Patterns of Genocide: A Critical Tool for Genocide Prevention

Genocide is a process, not a single event. A key feature of the genocidal process is that it is a patterned form of attack on a group. This means that in the short-term we can often identify the emergence of intent at its early stages when genocidal patterns are played out in localized ways. The list of patterns below is meant to help guide the identification of “microcosms” of genocide as well as large-scale patterns of mass murder.

Although the Genocide Convention specifically lists four “protected categories” (“national, ethnical, racial, and religious groups”), history has shown that perpetrators define their target groups using a range of criteria and that their definitions and categories are very subjective, related more to perpetrator ideology and imagined threats and goals than to any objective criteria for group membership. Therefore, genocide can be and has been committed against political, social, economic, sexual identity and gender groups in addition to the four “protected categories.”

Perpetrators of genocide attack their target groups because these groups are seen to be existential threats. The genocidal process of destruction involves every member of the target group, regardless of gender, age, social status or occupation, but it affects different people in different ways. For example, some members may be killed while others are raped or tortured. Frequently such variation is intentional on the part of the perpetrator: People’s real and perceived positions in the target society are instrumentalized by perpetrators to cause maximal and lasting physical and psychic damage to group members and to institutions of group cohesion, especially the family unit. These crimes are referred to below as life force atrocities and are a strong indicator of genocidal intent and potential genocide within wider social crises and conflicts.

Atrocities which, when considered alone, might constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, are crimes of genocide if they are part of a wider pattern of attack that is deliberately aimed at destroying a group, particularly by undermining a group’s ability to reproduce itself biologically and culturally as active historical agents in the future.

NOTE: All patterns overlap, and a single genocide can take different forms at different times in its history.

1. Gender-Neutral Mass Murder (Characterized by Gendered Atrocity): Both men and women within a group are murdered outright, often in large-scale massacres or killing programs. In the process of killing, men and women may be treated differently; for example, men may be murdered first and women may be raped before murder. Children can either be killed alongside the adults or absorbed by the perpetrator community. Sometimes gender-neutral mass murder is achieved through the use of industrial technologies that enable quick and indiscriminate murder at some distance from perpetrators.

2. Mass Murder of “Battle-Aged Men” + Rape/Enslavement/Killing/Expulsion of Women and Children: Men and boys are killed outright in massacres, as a means of “decapitating” the (perceived or real) patriarchal social structure, and women and children are raped, sometimes kidnapped and enslaved as resources for the perpetrating group, and/or expelled from the territory. The age of the men and boys killed will vary by the culture of the perpetrator, but is usually is between 10 and 70. Sometimes only prominent men are killed initially. Although women, girls, and young boys are not the direct targets of mass murder, they are frequently killed on a more individual basis and used to commit physical and symbolic harm, as, for example, when pregnant women are eviscerated or infant boys bayonetted; they can also be placed in conditions resulting in death, whether from starvation, exposure, torture, illness, or self-harm and suicide. This is the most common form of genocide.

3. Sex-Selective Mass Murder (“Gendercide”): The murder of one sex/gender in numbers large enough to constitute a direct threat to the ability of a specific group to reproduce itself in the future, biologically and/or culturally. Such murder will frequently be accompanied by life force atrocities that indicate an attempt to destroy a group in whole, despite the fact that only one sex or gender identity is being targeted for killing.

4. Mass Rape: Women and men, boys and girls, within a group are raped in numbers significant enough to demonstrate an attempt to undermine a group’s ability to sustain itself and its culture. These rapes will usually be public, will involve pronounced life force atrocities and tortures, will demonstrate high rates of attack against the very young and the very old, and target key cultural symbols of the health of a community: for example, community political and religious leaders, important family relationships, and infants.

5. Gross Human Rights Violations (Murder, Massacre, Rape, Torture, Violent Humiliation) + Mass Cultural Destruction: Members of specific communities are humiliated and harmed based on their identities while important institutions and symbols of the group are desecrated and destroyed, including religious, cultural and educational institutions, religious, cultural and intellectual leaders, sacred texts, national museums and libraries, and so forth. Individual members may be killed sporadically as a part of the genocidal process, but massacres, if they exist, are small and infrequent. This pattern is often tied to a long-term genocidal process and does not always have a mass killing dimension, at least early on. It can include such acts as high rates of child removal, the ‘reeducation’ of children so they forget their native languages and traditions, killing children or pregnant women to demoralize the group, the denial of identity and citizenship, the erasure of history, the banning of languages, the renaming of the physical world, and the desecration of graves.

5. Man-Made Famine (“Genocide by Attrition”): The imposition of artificial famine, or the exploitation of war and environmental and weather conditions, to weaken or destroy a specific group. People are frequently given no means of escape from the affected region, offers of food aid from the outside world are turned down, and the farming, procuring or eating of food is prohibited. Medical care is sub-standard or non-existent, and medical facilities, as well as schools and other institutions important to collective health, are closed or intentionally destroyed.

6. Environmental Despoliation (“Genocide by Attrition”): The land on which a people relies for its sustenance is destroyed through intentional despoliation, as a consequence of industry, war, or the use of pollutants and toxins, for whatever motives, resulting in reasonably predictable decline in the health, mental and physical strength, longevity, and reproductive capacity of a group. Often, groups are unable to sustain life on the land as a consequence of despoliation and must move, individually or en masse, to neighboring regions or countries, becoming IDPs and refugees.

7. Appropriation of Biological Resources: Group members, especially children, are kidnapped and appropriated to serve and replenish the perpetrator group, either as instruments of war (child soldiers, sex slaves, human shields, etc.) or to enrich the perpetrator group’s biological and economic capacity as future birth-givers and workers. Alongside this, the civilian world from which the captives came is intentionally and systematically undermined and sometimes destroyed. The appropriation of people is usually committed alongside the appropriation of natural and other resources, such as foodstuffs, medicines, and especially land, precious metals, diamonds, minerals, and oil, and results in widespread atrocity and terror.

8. Direct Killing of Women + Killing of Men Through Work: An older pattern in which women and girls, who are believed to be useless, are killed first and men and young boys are used as slave laborers (often in specialized industries) until they die.


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