6 July 2011: Honored by Four at His Funeral--An Unsung Hero
It's a bit late to wish attorney and activist Raphael Lemkin happy birthday. Born on June 24, 1900, he died at age 59.
But during this too-short life, turbulent with activism on behalf of a cause he worked toward all of his adult life, Rafael Lemkin changed the world.
As part of this project, he worked hard to convince the United Nations to pay more attention to the issue of crimes against humanity as a violation of international law. The result was the United Nations Convention against Genocide, written by Lemkin and approved by the General Assembly on December 1948, a day before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN.
When Professor Richard Brietman of American University, speaking at a July 5 Conversation on Human Rights sponsored by the Washington Friends Meeting (FMW--its committee on religious education) and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), said that Lemkin deserved more credit in his efforts toward human rights than did Eleanor Roosevelt, so key to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I sat up with a jolt.
I knew his name but not his fame. This early student of linguistics, studying the history of recent mass oppression--in Armenia, Syria, and the Ukraine, respectively, in the early twentieth century--coined a term in 1943 to describe not only whole-scale slaughter of a race, genos in Greek, but the accompanying decimation of the relevant cultures and mores, genocide. He needed--we all needed--a term to describe not only such hideous events of the past but the holocaust in progress in Germany and Eastern Europe against Jews and other minorities. The second root in the term, -cide, has the meaning "killing, cutting down."
In 1933, presenting his case to a League of Nations conference in Madrid, Lemkin had used the term barbarity.
Power of the word. It grows slowly. In 1944, said Brietman, a Gallup poll conducted in the United States revealed that the public thought that about 100,000 Jews had been murdered by the Germans. The press hadn't written much. The reality of the six million came later, as the Allies discovered the numerous concentration camps writhing with corpses living and dead.
Photographs of the atrocity, taken by both Germans and their enemies, were a compelling part of the evidence presented at the Nuremberg Trial in 1945, where crimes against humanity was one of four charges filed against twenty-two of the most powerful German agents of the slaughter. Another of them, Adolf Eichmann, discovered in Argentina in 1960 and tried and condemned soon after in Israel, revealed how many had been murdered, that figure of six million that haunts the world deeply to this day.
The charge considered most significant of the four, said Brietman, was crimes against peace.
A crime against peace as well as a another genocide of six million, in the years 1932--1933 and surrounding, of Ukrainians by the Soviet Union via starvation of these inhabitants of the "world's granary," was publicized and analyzed by Lemkin in the early 1950s. The Ukrainians, a sovereign culture unrelated to the Russians, had risen up in an effort toward full independence from the Communist tyranny.
Although protests against this atrocity had been held in New York City by surviving Ukrainians in 1933 and 1953--Lemkin having delivered a moving address at the latter--it was not until 2008 that his analysis of the events was publicized, including his perspective on genocide as encompassing more than people, but everything else that their existence signified, everything that distinguished them from other cultures, peoples, mores, and gifts to civilization.
This distinguished analysis is still referred to today by scholars as a significant historical perspective.
Lemkin never married nor had children. He became enthralled by the notion of "genocide" as a young linguistics student, unaware that he would apply this knowledge to a term that would be used not only in English but other languages the world over. Despite the publicity such horrors generate sooner or later, after their occurrence genocide continues to occur: most recently in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia, Darfur . . .
When will the list end? How do we combat this hideous disease named by Lemkin?
No law can prevent its own violation, the audience of the FCNL/FMW Conversation was informed, though disciplinary institutions sprang up in the wake of World War II and human rights had been a concern of the League of Nations. Universal extradition does not exist among all countries in the world, and here we have the word though light years from its reality.