April 2023

Since the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, observers have recorded atrocities committed against civilians. Some have labelled these events “genocide.” Over a year later, although evidence of atrocities has increased, legal scholars remain divided on the use of the word “genocide” to denote the events. As the International Criminal Court opens war crimes cases against Russians, many observers are renewing calls for a determination of “genocide.” In this lesson, students learn the different types of atrocity crimes and investigate the debate over using the word “genocide.” 


Students will:

  • Examine and understand the definition of genocide in the Genocide Convention.
  • Consider the possibilities for and problems with differing interpretations of the Genocide Convention.
  • Analyze sources that demonstrate the ongoing debate over whether atrocities in Ukraine constitute genocide.
  • Brainstorm collaboratively to come up with actions young people could take in response to atrocities in Ukraine.

Recommended Reading

Though this lesson can be completed as a stand-alone activity, the following curriculum unit provides a more comprehensive introduction to the topic of genocide: Confronting Genocide: Never Again?


Selections from Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (page 1)
Defining Genocide (pages 2-5)
Video: What are the dangers of misusing the word genocide? (Professor James Waller)
Video: How are the protected groups in the Genocide Convention defined? (Professor James Waller)
Video: Why is the intent to commit genocide difficult to determine? (Professor James Waller)
Video: What are some examples of midstream prevention? (Professor James Waller)

Note: Teaching about genocide may require special sensitivity. This activity may be especially intense for students with a personal connection to the events. Please be advised that videos and readings include descriptions of conflict, violence, terrorism, torture, sexual violence and other human rights abuses, racism, and other challenging topics. It is important to be sensitive to your students and the ways in which these might be difficult topics to study. 

In the Classroom

1. Review Genocide (Optional): Depending on your students’ familiarity with the topic, you may wish to show any of the following videos to introduce and review genocide before moving on to the main activity. For more Choices Program videos about genocide, see our complete genocide video collection.

What is genocide? (Professor Omer Bartov)

What are the challenges of interpreting the Genocide Convention? (Professor David Kennedy)

What is the difference between war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide? (Professor James Waller)


Note: For a more comprehensive introduction to the development of the term genocide and the history of the international community’s response to genocide, see Part I of Confronting Genocide: Never Again? Part II explores seven genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

2. Set the Stage: Ask students if they have heard politicians, news broadcasters, or others call the events in Ukraine a “genocide.” Play the video What are the dangers of misusing the word genocide? with Professor James Waller. Pause at 1:45 to make sure students understand the three different categories of mass atrocity crimes. Why does the international community have three different categories? Professor Waller explains that crimes can sometimes fall into all three categories. You might make a Venn diagram with students indicating how the different crimes overlap, placing specific examples in the circles such as “murdering civilians” or “rape.” To save time in the classroom, you could assign this step, including making the diagram, for homework before class.

What are the dangers of misusing the word genocide? (Professor James Waller)

3. Define Genocide: Distribute the Selections from Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and Defining Genocide handouts. Divide students into small groups and have them read the selections from the Convention. Students should complete Part 1 of the Defining Genocide handout in their groups, following the directions on the handout. Give students the opportunity to ask questions about any phrases or words that they do not understand.

Note: The full text of the Genocide Convention is linked online at www.choices.edu/genocide.

4. Confirm and Extend Understanding: Play the video How are the protected groups in the Genocide Convention defined? by Professor James Waller. Confirm that students know the four protected groups, and can name some groups that are not included but that might also need protection. Professor Waller says that the four groups that are included in the Genocide Convention are “fluid” and “subjectively defined.” What do students think he means? How did students answer question 5 on the worksheet? What is a “national” group? Who defines the groups in the Genocide Convention?

How are the protected groups in the Genocide Convention defined? (Professor James Waller)


Next, ask students to share their responses to question 6 on the worksheet regarding “intent.” Why would intent be difficult to prove?  What ideas do students have about proving intent? Following this short discussion, play the video Why is the intent to commit genocide difficult to determine? also by Professor Waller. Tell students that international lawyers have heated arguments about what “intent to commit genocide” means. At 1:01 Professor Waller says, “We can infer intent by the amount of destruction.” After students have watched the full video, ask them how that inference might be problematic. What “amount” of destruction would qualify as genocide?

Why is the intent to commit genocide difficult to determine? (Professor James Waller)

5. Apply the Convention: Tell students they are going to examine commentary and analysis from two scholars of international law about the ongoing war in Ukraine. Students will focus specifically on the challenge of determining “intent” when considering whether Russia is committing genocide there. Note that Russia has also accused Ukraine of committing genocide against Russians, a claim that legal scholars reject. Have students follow the directions for Part 2 of Defining Genocide. (You may wish to create new groups to give students a chance to work with other classmates.) 

6. Share Reactions: Have the groups share what they discovered. What acts from Article II did the students identify are occurring in Ukraine? Why do the sources disagree on “intent”? Can “intent” be proven? What differences might exist between proving “intent” at the individual soldier level versus at the government leadership level? What are some of the difficulties in applying the Genocide Convention in an ongoing situation? Why do legal scholars remain divided on whether the situation in Ukraine qualifies as genocide? Some politicians are less cautious about using the word. Why do students think this is the case? What are the political implications of using the word? Remind students of Professor Waller’s statement “We have to be focused on the precision of how we identify those various crimes” from the video What are the dangers of misusing the word genocide? Why does Waller believe this precision matters? Do students agree or disagree with him? Does being precise affect the response to events in Ukraine?

Extra Challenges

Explore Additional Events: Have students research other current events to understand the scholarly debate in those areas over the use of the word “genocide.” Examples include Ethiopia, Venezuela, and India.

Take Action: Play the video What are some examples of midstream prevention? with Professor James Waller. In the large group setting, brainstorm responses to the atrocities in Ukraine that students their age might be able to take. What tools are available to young people in a democracy? Some ideas might be writing letters to members of Congress, designing posters, initiating a social media campaign, or supporting organizations that assist refugees. All ideas should be accepted and recorded. Students could then discuss and vote on a larger activity the whole class would like to take on. Alternatively, students could work individually or in pairs on letters or other narrower projects for homework.

What are some examples of midstream prevention? (Professor James Waller)

Image: The village of Novoselivka, near Chernihiv; Oleksandr Ratushniak / UNDP Ukraine.

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