Genocide is a paradigm case of denying our fundamental equality as people: my identity is fine; yours is impermissible. People like me are real people; people like you are cockroaches, lice. “We” are people; “you” are Armenian, Tamil, Roma, “Red Indian”, Rohingya. You must die on account of who you are. As with torture and with rape, so with genocide. They are the worst things we do to one another.


It would be odd simply to ask why genocide matters. If it’s a question you need to ask, then you’re not going to understand the answer. Compare, for instance, ‘Why does rape matter?’, or ‘Why does torture matter?’ But questions like these aren’t intended to raise any doubts that these things actually do matter.  Rather, they represent a concern with the reasons why these things matter. Of course it’s obvious that they matter. But the reasons why they matter also matter.

Concerning genocide, those reasons have to do with what is specific about it, with what differentiates genocide from other instances of violence. There are, then, three central features of genocide. The term describes the killing of a ‘genus’, or ‘sort’ of people.  Thus it’s a historically recent term, capable of having been developed only as “we” — meaning  “we in the West”, that’s to say — started to think in terms of “sorts” of people; and particularly of “sorts” of people in racialised terms. These features are: (1) it is mass killing; (2) it is carried out on the basis of some ascribed identity; and (3) that identity is in some sense unavoidable or unalterable. Let me say a little about each of these.

(1) Inasmuch as genocide is a matter of exterminating a ‘sort’ of people, it has to be a form of mass killing. How many makes a ‘mass’ is a question I shall leave aside, quite deliberately. It is enough that genocide is not like serial murder, or even the killing of thousands of people in pursuit of some so-called military objective.

(2) For a group to self-identify as a ‘sort’, or to be identified as such, criteria of identity need to be in place: for example ‘race’, ‘creed’, ‘ethnicity’.  But what it is for these to be ‘in place’ can be understood very differently. You might suppose that there really are races or ethnicities, for example; or you might think that such criteria are biologically, logically — or both — illiterate. Either way, so long as some people believe that these identities are real – say, real, biologically – then there can be racism and there can be ethnic cleansing. The fact that there are no “biological races”, the fact that ‘ethnicity’ is an empty term, makes no difference to that. To put it another way: genocide targets naturalised groups of people. Genocide is the destruction of a naturalised group of people, however such a group may be identified and by whom. The point about naturalised groups is important. Genocide concerns the slaughter of people on account of who they are, rather than on account of what they believe, what they think or what they do.

(3) Fundamental to genocide is that people are subjected to genocide on account of who they are – for example, Tutsi, Roma, Jew or Armenian. And not just ‘who they are’, but also who they cannot but be. This sort of identity, whether self-ascribed or imputed, cannot be undone. Compare rape, or torture. You can’t “unbecome” a woman and are therefore a target, whether of misogyny or military tactics against a civilian population; you can’t “unbecome” an Iraqi and are therefore a target for the Abu Ghraib torturers. This of course can pose a problem in respect of particular instances of mass slaughter, since it is not always clear whether or not members of the group in question identify themselves in the requisite way, namely in terms of being someone they cannot but be. Was the extermination of the Cambodian intelligentsia by the Khmer Rouge an act of genocide or not? That depends on the extent to which being an intellectual is at once a matter of who you are and who you cannot but be – unlike, for example, being a banker or a farmer. Was the slaughter of some 1.5 million communists in Indonesia in the mid-1960s an act of genocide or not? That depends on whether you think that being a communist is more similar to being, say, a Buddhist, or to, say, an aristocrat. And even then it’s not clear, as it’s not clear the extent to which being either a Buddhist or an aristocrat is more or less like being a neo-liberal or having blue eyes.


With that sort of limitation in mind, we can get a little further. We can now say that from the inescapability of this sort of identity it follows that you cannot in any way appease your would-be killers. You’re in their way, whether literally, metaphorically or both, and, being who you are, you cannot get out of their way even should you wish to try.  There can be no question of negotiation: you’re the target of genocide because you are who you are.

And now a further issue arises. Is it the intention with which it’s carried out that makes an act of mass killing an instance of genocide, or is what counts the consequences for the targeted group? Must genocidal intention be present; or is genocidal outcome sufficient for an act of mass killing to be an instance of genocide?

It is not surprising that both intention and consequences should be thought important. After all, these two concerns characterise the two central theories of western moral philosophy: utilitarianism and deontology. These two theories have come to be pervasive, I think, because both answer to a central element of moral experience, respectively the consequences of what we do and our intentions in so doing. One concern is with the consequences of what people do: what matters is that 700 people were killed as a result of what some other people did, or did not do, at this year’s Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia; what matters is that some 500,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq by the USA and its allies; what matters is that some 800,000 so-called Tutsi were killed in Rwanda by the so-called Hutu. And so on; and on. But there is another concern too. This concern is about the intentions of the perpetrators. What matters here is what such-and-such people saw fit to do, what they did and why they did it: the Nazis; the torturers; the rapists; the neo-liberal imperialists. Some things should never be done, regardless of the consequences. To deliberately kill one person to save a hundred others is wrong, regardless of the consequences for those hundred people.

But in terms of saying what genocide is, we don’t need to decide this bit of moral theory. Indeed, we shouldn’t even try. Why not? Because the question is fundamentally one for those affected to decide. It’s not for academics, Eurocentric or otherwise, to determine, however learnedly, whether or not an instance of killing finally counts as genocide; whether it’s a matter of intention or of outcome. It is enough that genocide – the mass killing of a group of people on account of who they are – has been experienced as such. What matters to people who have been killed, and perhaps to those who survive and/or those who come later, is the fact of their having been killed. Their killers’ reasons are secondary. So too with the scope of genocidal effort, whether it’s aimed to rid “this” place of such-and-such people or to rid the whole world of them. Of course it might well matter to the perpetrators whether they are killing to rid the world of a group or to rid what they consider to be their “own” space of that group. But that is not the point. If we’re not to disrespect the memory of people who have been subjected to genocide, then it’s to them and to theirs that we have first to listen. What matters first and foremost is their experience of what other people are doing to them. Otherwise we extend the power of the perpetrators at the expense of the people they’re slaughtering. So it is not the case that only universal extermination counts as genocide, and “local” extermination does not. Both are genocide. Genocide takes more than one form.


Nonetheless, what marks genocide out from other instances of extermination is that it’s about killing people on account of who they are, and who they cannot but be? It is about killing people who are no longer recognised as people, that is to say not recognised as agents. One person’s killing another because of what they did may be appalling; but at least in killing that person the perpetrator recognises them as an agent. However, genocidal killing makes agency irrelevant: there’s nothing you can do to deflect the killers’ murderous intent. What you do or don’t do is irrelevant. And that’s effectively a denial of your being a person even before you’re killed.

Genocide is a paradigm case of denying our fundamental equality as people: my identity is fine; yours is impermissible. People like me are real people; people like you are cockroaches, lice. “We” are people; “you” are Armenian, Tamil, Roma, “Red Indian”, Rohingya. You must die on account of who you are. As with torture and with rape, so with genocide. They are the worst things we do to one another.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: I should like to thank my colleague, Zeina Maasri, for our conversations about these issues and in particular for her contribution to my thinking about the material of section II.

Bob_BrecherBob Brecher is Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Brighton, and Director of its Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics & Ethics. He has published over sixty articles in moral theory, applied ethics and politics, healthcare and medical ethics, sexual politics, terrorism and the politics of higher education. His latest book, Torture and the Ticking Bomb (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007) is the first book-length rebuttal of calls to legalise interrogational torture.