Raphaël Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide

Raphaël Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide

Raphaël Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide

Raphaël Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide

Synopsis

Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) coined the word "genocide" in the winter of 1942 and led a movement in the United Nations to outlaw the crime, setting his sights on reimagining human rights institutions and humanitarian law after World War II. After the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, Lemkin slipped into obscurity, and within a few short years many of the same governments that had agreed to outlaw genocide and draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights tried to undermine these principles.

This intellectual biography of one of the twentieth century's most influential theorists and human rights figures sheds new light on the origins of the concept and word "genocide," contextualizing Lemkin's intellectual development in interwar Poland and exploring the evolving connection between his philosophical writings, juridical works, and politics over the following decades. The book presents Lemkin's childhood experience of anti-Jewish violence in imperial Russia; his youthful arguments to expand the laws of war to protect people from their own governments; his early scholarship on Soviet criminal law and nationalities violence; his work in the 1930s to advance a rights-based approach to international law; his efforts in the 1940s to outlaw genocide; and his forays in the 1950s into a social-scientific and historical study of genocide, which he left unfinished.

Revealing what the word "genocide" meant to people in the wake of World War II--as the USSR and Western powers sought to undermine the Genocide Convention at the UN, while delegations from small states and former colonies became the strongest supporters of Lemkin's law-- Raphael Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide examines how the meaning of genocide changed over the decades and highlights the relevance of Lemkin's thought to our own time.

Excerpt

Raphaël Lemkin coined the word “genocide” in the winter of 1942 and inspired a movement in the United Nations to outlaw the crime. Together with figures such as René Cassin, John Humphrey, Hersch Lauterpacht, Jacob Robinson, Vespasian Pella, Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lemkin set his sights on reimagining human rights institutions and humanitarian law after the Second World War. Lemkin described the UN Paris Assembly of 1948 as “the end of the golden age for humanitarian treaties at the U.N.” After the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, Lemkin slipped into obscurity. Within a few short years, many of the same governments that had agreed to outlaw genocide and draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights tried to undermine these principles.

By the last years of his life, Lemkin was living in poverty in a New York apartment. When he died of heart failure in 1959, it had been two years since he last taught at Rutgers University and his life work seemed for naught. The United States, Lemkin’s adopted country, did not ratify the Genocide Convention during his lifetime. If they were familiar with the word “genocide” at all, leaders in governments around the world either thought genocide was inevitable or believed states had a right to commit genocide against people within their borders. In the context of the Cold War, during which real and existential danger lurked in the specter of nuclear annihilation and the struggle between capitalism and communism, genocide was seen as grave but not a threat to world peace. Except for a few scholars who took Lemkin seriously, decades passed before his accomplishments were recognized.

In the 1960s, movements within Armenian and Jewish diasporas began to look to Lemkin’s writing on Armenian and Jewish genocides to qualify the cases as international crimes. Lemkin would not be widely known until the 1990s, when international prosecutions of genocide began in response to . . .

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