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Genocide brings to mind Hitler and the Jews, not Australia and Aborigines Sarah Maddison, 2007 (1)

The word “genocide” originates from the work of Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin who developed the term in 1942 in response to the Nazi policies of systematic murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust, as well as in response to earlier precedents in history of targeting particular groups of people with the objective of their eradication. Following the work of Lemkin, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1951 defined genocide as ANY of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such (2):

A. Killing members of the group;

B. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

C. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

D. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

E. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

If you examine Australian history, you can see that the brutality of ongoing invasion and colonisation fits in this definition of genocide in several ways. Firstly, the killing members of the group, if you look at the work of Professor Lyndall Ryan and her research team has found that there were at least 270 frontier massacres over 140 years of Australian history, as part of a state-sanctioned and organised attempts to eradicate First Nations people (3). For Ryan’s work, a massacre is defined as the deliberate killing of six or more defenceless people in one operation. If you investigate some of these massacres in depth you can see how systematic they were. Ryan’s work is in no means comprehensive as many massacres were not documented and many others covered up. Because of colonial genocidal actions like state-sanctioned massacres, the First Nations population went from an estimated 1-1.5 million before invasion to less than 100,000 by the early 1900s (4).

1888 drawing of a massacre by Queensland’s native police at Skull Hole, Mistake Creek, near Winton.
An 1888 drawing of a massacre by Queensland’s native police at Skull Hole, Mistake Creek, near Winton. A Norwegian scientist, Carl Lumholtz, drew it after being shown ‘a large number of skulls of natives who had been shot by the black police’ several years earlier. Image: State Library of Queensland
© State Library of Queensland

Many will argue that state-sanctioned physical violence has not ended as many First Nations people still die at the hands of police or in police custody. This was highlighted by the 1991 Deaths in Custody report by the Office of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. Today one First Nations person is killed in circumstances involving police every 28 days (5).

The different state governments of Australia also undertook genocide through their individual Aboriginal protection policies which involved Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group namely the removing First Nations children from their families and forcing them onto state-controlled reserves often run by religious missionaries to be eventually adopted by white families or taken by white families to work for them. The children subjugated by this genocide are commonly referred to as the “Stolen Generations”. This genocide was well documented in the 1997 Bringing Them Report by Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (6).

It has been noted that the forcible removal of First Nations children has devastated the maintenance of First Nations culture as the intention of these reserves and the people who work for them was to “civilise” First Nations children, which meant prohibiting the children from using their language or partaking in their culture (7). Linguist Arthur Capell wrote in 1964: "Government policy looks forward to the loss of Aboriginal languages so that the Aborigines may be 'assimilated'. Because of this, these protection policies were also undertaking what sociologist Christopher Powell refers to as slow genocide often called cultural genocide which is the destruction of language, culture, religion and social institutions of a group with the intended aim of annihilating the group (8). As a result of this, as of 2016, only 10 percent of the First Nations people spoke a First Nations language at home (9).

Due to these protection policies, many members of the Stolen Generations, their families and descendants suffer from trauma. Trauma has been shown to increase the risk of substance misuse, mental and physical ill-health, and can limit employment opportunities (10). As such, the different state governments protection policies could be argued to be Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group which is another definition of genocide.

By 1969, all states had repealed the legislation allowing for the removal of First Nations children under the policy of 'protection'. In 2008, during his time as Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologised to the Stolen Generations on behalf of the Australian Parliament (11). However, it has been noted that the removal of First Nations by the state has not ceased (12). In fact, the number of First Nations children taken from their families has doubled since the 2008 apology as then were 17,664 First Nation children in out-of-home care in 2016-17 (13).

The term genocide has been previously controversial when being applied to Australian History so why use the term genocide? We need to use the term genocide so we do not minimise the legacy of the colonisation and how the effects contemporarily manifest themselves. We need to use the term genocide to better understand our history so we can work to change the present and stop future genocide. We need to use the term genocide because it is the truth, it is what happened/is happening in Australia -

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. James Baldwin


  1. Maddison, S., 2011. Beyond White Guilt. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin., pp 36
  2. United Nations., 2020. United Nations Office On Genocide Prevention And The Responsibility To Protect. [online] Un.org. Available at: <https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.shtml>.
  3. Allam, L. and Evershed, N., 2019. The Killing Times: The Massacres Of Aboriginal People Australia Must Confront. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/mar/04/the-killing-times-the-massacres-of-aboriginal-people-australia-must-confront>.
  4. Miller, R., Ruru, J., Behrendt, L. and Lindberg, T., 2012. Discovering Indigenous Lands. Oxford: Oxford University Press., pp 175
  5. Stanbrook, G., 2019. Black Lives Matter Protest To Be Held In Sydney. [online] IndigenousX. Available at: <https://indigenousx.com.au/join-us-in-the-fight-for-justice-black-lives-matter-protest-to-be-held-in-sydney/>.
  6. Australianstogether.org.au. 2020. Australians Together | The Stolen Generations. [online] Available at: <https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/stolen-generations>
  7. Rademaker, L., 2019. Voices Silenced: What Happened To Our Indigenous Languages?. [online] SBS News. Available at: <https://www.sbs.com.au/news/voices-silenced-what-happened-to-our-indigenous-languages> .
  8. Woolford, A., Benvenuto, J. and Hinton, A., 2014. Colonial Genocide In Indigenous North America. Durham: Duke University Press.
  9. Rademaker, L., 2019. Voices Silenced: What Happened To Our Indigenous Languages?. [online] SBS News. Available at: <https://www.sbs.com.au/news/voices-silenced-what-happened-to-our-indigenous-languages> .
  10. Nogrady, B., 2019. Trauma Of Australia’S Indigenous ‘Stolen Generations’ Is Still Affecting Children Today. [online] Nature.com. Available at: <https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01948-3>.
  11. SBS News. 2015. Timeline: Stolen Generations. [online] Available at: <https://www.sbs.com.au/news/timeline-stolen-generations>.
  12. Behrendt, L., 2016. Indigenous Kids Are Still Being Removed From Their Families, More Than Ever Before | Larissa Behrendt. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/commentisfree/2016/feb/13/eight-years-after-the-apology-indigenous-kids-are-still-being-removed-from-their-families> .
  13. Wahlquist, C., 2018. Indigenous Children In Care Doubled Since Stolen Generations Apology. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/jan/25/indigenous-children-in-care-doubled-since-stolen-generations-apology>