University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Ernesto Verdeja

Genocide has long been seen as the “crime of crimes” in media and policy circles. Since international law requires its prevention, it is likely that genocide will continue to demand sustained attention.

We know a great deal about the general social and political conditions that lead to genocide, but still face challenges in identifying genocidal practices during periods of mass violence like civil war. The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG) established a standard of proof appropriate for prosecutions of individuals. However, current legal standards used to identify genocide as it is happening hinder policymakers from identifying and stopping the complex dynamics that lead to organized mass killing.

The UNCG defines genocide as a variety of violent acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group, as such.” Intentional group destruction sets genocide apart from war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other mass atrocities, which are assessed according to perpetrator behavior, rather than intent. Intentional destruction – that is, the purposeful destruction of a group, rather than its violent repression – is notoriously difficult to ascertain.


Just how difficult became evident in 2005, when the United Nations Security Council commissioned a study to investigate whether the government of Sudan was committing genocide in Darfur.

The study found that two elements of the crime of genocide were evident. First was the presence of two identifiable groups, “Africans” and “Arabs,” that constituted ethnic groups for the purposes of the UNCG. Second was evidence of relevant violent acts, including direct and indirect killing by government forces of “African” Darfuris.

Ultimately, the report declared that there was no genocide: “The Commission concludes that the Government of Sudan has not pursued a policy of genocide,” because “one central element appears to be missing, at least as far as the central Government authorities are concerned: genocidal intent.”

Genocide is rarely the first policy pursued by leaders. It develops over time as elites feel that prior strategies have “failed.”

The problem with the Commission’s finding was its reliance on a notion of intentionality that required a clear and explicit prior master plan of purposeful destruction by the major decision-makers in Khartoum and their subordinates. However, as historians, political scientists, and sociologists have amply documented, genocide is rarely the first policy pursued by leaders. It develops over time and across territories as elites feel that prior strategies have “failed” in some manner. It is rare to find a single decision signaling the intention to exterminate a group.


So, how should we determine intentionality when there are few if any explicit indications of a prior plan of destruction? Policymakers seeking to stop genocide do not have the benefit of reconstructing genocidal intentionality; they operate and make decisions in the present, when killings are ongoing and information on perpetrators’ intentions is difficult to decipher, may appear contradictory, or is simply not available.

It may be more useful to infer intentionality by analyzing perpetrators’ capacity to inflict violence and their actual behavior.

Rather than apply legal expectations of clear genocidal intent, as UN fact-finding missions in Sudan and elsewhere have done in recent years, it may be more useful to infer intentionality by analyzing perpetrators’ capacity to inflict violence and their actual behavior. Capacity concerns the quantity and quality of the perpetrator’s lethal resources (such as weaponry) and its organizational ability to mobilize those resources.

Behavior includes at least three dimensions:

  1. level of lethality (to what extent violence is destructive rather than repressive of the group);
  2. degree of coordination (how systematic and sustained lethal violence appears to be, such as the use of similar destructive tactics in a wide area); and
  3. scope (to what extent coordinated lethal violence is applied against all or a substantial part of a victim group).

Barring clear orders or statements calling for extermination, we can infer an intentional plan to destroy a group to the extent that violence becomes more lethal, appears coordinated and sustained over time, and targets an increasingly wider proportion of the victim group. This certainly does not meet the due process threshold of strict intentionality for individuals, but it captures, in a rough way, the onset and diffusion of genocide as a policy, and may be more useful to decision-makers when atrocities are ongoing.

Ultimately, determining whether genocide is occurring – and mobilizing the political will to stop it – is a highly complex and challenging endeavor. But we can remove some of the difficulty by using more sociologically informed ways for understanding the dynamics of group-targeted destruction.

Ernesto Verdeja is assistant professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is Unchopping a Tree: Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Political Violence.