As early as 1944, lawyer Raphael Lemkin distinguished a cultural component of genocide, which since then has become known as "cultural genocide". The term has since acquired rhetorical value as a phrase that is used to protest against the destruction of cultural heritage. It is also often misused as a catchphrase to condemn any form of destruction which the speaker disapproves of, without regard for the criterion of intent to destroy an affected group as such.
The drafters of the 1948 Genocide Convention considered the use of the term, but later dropped it from their consideration. The legal definition of genocide is unspecific about the exact way in which genocide is committed, only stating that it is destruction with the intent to destroy a racial, religious, ethnic or national group as such.
Article 7 of a 1994 draft of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples used the phrase "cultural genocide" but did not define what it meant. The complete article in the draft read as follows:
- Indigenous peoples have the collective and individual right not to be subjected to ethnocide and cultural genocide, including prevention of and redress for:
- (a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;
- (b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;
- (c) Any form of population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;
- (d) Any form of assimilation or integration by other cultures or ways of life imposed on them by legislative, administrative or other measures;
- (e) Any form of propaganda directed against them.
This wording only appeared in a draft. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly during its 62nd session at UN Headquarters in New York City on 13 September 2007, but only mentions "genocide, or any other act of violence" in Article 7 (the only reference to genocide in the document). The concept of "ethnocide" and "cultural genocide" was removed in the version adopted by the General Assembly, but the sub-points noted above from the draft were retained (with slightly expanded wording) in Article 8 that speaks to "the right not to be subject to forced assimilation".