Eras Journal – Harris, D: Abstract

Abstract of Harris, D. “Defining Genocide: Defining History?”

Defining ‘genocide’ has been a contentious task for historians. Many eminent scholars have argued that it is most useful to work with the legal definition of genocide accepted by the United Nations in 1948, and upon which theConvention on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was established. Others have proposed that an alternative definition, broader and less legalistic than the UN definition, would be more useful. However, it is clear on both sides of the debate that it is a choice loaded with consequence.

Historians who accept the legal definition of genocide as most appropriate must grapple with the ramifications of using it in an historical context. Is it appropriate for historians to focus on such questions as whether the ‘Stolen Generations’ of Aboriginal children in Australia ‘qualifies’ as genocide, or which victims of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia may be correctly labelled as victims of genocide?

Do such quests influence how the history of genocide is written, or indeed, which parts of that history are written? Conversely, there are also consequences that must be considered in using an alternative definition of genocide. Historians in the area of genocide scholarship must be aware of the power of the definition of ‘genocide’ to influence and define history.