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Raphael Lemkin & The Genocide Convention

Raphael Lemkin – the man who coined the word “Genocide,” made serious efforts to make mass homicide recognized as an international crime. He worked with tireless efforts to ensure the crimes committed in the name of Genocide never happens again.

After the end of World War II, several leaders set out to build new institutions, such as the United Nations, to prevent a World War from happening again and to promote peace and unity among national groups. Lemkin, at that time, was way ahead of these activists and already working on making mass murder recognized as a crime.

Early Life

Raphael Lemkin was born in 1900 on a small farm near the Polish town of Wolkowysk. Raphael was an inspiring Jewish jurist who left behind an indelible legacy.

Lemkin was a university student when he came to know about the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire. Lemkin’s memoirs testify to the enormous impact of his early exposure to stories of Ottoman attacks on Armenians (which are widely recognized as genocide), antisemitic pogroms, and other instances of violence against specific groups.

Fueled by a passion for protecting ethnic, religious, and social communities with international laws from 1933 on, his attempts sadly came up short.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin escaped to Sweden. He became a lecturer at the University of Stockholm. Malcolm McDermott, a law professor, invited Lemkin to Duke University in North Carolina. In 1941, Lemkin arrived as a refugee on the east coast of the United States —after making an arduous journey through Russia, Siberia, and Japan. He then moved to Washington, D.C., in 1942 to assist with analysis for the War Department. In 1944 he released his renowned book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe – a text where “genocide” first made its mark on history books. Lemkin wrote:

“Genocide means the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group. This new word, coined by the author to denote an old practice in its modern development, is made from the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing)…. Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group”

Raphael Lemkin

Genocide Charges As International Law

Subsequently, Lemkin worked with a group of American legal experts to get the term “genocide” listed in the charges brought against Nazi leadership at Nuremberg. Although “genocide” was not yet an illegal activity under international law, and the court could pass down no sentence for genocide, he found that it was still included as part of their indictment.

He defined the term genocide as two main elements:

A mental element: the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”; and

A physical element, which includes the following five acts, enumerated exhaustively:

  1. Killing members of the group,
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Tragically, while carrying out his duties at Nuremberg, he also learned about the death of 49 members of his family, including both parents – who had been murdered in concentration camps and ghettos or perished on death marches.

Raphael Lemkin & United Nations

With a newfound determination, he returned from Europe to fight for the addition of “genocide” as a crime under international law. He devoted countless hours trying to persuade national delegates and influential figures alike until his mission was complete: On December 9th, 1948, the United Nations passed a motion that enshrined the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide as part of their philosophy.

In 1945, the term “genocide” was introduced to the world when Raphael Lemkin set forth his now-accepted definition of genocide before a United Nations general assembly. Lemkin also uttered theLemkin’s dedication to the Convention did not end with the UN document. He used up what remained of his life to persuade countries to an international treaty and pass laws that would support it. Sadly, he passed away from a severe heart attack in 1959, both exhausted and broke after having committed himself to this cause.

[Genocide is the] criminal intent to destroy or to cripple a human group permanently. The acts are directed against groups as such, and individuals are selected for destruction only because they belong to these groups. —Raphael Lemkin

What is most significant about this quote by Raphael Lemkin?

Long before the atrocities of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau were known to the world, Raphael Lemkin had already coined a word for it – genocide, combining the Greek prefix genos, meaning race and Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. This descriptor was developed to accurately identify Hitler’s abhorrent objective: mass murder and extermination.

In his quote, Lemkin accurately identifies the main cause of genocide: intent. While genocide is often group-targeted violence perpetrated against a certain group, Lemkin was one of the first to recognize that this act of mass destruction is intentional and not simply the result of ethnic or religious differences.

To Lemkin, it was essential to understand that genocide begins with intent; without it, there would be no genocide. He was also one of the first to recognize that individual members of a group are selected for destruction solely because they belong to that particular group. This is a crucial point, as it highlights how genocides are often based on prejudice or hatred of certain groups rather than any real threat posed by those political groups or individuals. By recognizing this, Lemkin laid the groundwork for understanding how and why genocides occur.

Ultimately, this quote serves as a reminder to the international community of how important it is to recognize and understand genocide as an intentional act based on prejudice and hatred. By acknowledging its roots, we can work towards preventing future acts of genocide around the world.

It is not simply enough to recognize the many acts committed of genocide but also to remember those who have been affected by such tragic events. It is essential to honor their memory and work towards ensuring that such a horrific event never happens again. To do this, we must continue to educate ourselves on the causes and consequences of genocide so that we can be proactive in preventing its occurrence.

Only when we acknowledge the tragic consequences of genocide and take action to prevent it can we ensure that such an atrocity never happens again. This quote by Raphael Lemkin serves as a powerful reminder of this need for understanding and action toward stopping genocide worldwide.

What is Raphael Lemkin famous for?

Raphael Lemkin invented “genocide” before everyone knew about Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belse, and Dachau’s terrible massacre. He is one of the main authors of the first UN Human Rights Treaty, the Convention to Stop the Crimes of Genocide. His autobiography, which never was published in his lifetime, is now available on Yale University Press.

What is genocide according to the UN?

Article II of the UN states Genocide as any act that demonstrates that the victim has the physical intent or remorse for destroying national, religious group racial groups and ethnic groups. Cultural destruction doesn’t mean merely destroying a group.

What is the ICC’s definition of genocide?

The crime of genocide has its own characteristics First: a deliberate intention to kill its members or by any other means constitutes genocide by deliberately attacking members of the group.

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