Thinking of Raphael Lemkin

Thinking of Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin is on my mind today. He is a personal hero of mine. If you have not heard of him, he is someone who is worthy of your consideration. He has already shaped the way that you understand the world that you live in and the evil that can be unleashed in it when not prevented through absolute and unwavering commitment.

It was Raphael Lemkin who created the term ‘genocide’, and eventually got it codified into international law with the passing of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide by the United Nations General Assembly on this day in 1948. This convention, adopted a day before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, marked a transformational moment in the history of human rights, international law, and how international order is conceived. I will write more about that tomorrow. I will also return soon to a number of implications of classifying the concept of genocide as the Convention does.

Today I want to tell the story of how Raphael Lemkin dedicated himself to convincing the world that the crime that he called ‘genocide‘ (a combination of geno-, from the Greek word for race or tribe and cide-, from the Latin word for killing) was a unique kind of horror that humanity could no longer allow or ignore. I want to tell the story of a man who saw evil for what it was, who understood that it happened when people who know better do not take action, who saw that it was coming in his own time, and who was forced to endure its suffering at a profound level. Most of all, I want to tell the story of a man who persisted through it all, and gave us a gift that we honor by committing ourselves to preserving.

Lemkin was a Polish Jew and a lawyer who had studied linguistics, and who became passionate about the attempts that states make to destroy entire groups of people. I recommend U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power‘s book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide as an important resource for learning about Lemkin and for learning and thinking about the deep responsibility that we as human beings have to confront and prevent this crime.

While one might quickly assume by the year that the Convention on Genocide was passed and the fact that Lemkin was Polish as well as Jewish, that his motivation in naming and outlawing the crime of genocide was the Nazi Holocaust. In fact, it was not. That was the personal hell that he endured and the collective hell that Jews and other targeted groups suffered at the hands of Nazism in the decade and a half before the Convention’s passing, but his original motivation was out of horror for this crime being committed to other identity groups than his own.

Armenian civilians, escorted by Ottoman soldiers, marched through Harput (Kharpert) to a prison in nearby Mezireh (present-day Elâzığ), April 1915. Accessed at

Indeed, Lemkin had become interested in subject early in life. He was fascinated and troubled by historical cases of large-scale barbarity against identity groups. He explored Nero’s attempts to destroy early Christian converts in Rome, the sack of Carthage, the Mongol conquests, among others. In 1920, he became familiar with what has come to be known as the Armenian Genocide in Turkey during World War I, in which between 1.5 million and 1.9 million Armenians were systematically exterminated by the Ottoman government. He could not understand how there was not even a name for this sort of thing, much less any sense of commitment by modern societies to stop it or at least hold its perpetrators accountable.

A decade later, in 1933, Lemkin, then a lawyer, made plans to speak before an international criminal law conference in Madrid before a distinguished gathering of elder colleagues. Lemkin drafted a paper that drew attention to both Hitler’s ascent and to the Ottoman slaughter of the Armenians, a crime that most Europeans either had ignored or had filed away as an “Eastern” phenomenon. If it happened once, the young lawyer urged, it would happen again. If it happened there, he argued, it could happen here. Lemkin offered up a radical proposal. If the international community ever hoped to prevent mass slaughter of the kind the Armenians had suffered, he insisted, the world’s states would have to unite in a campaign to ban the practice. With that end in mind, Lemkin had prepared a law that would prohibit the destruction of nations, races, and religious groups. The law hinged on what he called “universal repression,” a precursor to what today is called “universal jurisdiction”: The instigators and perpetrators of these acts should be punished wherever they were caught, regardless of where the crime was committed, or the criminals’ nationality or official status. The attempt to wipe out national, ethnic, or religious groups like the Armenians would become an international crime that could be punished anywhere, like slavery and piracy. The threat of punishment, Lemkin argued, would yield a change in practice (Power, 2003: 19-20).

I have found myself thinking about this moment in Raphael Lemkin’s life quite a bit lately. He was about to make the argument of his lifetime. It was the idea and the calling to which he had dedicated his mind for most of his life. Now was his moment to make the case. Nothing must have seemed more important to him at that moment, as he was taking seriously what others seemed not to be. This new German Chancellor was a menace. It is difficult to step outside of our own backward lens now and to imagine that for him at that moment, in 1933, what was possibly to come was only conceptual and vague. He simply understood on an intellectual and intuitive level, that it was dangerous and that now was the time to act to stop it.

Hitler, Germany’s new chancellor, photographed in Berlin in March 1933. To his right stands Papen, to his left, Goebbels. Accessed at

His anguish must have been more than he thought, at that moment in his life, he could possibly endure when the Polish foreign minister who was concerned about currying Hitler’s favor, refused to allow him to travel to Madrid. And while his paper was read aloud at the conference, his colleagues were unsympathetic. This was the interwar period after all, in which there was very little appetite for getting involved in anything like this. Further, it was unnecessary to address this type of atrocity because it occurred “too seldom to legislate”. What followed for Lemkin was an experience worthy of a Greek tragedy.

First came the concerted attack by the Polish foreign minister based upon the notion that Lemkin was trying to advance a Jewish cause. This high government official saw Lemkin as a trouble maker and a pawn for political points with a man and a movement that hated Jews, and he personally went after him. Lemkin lost his job and hope for his career in Poland, but his tragedy was far from over. Eventually he had to flee Poland; to leave home as a refugee as the Germans invaded. He understood the direction of things, but he could not convince his family members of it. They refused to go with him and they all died at the hands of the Nazis. His journey (an epic tale in its own rite) eventually led to Duke University, where he became a faculty member, and where he continued his fight to get recognition and creation of a law on genocide until he succeeded.

The sacrifice of millions was what it took for others to believe Raphael Lemkin. It took letting loose an efficient killing machine, the likes of which the world had never been seen before, to get good people to say ‘Never Again’. We collectively made that promise, and have reiterated it many times over almost 70 years now. In that time, we have collectively disregarded its happening again until it was too late in places like Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. These are but a few of the tragedies in which we have participated or from which we have averted our gaze. Without Lemkin’s accomplishment though, it is hard to know the atrocities that might not have been avoided. Without collective acceptance that the crime exists and that it is abhorrent, target groups would have been (and would continue to be) denied a critically important alarm to sound when necessary. While not always effective, it is still significant.

Having studied and taught about genocide for years now, I have struggled with many questions about how best to prevent or end mass atrocities. What policy tools can states use to reduce state violence in repressive states? What about trade policy? What about international agreements or the International Criminal Court? What roles do nongovernmental organizations and epistemic communities play in this process? Is intervention justified in cases of mass violence? Does a situation have to fall into the confines of the genocide convention in order to justify intervention? Would intervention even settle the situation effectively and without undue added suffering? These are all important questions and unfortunately do not provide a crystal clear set of policy answers. The fact that we are able to ask them though, is largely premised on Raphael Lemkin’s accomplishment.

I honor this man’s profound loss. I cannot imagine the pain that he endured. I cannot fathom the heartbreak on a personal level, particularly as he watched the evil that he was so committed to stopping engulf his own world. What makes this man a hero of mine though, is that he never gave up the effort. And in the end, his work created a central piece of the current international human rights regime, which marks a historic political leap for humanity. He truly changed the world.


7 thoughts on “Thinking of Raphael Lemkin

  1. Wow. Rob. Profound. And here we are, as a country, as a world… again. Half of my brain keeps saying, “No way. It can’t get that far.” But our country keeps proving me wrong and it’s terrifying. Looking forward to further posts. Thank you for the introduction.

  2. Thank you: for that past thirty minutes I have been with you and Dr. Lempkin, and my heart and face are full of tears of sadness.

  3. I am a childhood friend of your mother. I have been interested in genocide issues since university. I participated in my law firm’s pro bono involvement in the ICTR in Arusha, Tanzania (Rwanda genocide) and many of my law firm colleagues have or are working at the ICTY in the Hague. I liked your piece on Lemkin whom I knew slightly through Sam Power’s book. Would love to catch up sometime.

    1. Hi Ken. Thanks so much for your comment. I have heard good things about you from my mom and dad, and would certainly be interested in chatting some time.

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