Raphael Lemkin: Named, Criminalized Genocide- UN Convention 1952
It made no sense to Raphael Lemkin, a young Polish Jew studying law, that while the assassination in 1921 of a former interior minister complicit in organizing mass slaughter of Armenians was a criminal act, the slaughter itself by firing squad, bayoneting, bludgeoning and starvation of nearly a million of these Turkish citizens was not.
Lemkin was aware of many episodes where peoples had been threatened with wholesale extermination - whether Christians in Rome, anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia, or a massacre of men, women and children in Syria in his own time. Lemkin was appalled at the frequency of evil and its impunity.
Lemkin at the League of Nations
At a presentation to the League of Nations Legal Council in Madrid in October 1933, Lemkin proposed an international law, similar to those outlawing piracy and slavery, that would criminalize the attempted physical or cultural destruction of an ethnic, social, religious, or national group.
His proposal was tabled indefinitely and the German delegation walked out. Lemkin was accused of "insulting our German friends" and soon after lost his job as Polish public prosecutor.
Polish Lemkin Loses 49 Family Members in WWII
Lemkin's concerns were universal but also personal. In 1939, his country was invaded by Germany and Russia. Avoiding death by aerial bombardment, disease or starvation, Lemkin fled first to Sweden and then to the United States.
He had implored friends and relatives to follow him. They did not, and Lemkin was eventually to lose 49 relatives through concentration camps, the Warsaw ghetto and death marches.
Naming the Crime: Genocide
As Nazi atrocities became more widely publicized, Winston Churchill proclaimed in 1941, "The whole of Europe has been wrecked and trampled down by the mechanical weapons and barbaric fury of the Nazis.... whole districts are exterminated......We are in the presence of a crime without a name."
While analyzing and documenting new laws imposed by Hitler in occupied Europe, and exposing their disturbing racial bias, Lemkin coined the new term genocide. The word became widely used, accepted in dictionaries, and later appeared descriptively in the Nuremberg indictments.
Lobbying UN to Outlaw Genocide
In the aftermath of WWII, Lemkin became a one-man lobby group, roaming the corridors of the former war plant on Long Island where the United Nations was first housed, buttonholing every diplomat and reporter, garnering support for a Convention outlawing Genocide.
Living off contributions and borrowings, Lemkin managed to organize national advocacy groups as a front for his efforts, corner eminent personages such as Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley, and prevail upon the Panamanian, Cuban and Indian representatives to sign a draft resolution which he personally delivered to the office of the UN Secretary-General.
When this first UN human rights document - the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide - was approved by the General Assembly on December 9 1948, reporters found Lemkin, exhausted and alone, quietly sobbing in the darkened UN assembly hall. This would be an epitaph for his mother, said Lemkin, to prove she did not die in vain.
Genocide Convention 1952
The Genocide Convention came into effect in 1952 following its 20th ratification but sadly mass killings have still taken place, for example, in Cambodia, the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur.
Nevertheless, the international community is slowly gathering necessary tools. In 2002, the International Criminal Court was created with power to prosecute individuals, including political or military leaders, responsible for genocidal crimes.
In 2005, the UN accepted Responsibility to Protect - an imperative that the international community intervene when states are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens from large-scale violence. A standing UN Emergency Peace Service, if established, could deploy quickly to contain violent outbreaks.
Raphael Lemkin died in 1959, impoverished and little recognized. Saving countless lives by enforcing the Genocide Convention would be his most fitting memorial.