Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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How We’ve Failed the Promise of Making “Genocide” a Crime

The lawyer Raphael Lemkin hoped to use international law to curb abuses of power. But his efforts were curtailed from the start.

Israel declared its independence in 1948. That same year, the United Nations adopted the convention that defined genocide as a crime. The tension between these two “never agains” was there from the start.

The word “genocide” was coined in 1941 by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer from a Polish family, who combined the Greek word for a people (genos) and the Latin translation for killing (cide). At its most basic, genocide meant systematically destroying another group. Lemkin laid it out as a two-phase, often colonial process in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: First, the oppressor erases the “national pattern” of the victim. Then, it imposes its own. Genocide stretched from antiquity (Carthage) to modern times (Ireland).

“The term does not necessarily signify mass killings although it may mean that,” Lemkin explained in a 1945 article. “More often it refers to a coordinated plan aimed at destruction of the essential foundations”—cultural institutions, physical structures, the economy—“of the life of national groups.” The “machine gun” was merely a “last resort.”

Lemkin was a lawyer, not a sociologist. By birthing the term “genocide,” he was not trying to taxonomize the horrors of war. Instead, Lemkin—who lost 49 family members in the Holocaust—hoped that he could identify a crime to stop it. Nazi terror could not simply be Germany’s “internal problem.” With genocide, Lemkin hoped to give legal and moral weight to international intervention. He hoped to bring into being an offense that could be policed and, in turn, stopped in a new and supposedly civilized world.

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