Monday, June 24, 2013

Happy Birthday Raphael Lemkin

Today, June 24, is the 113th birthday Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959). A linguist, a lawyer, a scholar, he devoted most of his life to making the world understand and recognize a crime so horrific that there had not even been a word for it. In 1944, he gave the world the word, "genocide."

Coming of age in post-World War I Poland, Lemkin was keenly aware of virilent campaigns to wipe out the "other." As a Jewish intellectual he straddled western and eastern traditions, modern and ancient sensibilities. Most important, he experienced long-nurtured prejudices and knew that what Hitler proposed was something quite different than any pogrom the Jews had ever seen.

Lemkin recognized that modern civilized society needed to address not only the crimes committed in war, of one country against another, but also those of mass violence within the sovereign state. He identified two "new crimes"—barbarism (killing civilians of a particular ethnic group because of their membership in that group)—and vandalism (the destruction of the cultural heritage of such groups).

In exile in the United States after 1941, Lemkin carefully collected documents and reports on Nazi rule throughout the growing Third Reich. In 1944, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published Lemkin's Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. His book included an extensive legal analysis of Nazi Germany along with the definition of the term genocide. He said he had created the word by combining the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin cide (killing). [see video above]

 Lemkin worked hard, and alone, to have have his view of genocide as an offense against international law--against humanity--accepted by the international community. His success was that it was one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials. In 1948, the newly formed United Nations used his new word in its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a treaty intended to prevent future genocides. 

Yale Professor Jay Winter in a recent article (June 3, 2013) for the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Prophet Without Honors: Raphael Lemkin helped make genocide illegal. So why haven't you heard of him?", concludes: 

Reading Lemkin's autobiography helps us acknowledge both the significance and the limits of his work. Naming a crime is not the same as eliminating it. That he did not launch a new era immediately, one in which human dignity comes before state sovereignty, is hardly a criticism. The times and the odds were against him. What he offered was a possibility, one to be taken up today or tomorrow, and who can do more than that?
The world was reminded of Lemkin's determination and brillance in 2002 by journalist Samantha Powers in her seminal A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. In July, she will become the US ambassador to the UN.

This month, Lemkin's unfinished autobiography edited by Donna-Lee Frieze (Center for Jewish History in New York City), Totally Unofficial was published by Yale University Press.

Japan, Indonesia, and Thailand are not a party to the Genocide Convention. Japan is the only G8 country that is not.

Key writings of Raphael Lemkin on Genocide.

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