Acting in the name of conscience – A portrait of Raphael Lemkin

“If you act in the name of conscience you are stronger than any government in the world.” – Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin was a Polish-Jewish lawyer who dedicated his life to the fight against impunity. He coined the word genocide and fought for its implementation into international legislation. Even before Nazis rose to power and he and his family were persecuted, he tried to establish legal measures for the protection of minorities.

Raphael Lemkin was born on June 24 1900 near Wolkowysk, a town in the former Russian Empire. Early in his life he was exposed to accounts of mass violence sparking an interest and a subsequent  determination to pursue this field. In particular, Lemkin followed the Armenian genocide closely. Whilst he was a student in Germany, he traced the proceedings following the murder of former Turkish minister Talaat Pascha by young Armenian Soghomon Tehlirian in retaliation for Pascha’s responsibility for the Armenian genocide. Tehlirian, who lost his entire family, was acquitted due to his state of mind and lived on to be an Armenian hero. Lemkin was deeply moved by the trial and questioned why the killing of a million was a lesser crime than the killing of an individual. It was this question that inspired his life’s work.

Lemkin studied linguistics, philosophy and then law in Lwów and Heidelberg. After his studies he worked as prosecutor in Warsaw and continued to pursue his keen interest in International Law. A polyglot, he spoke as many as nine languages. He worked on the codification of Polish law and by 1933, he was sent as a delegate to a League of Nations conference in Madrid where he tried to introduce the notion of “acts of barbarity” for the crime he would later name genocide. However, due to Anti-Semitism he had to retreat.

When Germany invaded Poland, Lemkin managed to escape to Sweden. From Sweden he emigrated to the United States. There he taught among others at Duke University before working  for the Board of Economic Warfare and the US War Department. Lemkin tried to raise awareness and expose the true nature of the National Socialist regime in Germany warning people about the possible murder of Jews and other minorities. He had understood that what they were trying to do was a total annihilation of anyone who did not fit the Nazi ideal. Yet, his warnings received little recognition on both a personal and international level. He tragically lost 49 family members -including his parents- in the Holocaust.

By November 1944, he published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In this work he defined genocide as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” He added: “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” Composed of the ancient Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin suffix cide (killer, act of killing), he created a term that captured the magnitude of this incomprehensible atrocity. Using his term he proceeded to lobby and fight for legislation that would make it a criminal offense.  

In 1945/46 he advised chief counsel Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg Trials and was responsible for the inclusion of genocide in the indictment. He then worked on legislation for the UN: the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. On December 9, 1948 the Convention was adopted unanimously. He continued to be an incredibly valuable presence at the UN Headquarters tirelessly convincing and pressuring states into ratifying his convention up until his untimely death in 1959.

Margaret Mead wrote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  Consequently, Lemkin’s life is an important reminder of the incredible things that we can achieve when we have the determination to do so.   

Raphael Lemkin was often alone in his fight. Many accounts of his life highlight his isolation, self-chosen solitude and his obsessive nature. During his efforts at the United Nations he was known to neglect himself severely and to be very uncooperative when working with others. His solitary nature and lack of support leaves us questioning what could have been had he had institutional support or other allies. We are therefore reminded of how crucial it is to work together, to support one another and to form movements. For small and student-run organizations such as STAND France, this rings even more true. The voice of two people will always be louder, and consequently the support they  gather will always be greater.

To remember Raphael Lemkin is to remember an exceptional man with moral courage, a visionary mind and above all, a person whose determination did not falter despite the adversity and anti-Semitism he faced. He who had witnessed humanity’s cruelty at its worst, could not be deterred from his efforts. Lemkin believed in the power of international law and international organizations to restrain state behavior and prevent mass atrocities. He believed that people guilty of genocide should be prosecuted and condemned regardless of nationality and that national sovereignty should not act as barrier against this. In the face of today’s atrocities, seen in Burma, in Yemen and in Syria for example, those beliefs are ever so important.

Raphael Lemkin should be more widely known for his incredible achievements and his perseverance. As Michael Ignatieff captures perfectly:. “If the history of the western moral imagination is the story of an enduring and unending revolt against human cruelty, there are few more consequential figures than Raphael Lemkin—and few whose achievements have been more ignored by the general public.”

If you would like to know more:

1)https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007050
This a short article by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an incredible institution and a great resource to learn more about the issue of genocide in general.

2) https://newrepublic.com/article/114424/raphael-lemkin-unsung-hero-who-coined-genocide
If you want to read a bit more in depth about Lemkin, we recommend this great article by Michael Ignatieff who paints an ambivalent picture of Lemkin, detailing his obsessive behavior and analyzing what drove Lemkin to commit his life to the fight against genocide.

3) https://www.chronicle.com/article/Raphael-Lemkin-a-Prophet/139515
A Prophet without honors” by Jay Winter
His spot-on description of Lemkin, the“one-man NGO” is very much worth the read, informative and inspiring at the same time.

4) A Problem from Hell: America and the age of genocide
Samantha Power’s famous book describes Lemkin’s story extensively and is both gripping and informative.

5) Watchers of the Sky http://watchersofthesky.com/
This film shows the stories of four people that engaged in ending cycles of violence and mass atrocities and sets out to “uncover the forgotten life of Raphael Lemkin.” The other three remarkable men portrayed are Benjamin Ferencz, Emmanuel Uwurukundo and Luis Moreno-Ocampo. It is inspired by Samantha Powers’ book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. The movie is set to be released on Netflix in April.

This article was written by Lusia Kern. Luisa is a German dual-degree student at Sciences Po Paris and Freie Universität Berlin. Currently in her second-year, she would love to pursue a career in Peace and Conflict Studies or International Security.

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