What's the Difference Between 'Crimes Against Humanity' and 'Genocide?'

Bosco Ntaganda has been charged with the first. Here's what it means.
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Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda attends fellow rebel commander Sultani Makenga's wedding in Goma on December 27, 2009. (Reuters)

What are the differences between the legal terms "crimes against humanity" and "genocide"? And are both equally useful in punishing mass crimes and facilitating closure?

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Robert Coalson spoke with British lawyer Philippe Sands about his forthcoming book, which explores this issue. Sands is a professor of international law at University College London who frequently works on cases before international tribunals.

He is the author of "Lawless World," which argues that the 2003 invasion of Iraq occurred in violation of international law. He is currently representing Macedonia in a case against Greece in the International Court of Justice regarding the use of the name "Macedonia."

Tell us in a nutshell, if you can, what are the legal concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide?

Crimes against humanity and genocide are two distinct concepts. They became part of international law in the mid-1940s, after the end of World War II, and really around the time of the Nuremburg trials. They were new concepts -- they are relatively recent in that sense. And what I have been doing in a new book that I am working on is tracing their origins.

The basic difference between crimes against humanity and genocide is as follows: Crimes against humanity focuses on the killing of large numbers of individuals. The systematic, mass killing of a very large number of individuals will constitute a crime against humanity. Genocide has a different focus. Genocide focuses not on the killing of individuals, but on the destruction of groups. In other words, a large number of individuals who form part of a single group. And the two concepts in this way have different objectives. One aims at protecting the individual; the other aims at protecting the group.

Your research traces both concepts back to the Ukrainian city of Lviv, is that right?

The two issues really hit the headlines in international-law terms in 1945 and 1946, around the time the Allies were preparing the Nuremburg trials and they were deciding what they would charge leading Nazi defendants with at those trials. And there was a big debate about whether to deal with the issue of crimes against humanity or genocide. And in fact, they went with crimes against humanity.

What I'm doing right now in my book is tracing the origins of these two concepts and I have taken them back to two men who were responsible and both studied in the same town. It was called Lemberg and Lwow, and is now called Lviv.

Today it is in Ukraine, on the western outskirts of Ukraine near the Polish border. It is a remarkable city -- it has a remarkable university that is older than Harvard University. It was very famous for mathematics. It was also very famous for law and at that law school between 1915 and 1925, two men studied. Hersch Lauterpach, who became after that a professor of international law at Cambridge University -- he was really the man responsible for putting crimes against humanity into the Nuremburg Charter. And then a couple of years after him, another man came along, Raphael Lemkin -- he's in fact much more famous. And he is the man who invented in 1943 the word "genocide," meaning the killing of groups. And what struck me as remarkable was that both men studied at the same law school.

Would it be fair to say that you have criticisms or at least concerns about the legal concept of genocide?

It's not that I've got concerns or criticisms about one or the other. Frankly, I'm trying to work out in my own mind which of the two ideas I'm most attracted to. I can see both arguments. Basically, Lemkin's view, promoting the idea of genocide, is that people are not killed as individuals. They are killed or harmed because they are members of a group -- a national group or an ethnic group or a religious group. And he says that's the reality and the law has to reflect that reality. No, says Lauterpach. People are individual human beings and they should be protected as individual human beings, not because they happen to be a member of a group. And the danger for Lauterpach was that Lemkin's idea of protecting groups would create the very conditions that Lemkin was trying to protect us all from -- namely, it would pit one group against another group. It would set in concrete terms the idea that groups have an identity in law and they should be protected as groups.

So, it is a sort of a major intellectual battle between the two. They don't disagree on what the objective is -- they want to avoid mass killing. What they disagree with is what's the best way to deal with that. And one, in a sense, is more realist -- Lemkin -- and the other is more utopian. And I'm just trying to work out which of the two that I agree with. Of course, what's happened in the meantime, since these ideas came up in 1945, 1946 -- if you fast-forward to the summer of 1998 and imagine yourself in Rome in July 1998 when the governments of the world came together and drafted the document that was the statute of the International Criminal Court, what they did in that document was they put both genocide and crimes against humanity in. So what has happened subsequently is that both ideas have been given resonance.

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