3 Novembre, 2007
Lukunka Barbra

The concept of ethnocide was created at the same time as the concept of genocide in 1944 in the United States by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born lawyer. Ethnocide is a term that is an alternative to genocide according to Lemkin (Lemkin, 1944). The terms were created precisely in regard to the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis in the Second World War.

In the footnote, to Lemkin’s definition of genocide (see entry on “Genocide”), he wrote that another term for genocide is ethnocide. Ethnocide is a combination of the Greek word ethnos meaning ‘nation’ and the Latin word cide which means ‘to kill.’ Therefore it can be noted that as the creator of the term ethnocide, Raphael Lemkin did not distinguish between genocide and ethnocide (Semelin, 2005: 373).

The English term, ‘ethnic group’, as well as the French word ethnie, refer to a categorized population with a common language, sometimes common culture and belief in a common geographical origin (Mair 1975: 4). In essence it can be perceived that ethnocide refers to the destruction of a people and a people’s culture.

Ethnocide is not only seen as synonymous with the term genocide, but for some it is also used interchangeably with the term ‘cultural genocide’. For example the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has held meetings on the rights of indigenous groups where the meaning of ethnocide is understood and defined as having the same meaning as cultural genocide (Aboriginal Law Bulletin). During the drafting of the Genocide Convention in 1946, the United Nations General Assembly discussed genocide as losses to humanity in the form of cultural and other contributions, and the concept of cultural genocide was recommended to be included in the proposal (Sautman, 2003: 182). Lemkin is known to have supported the inclusion of the term ‘cultural genocide’ in the Genocide Convention because it “protect[s] groups that could not continue to exist without the sprit and moral unity provided by their culture” (Sautman, 2003: 182). However, through political influence, mainly by the United States, ‘cultural genocide’ was excluded from the Convention therefore limiting genocide to physical acts since physical genocide was considered more serious than cultural genocide. Furthermore, the inclusion of cultural genocide was seen as a potential spark for claims by indigenous groups (Sautman, 2003: 184).

The elements that make cultural genocide and ethnocide synonymous for some is based upon the understanding that ethnocide refers to “extermination of a culture that does not involve physical extermination of its people” (Sautman, 2003: 177). Jaulin wrote that ethnocide also includes physical extermination especially when the culture of a people is taken away and that culture is their mode of existence (Jaulin, 1970: 14). However according to some authors, the difference between cultural genocide and ethnocide is based upon the assumption that cultural genocide is attached to ethnic murder where as ethnocide is not tied to killing (Sautman, 2003: 189). The term ethnocide is not mentioned in the Convention nor is it mentioned in any of the UN Human Rights Declarations (Sautman, 2003: 190).

Evolution of meaning of ethnocide

The concept of ethnocide has undergone some transformation from how it was first envisioned by Lemkin. For Lemkin, as noted above, ethnocide is synonymous with genocide. However what we can deduce is that ethnocide is predominately understood as the extermination of culture and not necessary extermination of the people. In addition, ethnocide has been defined as a concept that can linguistically mean the physical, biological and cultural dimensions of genocide (Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide).

Robert Jaulin wrote that ethnocide should not be defined by the means but by the ends (Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide). Since the writing of Jaulin, the term ethnocide has been revitalized and has taken an approach that refers to the destruction of the culture of a group of people especially of indigenous groups. The term ethnocide was used in the examination of Indian cultures in the America’s by a Council that was headed by Robert Jaulin in the late 1960’s (Jaulin, 1972: 291). This led to a propagation of a specific meaning of ethnocide that was attached to the destruction of indigenous cultures by other civilizations, notably the European civilization. As Jaulin expressed, ethnocide is not about aggression as much as it is a reflection on the dominating culture, and the negation of the other (Jaulin, 1972: 408). Therefore ethnocide has been used to describe the concept of ethnocentrism exerted by one group and the feelings of superiority that can lead to the destruction of the culture of others. It also addresses more profoundly the consequences of colonialism of one culture by another (Jaulin, 1972: 3776-377).

Debates about ethnocide

Some critiques of the term ethnocide state that it is an unclear term. In addition, when people use the term ethnocide they are unsure of what they are condemning (Mair, 1975: 4). Furthermore, the idea that victims of ethnocide are individuals considered as primitive and indigenous and who are invaded by technologically advanced individuals considered as civilized poses some problems. This is especially problematic when ethnocide is used to describe the abandonment of cultural practices by a group for the practices of others (Mair, 1975: 4). This can be described as a question of cultural change instead of ethnocide (Mair, 1975: 4). Writers such as Jaulin considered civilization as an infectious disease (Mair, 1975: 4). For many, this argument often does not hold ground (Mair, 1975: 4).


Aboriginal Law Bulletin available from [->]

JAULIN R., 1972, De l’Ethnocide: Recueil de Textes, Paris: Union Générale d’Editions

JAULIN R., 1970, La Paix Blanche: l’Introduction a l’Ethnocide, Paris: Seuil

LEMKIN R., 1944 Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace available from [->]

MAIR, L., 1975, “Ethnocide.” Rain, 7: 4-5

Northwest Center for Holocaust, Genocide and Ethnocide Education available from [->]

SAUTMAN, B., 2003, “Cultural Genocide and Tibet.” Texas International Law Journal, 38: 173-248.

SEMELIN J., 2005, Purifier et Détruire, Paris: Seuil

Citer cet article

Lukunka Barbra, Ethnocide, Mass Violence & Résistance, [en ligne], publié le : 3 Novembre, 2007, accéder le 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
Retour en haut de page