the lives of more than 60 million people in the past century alone. Approximately 16 million people were killed after the convention’s resolution (Smith, 2004). Genocide often occurs when groups in power attempt to annihilate a people on the basis of their group membership (race, ethnicity, religion, language). The outcomes of genocide are not only the mental and physical effects on the survivors, but also the financial strains of host countries that are directly affected, when it involves housing the refugees and assisting those various groups (Smith, 2004).
The definition of genocide under the Convention is a complex one. Designating incidents in history that fit within this context is an even more challenging task. There is an ongoing debate by scholars of genocide as to which of the horrendous occurrences in history should be labeled genocidal.
Although the argument as to what incidents constitute genocide is ongoing, eight stages of genocide have been agreed upon by multiple experts on the issue. The eight stages of genocide—classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and denial—explain the process in which genocide is developed (Stanton, 1996).
Classification: Although societies categorize their populations by groups (for example, race, ethnicity, religion, or nationality), the categorization in bipolar societies, such as Rwanda and Burundi, often ends in genocide by the government or groups in power.
Symbolization: Symbolization, paired with hatred, is the second stage of genocide. Societies often regularly appoint visual identification to groups; this act, independent of hate, bears no cause for alarm. However, periods in history wherein symbols were tied to hatred, distinguishing particular groups from other groups for the sole purpose of degradation and harm (the third stage), is an indicator for genocide.
Dehumanization: In this stage, action is taken against groups in humiliating and often labeling them as inhumane. This sentiment is often carried in various ways, including propaganda throughout the media, stating why labeling particular groups as enemies of the society is necessary.
Organization: Genocide is always organized, with the primary mission of annihilation. Usually this plan is formal and organized through the state. Militias who are often well armed and trained usually carry out the mission.
Polarization: The act of separating groups by forbidding social interaction of any kind is the next stage. Often groups that are separated have no voice; if members try to speak up, they are often punished or killed.
Preparation: In this stage, the groups that have been identified and discriminated against are placed on death lists. Victims become physically separated from the larger society. Ostracized groups are placed in ghettos or concentrations camps or are confined to destitute areas.
Extermination: This stage is often rapid, quickly becoming the mass killings people associate with genocide. This stage of “extermination” is justified by the killers because the victims have already been labeled nonhuman (see stage 3, “dehumanization”).
Denial: This stage follows genocide. Architects of genocide usually do everything in their power to cover up incidents of these horrendous acts: digging mass graves and burning bodies, intimidating witnesses, denying the crime in its entirety, and often blaming the victims. In the past these perpetrators blocked investigations of the crime and continued to lead the country until they were removed by force (Stanton, 1998).