06/2001 – Raphael Lemkin

June 2001

PGF salutes Raphael Lemkin as an example of one Polonian individual who made a difference globally in the area of human rights. The following is an excerpt from the NY Times 6/13/01 story on United Nations honors for Mr. Lemkin.

Salute to a Rights Campaigner Who Gave Genocide Its Name

UNITED NATIONS, June 12 – One hundred years after his birth, a largely forgotten immigrant from Poland who coined the word genocide and pushed a convention outlawing it through the General Assembly is being honored here, thanks to a small human rights institute in New York campaigning to keep his story alive.

The immigrant, Raphael Lemkin, a legal expert and linguist who died in 1959 at 58, had fought since 1933 to make genocide, which he first labeled a “crime of barbarity,” a recognized and punishable international offense. The convention, adopted in December 1948, came into force in 1951. The United States did not ratify it until 1988, in the waning days of the second Reagan administration.

Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, the organization honoring Mr. Lemkin, said that although 132 countries had now ratified the convention, and genocide is regarded universally as the worst of offenses, a number of countries where mass crimes against ethnic or religious groups have been committed in recent decades have not adhered to the agreement. Among them are Indonesia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Sudan. Overall, most African countries and more than half a dozen Latin American and Caribbean nations have not ratified the convention.

On Wednesday at the United Nations, the Clinton administration’s ambassador for war crimes, David Scheffer, and Secretary General Kofi Annan’s wife, Nane Annan, are to speak at the event focusing on Mr. Lemkin’s legacy. Mr. Scheffer was the chief American negotiator in the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which will give a legal home for prosecution of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Mr. Lemkin first took up the cause of endangered minorities as a child in Poland, where he read “Quo Vadis” and became obsessed with images of early Christians being torn to death by lions in Rome as the crowds cheered, according to a new biography by William Korey, a writer on human rights topics. Dr. Korey is on the board of the Blaustein institute, part of the American Jewish Committee, which paid for Mr. Lemkin’s burial in Queens, where he died after a heart attack.

By 1933, before the world’s attention and Mr. Lemkin’s turned to Nazi Germany, he was known internationally for his battle as a Polish prosecutor to codify crimes against humanity and against cultural and artistic works of ethnic groups, among them the Armenians who were the victims of the Ottoman Turks. He fled Poland for Sweden in 1939 after the German invasion. His parents died in the Holocaust nearly a decade later, though he did not know their fate for several years.

By the end of World War II, and with the establishment of the United Nations, Mr. Lemkin moved to New York to begin his campaign for a genocide convention.

Writing and teaching law intermittently at Duke University and Yale, he lobbied endlessly and often annoyingly, according to Dr. Korey, until the Genocide Convention won a place on the United Nations’ agenda.

“Genocide” first appeared in 1944, the Oxford English Dictionary says, in a book by Mr. Lemkin, “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe,” which was published in the United States by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He told his contemporaries that he had stumbled on the idea while reading Plato, who used the Greek word genos to describe a clan or ethnic group.

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