Review Essay: Larry May, Genocide: A Normative Account

American Journal of International Law, Vol. 105, p. 852, 2011

7 Pages Posted: 18 Dec 2011

Date Written: December 17, 2011


Recent years have tested the definition of the crime of genocide, with mass atrocities in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Sudan sparking controversy over their legal characterization, and with a proliferation of international criminal tribunals and the International Court of Justice called upon to adjudicate. At times, the focus on genocide has threatened to become a distraction, as if to label these crimes something other than genocide is to diminish their gravity, rendering their victims less victimized, or less worthy of international attention. Lurking behind the technical, definitional debates, moreover, is a deeper question regarding the very coherence of genocide as a distinct offense. Is the crime reducible to a normatively satisfying legal definition, one that identifies distinct harms deserving of separate legal recognition. Or perhaps is the symbolic weight of genocide more than the law can bear?

The bulk of May’s argument develops a qualified normative justification of genocide as a crime focused on a distinct harm: the loss of identity and status suffered by members of groups on account of efforts to destroy to the group. This justification, May argues, flows from his nominalist position that groups themselves have no independent ontological status and thus cannot be said to suffer harms. The unique harm of genocide, therefore, is one suffered by victims whose lives find meaning in the inter-subjective experience of group identity.

The central difficulties in the law of genocide are not, of course, ones of May’s making, and his book deserves credit for carefully revealing both the necessity of a normative justification and the complex nature of that project. Whether May succeeds in justifying the offense’s group-based focus is a more debatable question. I suspect that May’s readers may be equally inclined to abandon the idea of genocide as a meaningful legal concept, or perhaps to agree with David Luban that the concept of genocide must extend beyond group destruction to include all large scale massacres that are currently proscribed by the crime against humanity of extermination. In either event, Genocide: A Normative Account will be required reading for those pursuing these questions.

Suggested Citation

Greenawalt, Alexander K. A., Review Essay: Larry May, Genocide: A Normative Account (December 17, 2011). American Journal of International Law, Vol. 105, p. 852, 2011 , Available at SSRN:

Alexander K. A. Greenawalt (Contact Author)

Pace University Elisabeth Haub School of Law ( email )

78 North Broadway
White Plains, NY 10603
United States
914-422-4092 (Phone)
914-422-4168 (Fax)


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