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Course 10664 - Genocide

Reflections on the Inconceivable:
Theoretical Aspects in Genocide Studies

Appendix 2
The New Concept of Democide

Democide: demo for people
cide for killing

Democide: The murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.

Genocide: Among other things, the killing of people by a government because of their indelible group membership (race, ethnicity, religion, language).

Politicide: The murder of any person or people by a government because of their politics or for political purposes.

Mass Murder: The indiscriminate killing if any person or people by a government.

Genocide is horrible, an abomination of our species, and totally unacceptable. It is an obscenity –– the evil of our time that all good people must work to eradicate.

Most people recognize this evil for what it is. There is no doubt that the Nazi program to kill all Jews was genocide. Nor is there any doubt that the Bosnian Serb massacre of Bosnian Moslems was genocide. But was it also genocide for government forces fighting a rebellion to massacre helpless villagers in the Sudan? What about the Indonesian army's purge of communists, the assassination of political opponents by the nationalist government on Formosa, the "land-reform" executions of landlords in the Soviet Union, or the rapid death of inmates in Vietnamese reeducation camps? What about the absorption of one culture by another, disease spread to natives by contact with colonialists, the forced deportation of people, or African slavery?

In international conventions and the professional literature, genocide was initially defined as the intentional destruction of people because of their race, religion, ethnicity, or other permanent group membership. The origin of the concept is the 1944 work by Raphael Lemkin on Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: "New conceptions require new terms. By genocide we mean the destruction of as nation or of an ethnic group. . . Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, the actions involved are directed against the individuals, not in their individual capacity but as members of the national group" (p.79).

This was written at the height of the Jewish Holocaust–­a clear case of a regime trying to exterminate a whole group, its intellectual contributions, its culture, and the very lives of all its people. There was an immediate need for some way to conceptualize the horror, and "genocide" did it. During the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, and in the postwar discussion and debate over how to prevent such killing in the future, "genocide" became a commonly used term. In incredibly little time, it passed from Lemkin's pages into international law. In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly recognized that "genocide" is a crime under international law which the civilized world condemns, and for the commission of such principles and accomplices are punishable." Two years later the General Assembly made this resolution concrete by passing the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The Convention is consistent with Lemkin's definition and elaboration. Relevant here, however, is the fact that both define genocide as the intent to destroy in whole or part a group either by killing members of the group or by other means, such as by preventing births in the group or by causing serious mental harm. That is according to both Lemkin and the Convention, genocide does not necessarily have to include killing. This has been the source of much confusion.

In the early years of its use, "genocide" was applied almost exclusively to the Jewish Holocaust and then, especially through the work of Armenian scholars, to the mass murder of Armenians by the Young Turk regime during World War I. However, scholars have increasingly come to realize that restricting the killing aspect of the concept to those murdered by virtue of their indelible group membership does not account for the millions wiped out by the Nazis.

How then do we conceptualize the purposeful government killing of protesters and dissidents, the reprisal shooting of innocent villagers, the beating to death of peasants for hiding rice, or the indiscriminate bombing of civilians? How do we conceptualize torturing people to death in prison, working them to death in concentration camps, or letting them starve to death, when such killing is done out of revenge, for an ideology, or for reasons of state having nothing to do with the social groups to which these people belong.

Because of such questions, scholars have generalized the meaning of "genocide." In some cases it has been extended to include the intentional killing of people because of their politics or for political reasons, even though this aspect was explicitly excluded from the Genocide Convention. Some scholars have extended the definition of genocide to cover any mass murder by government. Some have stretched the concept much further, for example by characterizing the unintentional spread of disease to indigenous populations during European colonization, including that in the American west. To most scholars, the critical aspect of "genocide" is intentional government killing of masses of human beings.

Both of these issues are confusing. Both the nonkilling aspect of "genocide" and the need to have a concept that covers other kinds of government murder have led to the following being called genocide: the denial of ethnic Hawaiian culture by the US-run public school system in Hawaii; government policies that led one race adopt the children of another race; African slavery by Whites; South African apartheid; the murder of women by men; or death squad murders in Guatemala. The linking of such diverse acts or deaths under one label created an acute conceptual problem that begged for the invention of a new concept that covers and is limited to intentional government murder. Thus did Barbara Harff and I independently develop the concept of politicide for a government's premeditated killing of people because of their politics or for political reasons. But this new concept was still not sufficient, since it did not apply to many mass murders by government, such as the working of POWs to death by the Japanese army in World War II or the killing of Black Africans that resisted enslavement.

Already in general use is the concept of "mass murder" or "massacre." Although usage varies, both usually mean the intentional and indiscriminate murder of a large number of people by government agents, such as the shooting down of unarmed demonstrators by police, or the lobbing of grenades into prison cells by soldiers before retreating under pressure from enemy troops. The terms can also include the random execution of civilians (as the German reprisals against partisan sabotage in Yugoslavia), working prisoners to death (as in the Soviet Kolyma mining camps), the blanket firebombing of cities (as in the 1937-38 Japanese rape and pillage of Nanking during which Japanese soldiers probably killed some 200,000 people).

We also have the concept of "terror" as applied to government killing. This term usually means the extrajudicial execution, slaying, assassination, abduction or disappearance forever of targeted individuals. That is, the killing is discriminative. Its purpose may be to exterminate actual or potential opponents or for social prophylaxis –– as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn characterized Stalin's countrywide elimination of undesirables. Such killing may also be for the purpose of promoting fear among a people and thus ensuring their obedience and subservience.

Then there is killing that does not easily fit under any of these labels. There is, for example, murder by quota carried out by the Soviets, Chinese communists, and North Vietnamese. For the Soviet and Vietnamese communists, government (or party) agencies would order units to produce certain numbers of dead. Moreover, millions of people wasted away in labor or concentration camps not because of their social identity, their political beliefs, or who they were, but simply because they got in the way, violated some Draconian rule, did not express sufficient exuberance for the regime, innocently insulted the leader (as by sitting on a newspaper with the picture of Stalin showing), or simply because they were a body needed for labor (as the Nazis would grab women innocently walking along a road in Ukraine and deport them to Germany for forced labor). And there are the hundreds and thousands of peasants that slowly died of disease, malnutrition, overwork, and hunger in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge forced them under penalty of death to labor in the collectivized fields, expropriating virtually their whole harvest and refusing them adequate medical care.

Even when applicable, the concepts of genocide, politicide, mass murder or massacre, and terror overlap and are sometimes used interchangeably. Clearly, a concept was needed that includes all intentional government killing in cold blood and that is comparable to the concept of murder for private killing.

The killing of one person by another is murder whether done because the victim was of a particular color, refused to repay a loan, or hurled an insult. It is murder whether the killing was a premeditated act or the result of reckless and wanton disregard for life. It doesn't matter whether the killing is done for high moral ends, altruistic reasons, or any other purpose. Killing is murder under Western and most other legal codes (unless officially authorized by government, as for judicial executions or military combat). However, as a crime, murder is limited by definition to taking of another person's life in some way. Although we use murder metaphorically, as in someone "murdering" the language, it is not considered murder in a criminal sense to hurt someone psychologically, to steal their child, or to rob them of their culture.

I thus offer, as a concept analogous to public murder, the concept of democide, or murder by government agents acting authoritatively. Its one root in the Greek demos, or people; the other is the same as for genocide, which is from the Latin caedere, to kill. Democide's necessary and sufficient meaning is the intentional government killing of unarmed persons or people. Unlike the concept of genocide, it is restricted to intentional killing of people and does not extend to attempts to eliminate cultures, races, or peoples by other means. Moreover, democide is not limited to the killing of genocide, nor to politicide, mass murder, massacre, or terror. It includes them all, as long as the killing is a purposive act, policy, process by an institution of government.

In detail, democide is any action by government:

1. designed to kill or cause the death of people.

1.1 because of their religion, race, language, ethnicity, national origin, class, politics, speech, actions construed as opposing the government of wrecking social policy, or by virtue of their relationship to such people;

1.2 in order to fulfill a quota or requisition system;

1.3 in furtherance of a system of forced labor or enslavement;

1.4 by massacre;

1.5 through imposition of lethal living conditions; or

1.6 by directly targeting noncombatants during a war or violent conflict; or

2. that causes death by virtue of an intentionally or knowingly reckless and depraved disregard for life (which constitutes practical intentionality); as in

2.1 deadly prison concentration camp, forced labor, prisoner of war, or recruit camp conditions;

2.2 murderous medical or scientific experiments on humans;

2.3 torture or beatings;

2.4 encouraged or condoned murder, or rape, looting, and pillage during which people are killed;

2.5 a famine or epidemic during which government authorities withhold aid, or knowingly act in a way to make it more deadly; or

2.6 forced deportations and expulsions causing deaths. This definition has the following qualifications and clarifications.

a. "Government" includes de facto governance–as by the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China–or by a rebel or warlord army over a region and population it has conquered–as by the brief rule of Moslem Turks (East Turkistan Republic) over part of Sinkiang province (1944-46).

b. "Action by governments" comprises official or authoritative action by government officials, including the police, military or secret service; or nongovernmental action (e.g., by brigands, press-gangs, or secret societies) that has or is receiving government approval , aid, or acceptance.

c. Clause 1.1 includes, for example, directly targeting non-combatants during a war or violent conflict out of hatred or revenge, or to depopulate an enemy region, or to terrorize civilians into urging surrender. Concrete examples of such instances could include indiscriminate urban bombing or shelling, or blockades that cause mass starvation.

d. "Relationship to such people" (clause 1.1) includes relatives, colleagues, coworkers, teachers, and students.

e. "massacre" (clause 1.4) includes the mass killing of prisoners of war and of captured rebels.

f. "Quota" system (clause 1.2) includes randomly selecting people for execution in order to meet a quota; or arresting people according to a quota, some of whom are then executed.

g. "Requisition" system (clause 1.2) includes taking from peasants or farmers all their food and produce, leaving them to starve to death.

h. Excluded from the definition are:

h.1 execution for what are internationally considered capital crimes, such as murder, rape, spying, treason, and the like, so long as evidence does not exist that such allegations were invented by the government in order to execute the accused;

h.2 actions taken against armed civilians during mob action or riot (e.g., killing people with weapons in their hands is not democide); and

h.3 the death of noncombatants killed during attacks on military target, so long as the primary target is military (e.g., during bombing of enemy logistics).

Table 1 gives an overview of the concept of democide in relation to the other concepts mentioned previously and placing them within the context of democidal sources of mass death.

Democide is meant to define the killing by government, just as the concept of murder defines individual killing in domestic society. Here, intentionality (premeditation) is critical, including practical intentionality. If a government causes deaths through a reckless and depraved indifference to human life, the deaths are as though intended.

A death constitutes democide if it is the intentional killing or an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy of high command (as in the Nazi gassing of the Jews). It is also democide if the death was the result of such authoritative government actions carried out with reckless and wanton disregard for the lives of those affected (as putting people in concentration camps in which the forced labor and starvation rations were such as to cause the death of inmates). It is democide if government promoted or turned a blind eye to the death even though it was murder carried out "unofficially" or by private groups (as by death squads in Guatemala or El Salvador). And the death also may be democide if high government officials purposely allowed conditions to continue that were causing mass deaths and issued no public warning (as in the Ethiopian famines of the 1970s). All extrajudicial or summary executions comprise democide. Even judicial executions may be democide, as in the Soviet show trials of the late 1930s. Judicial executions for "crimes" internationally considered trivial or noncapital—as of peasants picking up grain at the edge of a collective's fields, or a worker telling an antigovernment joke, or of an engineer making a miscalculation—are also democide.

I have found that in the cast majority of events and episodes, democide is unambiguous. When under the command of higher authorities soldiers force villagers into a field and then machine-gun them, there should be no question about definition. When a group armed by the government for this purpose turns the teachers and students out of a school, lines up those of a particular tribe, and shoots them, it is surely democide. When all foodstuffs are systematically removed from a region by government authorities and a food blockade put in place, the resulting deaths must be considered democide. Sad to say, most cases of government killing in this century are that clear. The number of deaths will be hazy for many of these cases; the perpetrators and intent will not.

R.J. Rummel

Table 1   Sources of Mass Death

  • Intentional
    • War
    • international/domestic
  • Democide
    • genocide
      • Nazi killing of Jews or Gypsies
      • Khmer Rouge killing of Vietnamese
      • Soviet killing of Volga Germans
    • politicide
      • Hitler's 1934 purge of the SA
      • Viet Minh murder of nationalists
      • Libya bombing of a civilian airliner
    • mass murder/massacre
      • Nazi reprisals in Yugoslavia
      • Vietnamese murder by quota
      • Japanese rape of Nanking
    • terror
      • Guatemala death squads
      • Stalin's 1936-1938 purge of communists
      • Argentina's disappearances
  • Unintentional
    • Famine
      • by nature
      •   China's 1936 famine
      • government-createda
      •   China's 1959-1962 Great Famine
    • Disease
      • by nature
      •   1918 influenza pandemic
      • Government-createda
      •   Soviet 1918-1923 typhus epidemic
    • Disaster
      • storm
      • earthquake
      • fire
      • etc.

a Intentionally man-made famine or disease is included under democide and may constitute genocide, politicide, or mass murder.


R.J. Rummel, "The New Concept of Genocide", in: Charny (ed.), Encyclopedia of genocide, vol. 1, pp. 18-23.