Lemkin, Raphael

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Lemkin, Raphael

[JUNE 24, 1900–AUGUST 28, 1959]

Leader of efforts to make genocide an international crime

His gravestone, at Mount Hebron Cemetery in New York City, declares Raphael Lemkin to be the "Father of the Genocide Treaty" although in his unpublished autobiography Lemkin characterized himself as a "totally unofficial man." In fact, whether as a member of an official delegation or as a private individual, Lemkin single-mindedly pursued a lifelong agenda to establish international protection for minorities. He coined the word genocide. He worked on the Nuremberg indictments and prevailed until genocide was added to the charge sheet. He analyzed the regulations of the Nazi occupiers and in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944) concluded that they were aimed at the destruction of the essential foundations of minority groups. He then lobbied successfully for the adoption and entry into force of the 1948 United Nations (UN) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In short, Lemkin demonstrated how an individual could bring about profound changes in human rights.

Lemkin was born to Jewish parents in Bezwodene, Poland. His parents were tenant farmers and, until the age of thirteen, he was educated by his mother and tutors. A brilliant linguist, Lemkin initially studied philology at the University of Lwow, but in 1921 switched to law following the trial of the assassin of Talaat Pasha, an Ottoman minister regarded as responsible for the extermination of over a million Armenians in World War I. Lemkin felt passionately about the massacres and argued with his law professor that such actions should be viewed as crimes against international law. The professor asserted that no law could interfere with the actions of a sovereign state, but Lemkin insisted that state sovereignty encompassed activities directed toward the well-being of its citizens and did not extend to their mass killing. Resolving this question was to become Lemkin's lifelong vocation.

After his graduation Lemkin was appointed deputy prosecutor at Warsaw District Court. In 1933, still concerned with international law, he submitted a paper on criminal law to a conference sponsored by the League of Nations in Madrid; the paper called for "the destruction of national, religious and racial groups" to be regarded as "an international crime alongside of piracy, slavery and drug smuggling." Lemkin proposed two new international crimes: barbarism, which he referred to as the extermination of human collectivities, and vandalism, which he defined as the malicious destruction of works of art and culture. Two German jurists walked out of the conference and his proposals were shelved. His own government, which was seeking a policy of conciliation toward Hitler, opposed him. Lemkin left public service for private practice and continued to attend conferences on international criminal law, once engaging in a heated debate with delegates from Nazi Germany.

Following the invasion of Poland by Soviet and German armies, Lemkin escaped to Sweden, where he lectured at Stockholm University. There, he persuaded associates to collect the decrees associated with German occupation. From these documents he deduced that Hitler's Neu Ordnung (New Order) was nothing less than the coordinated extermination of nations and ethnic groups, either by destroying them or assimilating their identity by Germanizing groups perceived to be related by blood to Germans. Variations among the protein rations in Nazi-dominated territory illustrate this. Germans received 97 percent, the Dutch 95 percent, the French 71 percent, the Greeks 38 percent, and the Jews 20 percent.

As a lawyer, Lemkin recognized the significance of official documents for an understanding of policy, but it was his extensive knowledge of the oppression of minorities that enabled him to believe the unbelievable and reach the conclusion he did. The results of his work were published in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, three years after his arrival with other refugees in the United States, in 1941. The term genocide first appeared in that book; it is derived from the Greek genos (species) and the Latin cide (killing). Lemkin devised it because he wanted to use a word that, unlike the terms barbarity and vandalism, which he employed in 1933, had no other meaning. He defined genocide as "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" (1944, p. 79).

Soon after arriving in the United States to lecture at Duke University, Lemkin got in touch with the Judge Advocate General's office at the War Department. He became a consultant at the Board of Economic Warfare and in 1945 was appointed legal advisor to the United States Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Robert Jackson. In September 1945 Lemkin traveled to London, and on October 18 he witnessed the first use of the term genocide in an official document, when he succeeded in having the charge of genocide added as Count 3 of the indictment against the twenty-four Nazi leaders on trial. Lemkin was disappointed by the Nuremberg judgments, which, although making an indirect reference to genocide, failed to convict anyone of the crime.

Dissatisfied with the limited precedent set by the Nuremberg verdict, Lemkin turned his attention to the newly established UN. He persuaded delegates from Cuba, India, and Panama to propose a resolution declaring genocide a crime under international law. No longer in good health and saddened by the news that of his many relatives, only his brother's family had survived the Holocaust, Lemkin lobbied tirelessly. He used his linguistic skills to research and draft supportive statements for thirty different ambassadors. The resolution was adopted unanimously in 1946. Lemkin argued in the American Journal of International Law (1947) that, by asserting that genocide was an international crime and a matter of international concern, the 1946 declaration had established "the right of intervention on behalf of minorities slated for destruction" (p. 146). Then UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie asked Lemkin to help prepare a draft of the Genocide Convention. The drafting was completed by Lemkin, Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, and Vespasian V. Pella during April and May 1947. Lemkin sought to exclude political groups from the draft, fearing that international disagreement on this would imperil the treaty. Having resigned his consultancy at the War Department to concentrate on the task, Lemkin set about lobbying for the treaty, scraping together funds to attend the General Assembly session in Paris. There, Lemkin experienced further setbacks. He encountered considerable objections to the draft article on cultural genocide. Lemkin saw cultural patterns, such as language, traditions, and monuments, as the shrine of a nation, and had tried to protect them in 1933 with his proposed international crime of vandalism. Rather than jeopardize the treaty, he accepted defeat. Lemkin had also assumed that states would accept the need for an international criminal tribunal with compulsory jurisdiction when a nation failed to investigate or prosecute genocide. He was surprised to find states agreeing that such a tribunal would only be binding on those states which accepted its jurisdiction.

Lemkin was additionally alarmed by other measures his opponents had inserted in the text of the treaty, so-called Trojan horses. He viewed Article XIV, which limited the duration of the Convention to ten years from its entering into force and then successive periods of five years, as one such measure. Another was Article XVI, which permitted a state to request a treaty revision at any time and empowered the UN General Assembly to determine the response to such a request. Despite these concerns, Lemkin took pleasure in seeing the Convention adopted by fifty-five votes, with none opposing, on December 9, 1948. Journalists discovered him hours after the meeting had adjourned still seated in the chamber, with tears flowing down his cheeks. Lemkin called the treaty an epitaph on his mother's grave.

Lemkin was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize during the 1950s. He went on to teach at Yale and Rutgers, and continued to lobby states to ratify the Genocide Convention. By October 1950 the Convention had twenty-four ratifications, four more than the twenty required for it to come into force. At the time of his death, in August 1959 following a heart attack, the treaty had some sixty signatories.

SEE ALSO Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide; Genocide; Language; Nuremberg Trials


Hamilton, Bernard (2001). "The Passionate Adovocate Who Coined the Term Genocide." Jewish Chronicle 6875:30.

Jacobs, Steven Leonard and Samuel Totten, eds. (2002). "Totally Unofficial Man." In Pioneers of Genocide Studies. New York: Transaction Publishers.

Lemkin, Raphael (1944). Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law.

Lemkin, Raphael (1947). "Genocide as a Crime in International Law." American Journal of International Law 41(1):145–151.

Schabas, William A. (2000). Genocide in International Law. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Bernard F. Hamilton

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