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Genocide, which Turkey on Friday accused France of committing in its former colony Algeria, is the gravest crime in international humanitarian law -- and also the most difficult to prove.
Turkey's accusation comes a day after French lawmakers voted to outlaw denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey, now threatening to cause a huge rift between the two countries.
Derived from the Greek word "genos", for race or tribe, and the suffix "cide" from the Latin for "to kill"; genocide is defined by the United Nations as an "act committed with intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."
The word was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who took refuge in the United States, to describe crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
It was used for the first time within a legal framework by an international military tribunal at Nuremberg to try Nazi leaders for their crimes in 1945. Those accused were however convicted of crimes against humanity.
Genocide has been recognised within international law since 1948, with the advent of the UN Convention and lists murder among a series of crimes.
The UN in 1985 recognised the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as genocide.
The European Parliament recognised the Armenian genocide in 1987, followed by Belgium in 1998, France in 2001, Switzerland in 2003 (through its national Council, against government advice) and Greece.
In Russia, its lower house of parliament condemned the Armenian genocide in 1994.
That same year, the Rwandan genocide in which the UN said some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, led to the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania.
It has been handing out convictions since 1998 for the crime of genocide and complicity.
The massacre of almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica in July 1995 during the Bosnian war, was recognised as genocide by the UN's highest judicial organ, the International Court of Justice in 2007.
The Balkans war crimes court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), has convicted several accused of genocide.
Three former leaders of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79 are currently on trial in Phnom Penh for genocide and war crimes before a UN-sponsored tribunal.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on an arrest warrant for genocide related to crimes committed against Darfur's civilian population.
The Hague-based ICC is the only permanent international tribunal to try the perpetrators of genocide since its inception in 1992.
© 2011 AFP
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