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It may come as a surprise to us in the post-Holocaust generations that the word “genocide” first appeared in print only in the early 1940s. It was coined by a Polish legal scholar teaching in exile at Duke University in his book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, a legal analysis of totalitarianism as exercised by the Nazi regime. The author, Raphael Lemkin, was born in 1900. As a young student at the University of Lvov in Poland (now part of Ukraine), Lemkin became interested in the legal case of an Armenian charged with killing a former Turkish interior minister instrumental in orchestrating the extermination of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in 1915. Lemkin wondered why the young Armenian was being charged with the murder of this official while the larger crimes against the Armenian people had gone unprosecuted.

In 1933 Lemkin, then a public prosecutor in Warsaw, prepared a paper for a League of Nations’ conference in Madrid that drew attention both to the dangers of Hitler’s rise to power and to the slaughter of Armenians decades earlier. Lemkin proposed that preventing this kind of mass murder should be enshrined in international law. His draft law would outlaw “barbarity,” namely, “the premeditated destruction of national, racial, religious, and social collectivities,” along with “vandalism,” meaning “the destruction of works of art and culture, being the expression of the particular genus of these collectivities.” Lemkin’s paper was controversial in Poland, leading to his resignation as a prosecutor. The Polish government, wanting to cultivate an accommodation with Germany, had no interest in provocative views on Hitler espoused by a public official. Political consideration trumped moral judgment, a pattern to be repeated frequently in later decades.

By 1941, now a refugee and teaching at Duke, Lemkin had refined his definition:

New conceptions require new terms. By “genocide” we mean the destruction of a nation or an ethnic group. [It] signifies a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of selves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

Later, working as an advisor to the War Department, Lemkin pled with President Roosevelt to make the protection of Europe’s minorities a central war aim. Roosevelt demurred.   As Lemkin put it in his autobiography, “When the rope is already around the neck of the victim and strangulation is imminent, isn’t the word ‘patience’ an insult to reason and nature?”

When the war ended the newly established United Nations took up the question of genocide, adopting a resolution Lemkin helped draft condemning genocide as “the denial of the right of existence of entire human groups.” The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide further called for the drafting of a treaty that would make genocide a violation of international law. This treaty was ultimately adopted by the U.N. in 1948 and put in force in 1951 after twenty nations ratified it. To Lemkin’s great disappointment, the United States refused to sign the treaty, fearing international intrusion into the sovereignty of its own affairs. It was not until the 1980s that the United States adopted the Convention and only in 1998 that an international tribunal convicted Jean-Paul Akayesu of genocide in Rwanda, the first prosecution by an international court since the Convention was adopted fifty years earlier.

Today marks the 99th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. To this day the Turkish government denies the massacre and mass deportation of its Armenian population. The United States government, not wanting to alienate one of its (at least until recently) more reliable allies in the region, also resolutely refuses to name the event a “genocide.” Governments are not alone in their resistance. In 2007 controversy erupted within the ranks of the Anti-Defamation League when its regional director in Boston was fired for publicly declaring that the organization’s refusal to label the slaughter of the Armenians a “genocide” was “morally indefensible.” The ADL reversed its firing of the regional director, as well as its policy, only after strong condemnation from the Jewish community. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, as in so many other cases, political winds still trump both historical accountability and life-saving intervention.

Lemkin died, penniless, in 1959, still lobbying his adopted country to sign onto the Convention against genocide. Only a handful of people attended his funeral. He was largely forgotten outside the human rights community until Samantha Power, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations published his story in her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide ten years ago. I only ran across his story through a friend who sent me a copy of an article in the Duke University alumni magazine last fall. Ironically in light of today’s headlines, one of his most important public appearances in the 1950’s was a speech given at a mass rally in New York protesting the systematic oppression and murder of Ukranians by the Soviet Union beginning in the 1930s.

The Armenian Genocide was the first in a series of genocides marking the twentieth century – the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. . . .   Today Syria seems intent on exterminating much of its civilian population. Public outrage is frequently met by official caution. Even with additional foundations for international intervention on behalf of vulnerable civilian populations named in the United Nation’s doctrine on “the Responsibility to Protect (R2P),” governments are loath to become involved, either because of seemingly intractable strategic and military challenges, or because intervention does not serve political or national self-interest. Lemkin helped put in place the first legal architecture enshrining the world’s moral compass in structures of justice and accountability. He deserves our gratitude as well as our recognition that his work is far from complete.

John H. Thomas
Armenian Martyrs Day
April 24, 2014


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