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What is Ethnocide?

Ethnocide is the destruction of culture while keeping the people.  The term was first coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944. Lemkin was a Polish Jew and celebrated human rights attorney who escaped Europe for America as the Nazi Party rose to power. While in America he worked to raise awareness of the horrors befalling his people.  As the American military and government remained slow to act and understand the severity of the atrocity consuming Europe, Lemkin concluded that he needed to coin a word to clarify the barbarity of the large-scale, systematic killing perpetrated by the Nazis. To do so, he invented the words “genocide” and “ethnocide” to articulate this crime that previously went unnamed.

In 1944, in Lemkin’s book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, “genocide” appeared in print for the first time, and “ethnocide” appeared in the footnotes as an equivalent substitute. Lemkin envisioned that genocide and ethnocide would be interchangeable because the targets for this previously undefined murder (cide) and terror were both a people (genos) with a specific culture, nation, and ethnicity (ethnos). Within the international legal community, however, the concept of ethnocide became subsumed into genocide because when a people are exterminated or forcefully removed from their home, their culture also dies with them. For the rest of his life, Lemkin worked to make genocide an integral concept within international law, yet his second word remained essentially dormant until a new definition emerged.

In the 1970s, a small segment of European anthropologists, including Robert Jaulin and Pierre Clastres, started applying a new interpretation of ethnocide that focused on the intentional destruction of culture while keeping the people. The culture dies, but the people remain, and this framework has remained the new understanding of ethnocide ever since. This interpretation was initially used to describe the impact of colonization and forced assimilation on indigenous peoples around the world. 

The Dignity Rights Initiative and its collaborator, The Sustainable Culture Lab, use this definition of ethnocide, but also expand its application to include the transatlantic slave trade, and the entrenched divisions and exploitative norms that have tragically been foundational to the societies of the Americas. The transatlantic slave trade intentionally worked to destroy the culture of African people but keep the people. European colonizers prevented African people from speaking their languages and practicing their religions, and they systematically severed African communal and familial bonds. The chattel slavery system of the Americas and its modern-day derivatives are a continuation of ethnocide.

Ethnocidal social norms still influence American laws and sustain systemic racial divisions.  The Ethnocide Project will explore ethnocide’s relationship with genocide and other atrocity crimes within international and domestic laws.