Academic journal article Humanities Research

Raphaël Lemkin, Creator of the Concept of Genocide: A World History Perspective1

Academic journal article Humanities Research

Raphaël Lemkin, Creator of the Concept of Genocide: A World History Perspective1

Article excerpt

Genocide is one of those rare concepts whose author and inception can be precisely specified and dated. The term was created by the brilliant PolishJewish and later American jurist Raphaël Lemkin (1900-59) in 'Genocide' in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of occupation, analysis of government, proposals for redress, published in the United States in 1944.2 Lemkin was also the prime mover in the discussions that led to the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The concept was immediately recognised worldwide as of contemporary significance and future importance, for it called attention to humanity at its limits. It is a major concept in international law, for its framework of group experience and rights challenges both a stress on the individual as the subject of law and the exclusive jurisdiction of modern nation-states.3

Lemkin as an intellectual figure and the concept of genocide have been a preoccupying interest for me since 2001 when I co-edited a special series of essays for the journal Aboriginal History called '"Genocide"? Australian Aboriginal history in international perspective'.4 The spectre of genocide as a feature of Australian history in relation to its Indigenous peoples had, only a few years before, been raised by the Australian Human Rights Commission's 1997 Bringing Them Home report, which argued that the Aboriginal child-removal practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fell within the definition of genocide used in the 1948 UN Genocide Convention.5 In 2003, Ann Curthoys and I researched Lemkin's papers in the American Jewish Historical Society in New York and the New York Public Library, where we were especially eager to pursue the suggestions in his definition linking genocide with settler colonialism.6 I think that Australian scholars are at the forefront of world genocide studies because historical investigation of settler colonialism is so intense, sustained and interrogative in Australia.7 Inspired by Lemkin's work, the new genocide studies asks: are settler colonies inherently or constitutively genocidal?8 And, if so, what does this say of the ethical character of post-1492 European settler colonialism and empires? After such knowledge, what honour?9

My essay will be in two parts. Part one will offer a sketch of Lemkin's life, outlining his ideas about genocide in his published and unpublished writings. My approach is influenced by Hannah Arendt 's Men in Dark Times, which says we can best understand a thinker in terms of biography, sensibility, anecdote and social genealogy.10 I am also influenced by Janet Abu-Lughod's world-history approach. Abu-Lughod suggests that the writing of significant historical narrative entails a number of qualities: it should be conceived in an anti-Euro-centric spirit, it should involve a 'synthetic imagination or vision' and it should engage in what the philosopher Hans Gadamer in Truth and Method refers to as a capacity for 'reflexivity and self-conscious awareness'. Historical reflection should also include an element that is extremely personal; indeed, Abu-Lughod values a mode of personal vision that is inspired by eccentricity and idiosyncrasy - the kind of vision, she feels, that leads to the finding of a particular pattern in history.11

In part two, I offer some possible criticisms of Lemkin. In particular, a question mark hangs over his attitude to African Americans and indeed to Africa and Africans, raising disturbing questions that also haunt Arendt scholarship. I wish in turn to bring to the fore a more general problem: European or Europeanderived intellectuals, so committed to cosmopolitanism and inclusive notions of humanity, yet revealing a distressingly familiar Euro-centric failure of critical consciousness and reflexivity.

1 . Raphaël Lemkin's life, contexts and the concept of 'genocide'

Lemkin was born on 24 June 1900 in Bezwodne, a village near Wolkowysk (now Vaulkovisk), a small city in what is now Belarus. …

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