Raphael Lemkin: The One-Man NGO Against Genocide
Religion & Liberty Online

Raphael Lemkin: The One-Man NGO Against Genocide

Today marks the 54th year since the passing of one of the world’s most influential international human rights lawyers. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term ‘genocide’, made the crime illegal under international law, and possessed an almost prophetic sense of the atrocities that would occur under Nazi tyranny in World War II, died a largely unnoticed man. Only seven people attended his funeral, and to this day, many have not heard of Lemkin or the great contributions credited to his name.

The following account of Lemkin’s life and work is largely drawn from “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, the 2002 book by Samantha Power. Power was named U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations on August 2nd.

Early Insights

Born in 1900 to a large Jewish family in the village of Bezwodene, Poland (now near Volkovysk, Belarus), Lemkin became conscious of crimes against religious and minority groups at a young age. At the age of 12, he read the book, Quo Vadis, which recounts the Roman Emperor Nero’s massacres of Christian converts in the first century.

Lemkin learned about the Ottoman Empire’s extermination of its Armenian minority in 1915, and the 1920 assassination of Mehmet Talaat, the architect of the genocide. While studying linguistics at the University of Lvov, he asked one of his professors why the Armenians did not arrest Talaat instead. The professor said there was no law under which he could be arrested. “Consider the case of the farmer who owns a flock of chickens,” he said. “He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.” Lemkin was deeply troubled by this response and the idea that “state sovereignty” effectively permitted leaders to exterminate entire minority groups.

Directing his attention towards mass killings and the lack of legal structure which surrounded these despicable acts, Lemkin transferred to Lvov Law School and began work as a local prosecutor in 1929. He pondered creation of an international law that would ban targeted destruction of ethnic, national, and religious groups, and at a 1933 conference in Madrid, proposed a draft law concerning two practices: “barbarity” and “vandalism.” “Barbarity” he defined as “the premeditated destruction of national, racial, religious, and social collectives.” “Vandalism” he classified as the “destruction of works of art and culture, being the expression of the particular genius of these collectivities.”

Fluent in nine languages, Lemkin discussed his proposal at law conferences in Budapest, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam, and Cairo, and warned against the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany and Hitler’s plan to exterminate European Jews. In several places, he was perceived as a rabble-rouser inciting conflict rather than a disseminator of truth and promoter of justice. In his home country, Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck accused him of “insulting our German friends,” and after the Madrid conference, the Warsaw Government fired him from his deputy public prosecutor position for refusing to halt criticism of Hitler. Within international organizations, Lemkin’s draft law and warnings also did not earn top-priority status. In the League of Nations, too much disagreement existed for a law to be adopted, and as one delegate stated, the crime took place “too seldom to legislate.”

Of course, not all resistance was driven by stubborn motivations; Hitler’s extermination plan was something not many imagined would come true. This is highlighted in the remarks of a devout Jew, with whom Lemkin sought refuge after the German invasion of Poland. The man questioned, “How can Hitler destroy the Jews if he must trade with them? I grant you some Jews will suffer under Hitler, but this is the lot of the Jews to suffer and to wait.”

A Truth No Longer Hidden

Speaking engagements and draft laws having failed to convince political and legal delegates to act on the prevailing evil and atrocities, Lemkin sought to publish his arguments, using the precise lexicon of the Nazis themselves. He was granted refuge in Sweden, and while lecturing on international law at the University of Stockholm, began compiling the Nazi laws issued in each of the countries they occupied. By using the language used by Hitler and his advisors, he dispelled all assumptions that his fears were driven by false claims. The compilations resulted in a 712-page book titled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which was published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in November 1944. But seen as a dry legal reference book, it gained little attention.

Hired to work as an international law expert in the U.S. War Department in 1944, Lemkin urged the Roosevelt administration to adopt a treaty banning “barbarity” and make protection of Europe’s minorities a top priority. Roosevelt informed Lemkin that the United States would issue a warning to the Nazis, but encouraged him to be patient.

Naming the Crime

Referring to the atrocities being committed against the Jews, Winston Churchill declared in an August 1941 speech broadcast on the BBC, “We are in the presence of a crime without a name.” Unable to draw attention through draft laws, speeches, and the compilation and sharing of Nazi laws, Lemkin thought creating a word to describe the crimes being committed would help raise awareness and make known the immediacy of intervention.

Lemkin sought a word that was easy to pronounce and carried with it the sense of horror embodied by the crime. He decided upon a word that combined the Greek derivative geno, meaning “race” or “tribe,” together with the Latin derivative cide, from caedere, meaning “killing.” The term, “genocide,” was first used in Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, and was admitted into the lexicon by Webster’s New International Dictionary. Though it experienced quick reception into language, people were skeptical the word would make any difference in changing Hitler’s decision making, ideology, or the general public’s passive response to his crimes.

WWII Aftermath and International Legal Development

For Lemkin, establishing an international legal structure to condemn genocide was a personal crusade. By the end of World War II, at least 49 family members, including his parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, had perished in the Warsaw Ghetto, in concentration camps, or in Nazi death marches.

Although the word “genocide” was not permitted inclusion in the Nuremberg Trials of 1945, Lemkin believed the trials represented a great advancement towards outlawing the crime. He noted, however, the many loopholes in which killers could avoid conviction, and believed the newly established United Nations was an ideal platform through which to create a legal framework.

Lemkin’s efforts began to bear fruit, as December 11, 1946 witnessed the unanimous passage of his co-authored resolution that condemned genocide as “the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups,” which “shocks the conscience of mankind” and is “contrary to moral law and to the spirit of the United Nations.” Taking things one step further, the United Nations assigned a UN committee the responsibility of drafting a complete UN treaty banning the crime.

Lemkin continued the charge, writing personally to UN delegates and foreign ministers.  The draft approved by the UN Legal Committee included a vital portion which made the law applicable to any mass killing: the perpetrator’s particular motives for wanting to destroy a minority group were deemed irrelevant. On December 9, 1948, the UN General Assembly unanimously passed into law the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, marking the first time the United Nations had adopted a human rights treaty.

With the passage of the Convention, enforcement was the next matter of concern. In order for the treaty to become official international law, the twenty UN member states that voted for the ban in the General Assembly had to ratify it domestically. The issue of sovereignty was again brought to the forefront, and questions were raised as to how the law would affect internal state policy. As of 2013, 142 states, including the United States, have ratified or acceded to the treaty.

A tireless crusader never content to resign from his mission, Lemkin collapsed and died of a heart attack on August 28, 1959 at the public relations office of Milton H. Blow in New York City. Despite his heroic efforts and painstaking advocacy of human dignity, some might claim Lemkin achieved nothing. For even a “one-man NGO” like Lemkin could not stop the genocide and enduring violence that continues to this day.

But advocating true justice and making known the value of human life in the face of despicable crime is perhaps his greatest contribution. In a spring 1941 speech at Duke University, urging Americans to intervene in Europe and work to stop the brutal crimes taking place, he stated, “If women, children, and old people would be murdered a hundred miles from here, wouldn’t you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is 3,000 miles instead of a hundred?” Indeed, Lemkin provides a timeless example of selfless giving and continual recognition of the dignity of the human person. He most definitely deserves a place of honor in our memory.

Matthea Brandenburg

Matthea works on the Acton Institute's PovertyCure initiative. She graduated from Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and German.