A man and a word


I am currently reading A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN. Her book, published in 2002, is about genocides in the 20th century and America’s respons as they were happening. In it, she writes about Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide. His life story is incredibly inspiring, and so I decided to write a brief summary of his life, focusing on his efforts to ban genocide. 

Raphael Lemkin was a Polish Jew born at the advent of the 20th century; a century defined by violence on an unprecedented global scale. Not only did Lemkin’s life serve to provide his contemporaries and subsequent generations that follow with a word to describe much of the tragedy that unfolded in the bloody century, he himself came close to having his own blood shed, as a Jew fleeing the persecution of the Nazis during WWII. It is this pertinent mixture of personal struggle with a wider international tragedy of needless suffering that imbued his life’s endeavours with an extra sense of urgency and meaning.

As a young boy growing up in eastern Poland, Lemkin was fascinated by stories depicting barbaric violence and murder. His own experience of harmonious existence with his many Christian neighbours was a far cry from how Roman emperor Nero persecuted Christian converts in the 1st century, a story he read about in Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis? Not only did Lemkin as a curious, young boy provide an intimation of his developing literary prowess, it also foreshadowed the fixation that would remain constant throughout his adult life in one particular subject oft-explored by writers throughout history – mass slaughter of citizens by those tasked with protecting them.

Lemkin’s seemingly precocious fascination with stories of extreme violence and barbarity shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, his family was not immune to the conflicts ubiquitous in Europe during his childhood years. During WWI, the fighting between the Germans and the Russians destroyed the farmhouse in rural Poland that his family called home. Desperate to protect their children, Lemkin’s parents buried their family valuables and books and took their children into the forests surrounding their property, fleeing the artillery fire raining down from above. His brother, Samuel, died of pneumonia and malnourishment whilst they hid in the woods. Lemkin knew from a young age what war means for those most undeserving of its tragic consequences.

He first enrolled in the University of Lvov in Poland (now called Lviv University and in Ukraine) to study philology  – the study of the history and evolution of language. He spoke seven languages before he reached the age of 20, and was planning to add Arabic and Sanskrit to his linguistic portfolio. His study of languages gave him an understanding of the power that language has – the value of apt descriptions, the power of names. But it was not long before he had transferred to law school, beginning a love affair with the law that would last his entire lifetime – a field of study where precision and clarity in the use of language is of paramount importance.

The conversion from the study of language to that of law came about after he read about the story of Soghomon Tehlirian, the Armenian who in 1921 murdered Talaat Pasha, the chief orchestrator of the persecution of Armenians domiciled in the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Talaat was never prosecuted for his crimes, and was living in post-war Germany as an ordinary citizen, his life untainted despite being responsible for the deaths of more than a million lives. Lemkin was aghast when he read about Tehlirian’s story. He couldn’t understand why Tehlirian was being prosecuted for the murder of one man, when that man had murdered more by orders of magnitude and was never held accountable.

In 1933, Lemkin prepared a paper to present to an international law conference in Madrid. Alluding to the plight of the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire whilst highlighting the rise of the nascent Nazi Party in Germany, Lemkin warned his colleagues that there was no guarantee that the demons of the past will not rear their ugly heads again. The problem was that notions of sovereignty gave rise to impunity for those who committed heinous crimes, as long as those crimes were committed by agents of the state operating within their sovereign boundaries.

The “sovereignty” defence was what made possible Talaat’s and other Ottoman Turks’ successful evasion of legal prosecution. The solution Lemkin posited was a new international law that would punish perpetrators of mass slaughter, regardless of national boundaries, legal jurisdictions and other national and judicial considerations. But Lemkin never made it to the conference; he was not allowed a permit to travel to Madrid. The Polish authorities were eager to avoid upsetting the charismatic but threatening new Chancellor in bordering Germany, whose impressive oratory and rhetorical skills were effectively stoking nationalist sentiments (it is somewhat fitting that Hitler hampered Lemkin’s first efforts to popularise his ideas, because he certainly helped Lemkin later on by orchestrating the second genocide of the century).

Besides, Lemkin’s proposal of a new international law was not popular when it was read out at the conference. In fact, it was an early indication of the kind of reaction his proposals would receive throughout his life. His radical ideas, underpinned by the principle of universal jurisdiction, threatened entrenched traditions of international law, specifically those concerning sovereignty and the rights of states to do what they wished within the boundaries in which they governed. As such, it was to be expected that Lemkin was met with hostility and ridicule, a trend that continued for much of his life but which never deterred him..

The outbreak of WWII sparked a protracted journey that took Lemkin across the continent and the Atlantic to the United States. The German invasion of Poland in 1939 impelled him to flee – first to Soviet-controlled Poland, then to his family in Eastern Poland, then to Lithuania, and finally Sweden where he taught at the University of Stockholm. However, Lemkin was not satisfied with life there, despite the security and comfort that neutral Sweden offered. Keenly aware of where power resided in the world and where change was most likely to come about, he longed to move to the United States. After a strenuous journey from Sweden to Russia then to Japan and Canada, Lemkin arrived at Duke University in North Carolina, where he had secured a professorship to teach international law.

Again, despite the comfort and security that life at Duke afforded him, Lemkin didn’t stop his efforts to establish a new international law that would make criminals like Talaat pay for their crimes.  However, he was often left frustrated with the lack of success in his efforts to mobilise support for outlawing the specific type of crime he was trying to eradicate – the crime committed by the Ottoman Empire during WWI against the Armenians and about to be underway in Europe under the direction of the Nazis.

Lemkin saw that a reason for his failure to generate public support was that the crime did not have its own name. When referred to, it was subsumed under the broad category of crimes against humanity. A lot of people were aware of and understood the intricacies of the crime, but it had yet to be linguistically articulated in any satisfactory way. Advocacy against the crime was inherently handicapped by its opponents’ inability to pinpoint exactly what was being fought against.

And so, combining his love for the law and his love for language, Lemkin sought to create a name for the crime. The name he envisioned would convey precisely the barbarity, depravity and totality of the crime. After much thought, he settled on the word that we today still use and a word that still evokes a wince or shudder when heard: “genocide”.

In Greek, geno means “race”. In Latin, cide means “killing”.

Race killing. Or as Henry Morgenthau Sr., the outspoken American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI, put it: race murder. 

Eager to popularise his new word, Lemkin flew to Germany to attend the Nuremberg Trials at the end of WWII. Once there, he aggressively lobbied anyone of importance, hoping to get the word “genocide” included somewhere – anywhere – in the proceedings. Although he failed to have it included in the eventual convictions, it did feature in the indictments of the defendants.

Buoyed by his minor success, Lemkin then flew to New York, where the newly created United Nations had begun constructing its first autumn agenda. Just as in Nuremberg, he incessantly patrolled the corridors around the meeting rooms in the hopes of persuading lawmakers to adopt a resolution condemning genocide. His efforts were rewarded in 1946, when the UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution condemning genocide, and created a committee tasked with drafting a treaty banning the crime.

Not long after, the Genocide Convention was born. Remarkably, it was the first human rights treaty the United Nations adopted, and the definitive legal document outlawing the crime to which we still refer to today – a testament to the tenacious nature of Lemkin’s work behind the scenes. But his work did not end there. The treaty still had to be ratified by twenty member states in order to become official international law. This goal was met not long after, in 1950, an achievement again owing much to Lemkin’s unrelenting lobbying efforts. He would make good use of his polyglotism and fire out letters and memos to lawmakers in different countries, all written in their native languages, urging them to ratify the convention with great haste.

More significantly, the larger and arguably more important task was to get the United States to ratify the treaty, which would ultimately be impotent without the biggest superpower in the world backing it. Unfortunately, there was considerable resistance domestically against ratification. A chief concern amongst lawmakers, particularly from the South, was that the treaty could potentially implicate those responsible for the eradication of Native American tribes in the previous century as well as those who support the then ongoing policy of segregation. These concerns dominated opposition to ratification despite the convention explicitly not being retroactive in its application. After several years of political wrangling, the dispute was settled in 1953, when incoming President Eisenhower made a deal with the paranoid Southern lawmakers, pledging not to ratify the Genocide Convention, nor any other international human rights treaties, in exchange for their support in Congress.

Determined to reverse Eisenhower’s decision, Lemkin dedicated the rest of his life to bringing about United States ratification of the convention. He wrote innumerable letters to grassroots groups, including the American Jewish Committee, the American Zionist Council and every other influential interest group who would conceivably have a dog in the fight. But his efforts were not rewarded. After 25 years dedicated to fighting genocide, creating the word itself and then embedding it in international legal lexicon, Lemkin died of a heart attack in New York City. He died without the United States having ratified the Genocide Convention, nor ever coming close to doing so during his lifetime.

What is Lemkin’s legacy? Some say: not much. Even though, arguably, signatories to the convention are mandated to act “to prevent or punish” acts of genocide, the convention was not invoked during genocides subsequent to its passing, such as the genocide of the Kurds in Iraq orchestrated by Saddam Hussein, the genocide of Cambodians by Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge, or the genocide of Darfuris by Sudanese authorities. However, the ineffectiveness of the convention to prevent genocides is not the fault of Lemkin or those who penned the law back in 1948. It is the fault of those international leaders who choose to sit idly by whilst genocide is perpetrated – those who are unwilling to wield the legal means afforded to them by Lemkin to stop the heinous crime of genocide from occurring.

lemkin grave