Rafał Lemkin
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Why the best form of gratitude should not be a treaty on the prohibition of genocide, […] as a collective recognition that she [the mother] and millions of others have not died in vain?

The concept of genocide

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, known as the Lemkin’s Convention, was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (United Nations) on 9 December 1948. The basis of the agreement was the resolution 96 (1) ‘Crime of Genocide’ of December 1946. From the enactment to the entry into force on 12 January 1951, it took almost three years to have the agreement ratified by 21 states. Currently, 127 countries are parties to the Convention.

According to the provisions of the Convention, the genocide means ‘any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious groups, as such:

(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 a group to another group.

In 1944, the publication entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe by Rafał Lemkin, a lawyer, came out in the United States. In the book, the author used a term to define mass killing or extermination of groups of human beings. He created the neologism “genocide” by combining the Greek genos (race, tribe) with the Latin occidere (killing). Meanwhile, the final stage of the extermination of Jews—in which Lemkin’s family perished—was in full swing in German occupied Poland.

Rafał Lemkin, photo: East News

 

Rafał Lemkin was born in the Bezwodne farmstead, today in Belarus. The languages spoken at home were Yiddish, Russian and Polish. Thanks to the books recommended by his mother, he became particularly sensitive to harm inflicted on humans.

In 1919, four years after the mass murder of the Armenians inhabiting Ottoman Empire, Lemkin enrolled to study law in Kraków, which he later continued in Lvov at the John Casimir University.The crime perpetrated by the Turkish state served as an incentive for him to study the phenomenon of murder committed by a state. At the time, no term existed in international law that would define it.

Jan Kazimierz University in Lvov, interwar period, photo: National Digital Archive

 

Lemkin managed to leave Poland just after the outbreak of World War II. In April 1941, he arrived in the United States, where he joined the group of advisers to President Roosevelt as an expert on Third Reich’s occupation policy.

His relatives were perishing in Treblinka when—in response to his appeal for action by the United States regarding the extermination of Jews—he received Roosevelt’s answer in which the President was asking for patience.

“Genocide” is the title of the ninth chapter of a publication issued in 1944. In the subsequent years Lemkin—often referred to as a fanatic—lobbied for incorporating this concept into international law.

In order to effectuate the provisions of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, he gave up on his own career. He left the post of a lecturer at Yale University, and moved to New York where he lived in poverty fighting for the ratification of the agreement, which really came into force as late as the 1990s, along with the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Lemkin, nominated ten-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, died in oblivion in 1959.

Rafał Lemkin, 1950s., photo: New York Public Library Digital Collections

Ratification of the Genocide Convention. The group includes representatives of Korea, Haiti, France, Costa Rica and United Nations. Rafał Lemkin is first from the right, standing, 1950, photo: New York Public Library Digital Collections

The concept of genocide

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, known as the Lemkin’s Convention, was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations (United Nations) on 9 December 1948. The basis of the agreement was the resolution 96 (1) ‘Crime of Genocide’ of December 1946. From the enactment to the entry into force on 12 January 1951, it took almost three years to have the agreement ratified by 21 states. Currently, 127 countries are parties to the Convention.

According to the provisions of the Convention, the genocide means ‘any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious groups, as such:

(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 a group to another group.