Sho Shibata, Blog Writer
The term “genocide” has been persistently used as a signifier describing atrocities of the worst kind on a mass scale. Yet, many overlook the contributions the so-called “one man NGO”, Raphael Lemkin – the man who coined the term “genocide”, has had on the advocacy for recognition of genocide as an international problem, particularly in the form of the Genocide Convention. Raphael Lemkin dedicated his life to campaigning for the protection of persecuted minorities everywhere. His relentless pursuit of justice offers us a humble reminder that, no matter how debilitating our own efforts may be, the struggle for good never relents, and neither should we.An international lawyer by trade, Raphael Lemkin’s obsession with protecting minorities stemmed from a childhood experience reading Quo Vadis, a famous piece of Polish literature wherein the Roman emperor Nero attempts to exterminate the Christian minority. Young Lemkin was perplexed as to how any authority could possibly order such an atrocity, especially against their own citizenry. In later years, Lemkin, arguing with his law professor, could not accept that a state’s sovereignty could extend to mass killings.
Being of Jewish descent during the chaos of pre and post World War II Eastern Europe, Lemkin had personally experienced life under an anti-Semitic government. His entire family ended up being murdered during WWII and during his advocacy career he had often pushed for criminalizing many elements which would eventually fall within the definition of “genocide” but were initially critiqued for being too Judeo-centric. Such critiques played a role in his creation of a term, combining the Greek “genos” (species) and “cide” (killing), which, in his view, could not be misinterpreted as being too Judeo-centric, and could encompass the types of mass exterminations he hoped to draw attention to (Hamilton, Bernard F. “Lemkin, Raphael.” Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity”). His seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, conveys this term for the first time. He initially lobbied the term’s inclusion in the Nuremberg war crimes trials to no avail; the jurists had claimed that they were bound by the International Military Tribunal which recognized no such term. This merely motivated him to lobby the United Nations for the implementation of the Genocide Convention (Lador-Lederer, Josef J. “Lemkin, Raphael.” Encyclopaedia Judaica).
Lemkin died in 1958, 10 years after his success in lobbying and implementing the Genocide Convention. After decades of working tirelessly, his heart gave out. Only seven people attended his funeral. Lemkin was ultimately required to sacrifice certain elements of his concept, most notably his ideas on cultural genocide, and to accept certain political compromises, such as Articles XIV* and XVI**, in order to achieve his goal. Regardless of how one values his successes and failures, his persistence manifests humanity’s perseverance in enduring all of its sufferings.
*Article XIV, which limited the duration of the Convention to ten years from its entering into force and then successive periods of five years.
**Article XVI, which permitted a state to request a treaty revision at any time and empowered the UN General Assembly to determine the response to such a request.
Hamilton, Bernard F. “Lemkin, Raphael.” Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Ed. Dinah L. Shelton. Vol. 2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 643-645. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.
“Lemkin, Raphael (1900–1959).” Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction. Ed. John Merriman and Jay Winter. Vol. 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006. 1643-1644. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Lador-Lederer, Josef J. “Lemkin, Raphael.” Encyclopaedia Judaica. Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. 2nd ed. Vol. 12. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 637-638. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Oxford JournalsLaw European Journal of International Law Volume 20, Issue 4Pp. 1157-1162. Raphael Lemkin: A Tribute