Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin was the first to use the term “genocide.” (photo by Moidov)
The word “genocide” was conceived by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the attempt of the Ottoman Empire to efface Armenians from Turkish society. He articulated the empire’s actions as a specific category of crime – one that could be named, analyzed, resisted and penalized by the global community.
Lemkin was born in 1900 on a small farm near the Polish town of Wolkowysk. As a young man, he heard that as many as 1.2 million Christian Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire, the population of which was mainly Muslim. He also knew of the pogroms and violence against his own people, of course, but it was the situation of the Armenians that led him to the idea of a change in international law that could address such violence.
When the German army invaded Poland, Lemkin fled Europe for safety in the United States. He began teaching at Duke University and, in 1942, he joined the war department, where he documented Nazi atrocities. This led to the 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, wherein Lemkin first introduced the word “genocide.”
“By ‘genocide,’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group,” Lemkin wrote. “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.”
Lemkin later worked on the Nuremberg trials, where he succeeded in getting the word genocide included in the indictment. Genocide was not yet a legal term, however, and the verdict at Nuremberg set a precedent only for war crimes. While in Nuremberg, Lemkin learned of the death of his parents, who, along with 49 other family members, were killed by the Nazis.
Lemkin was determined to see genocide added to international law and, after his return to Europe, he began agitating for this at the meetings of the then newly established United Nations. His efforts to enlist the support of national delegations and influential leaders eventually bore fruit. On Dec. 9, 1948, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As of December 2017, 149 states, including Canada, had ratified or acceded to the treaty.
Lemkin committed the rest of his life to convincing nations to pass legislation supporting the convention. He died in 1959, “impoverished and exhausted by his efforts,” according to Lemkin House, an American sanctuary for asylum seekers named in his honour.
At the 2005 World Summit, all member states of the United Nations endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which Canada was instrumental in promoting – on paper, at least, it carries Lemkin’s vision forward.
“The international community,” states the doctrine, “through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means … to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity … we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner … on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
This article was being written as almost one million Rohingya refugees were preparing to celebrate Ramadan in the camps of Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh – 700,000 of them have fled Myanmar since August 2017, running from what several international observers have called genocide. Yet Canada, and many others, including the UN, have shied away from using Lemkin’s term to describe the situation.
Modern Turkey still denies the Armenian genocide that was instrumental in inspiring Lemkin’s efforts. And, although some countries, notably Germany and Rwanda, have made attempts to deal with their past, with the crimes committed by their governments and civilians, the fight to prevent, identify, resist and respond effectively to genocide remains relevant.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.