Editor’s note: This article first appeared on April 17, 2015. It is republished today in recognition of April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. A series focused on genocide will appear on EthicsDaily.com next week.
Genocide is a term now recognized worldwide, but the origin of the designation is not widely known.
Raphael Lemkin began using the term in the 1940s to describe the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jewish people.
He “formed the word ‘genocide’ by combining ‘geno-,’ from the Greek word for race or tribe, with ‘-cide,’ derived from the Latin word for killing,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Lemkin was acutely aware of cruelty toward and persecution of racial, ethnic and religious groups from an early age, growing up in a Jewish family in Poland.
He heard news reports of nearby pogroms – planned killings of ethnic groups – as well as what would later be called genocide in far away Armenia.
More than 40 of his family members were killed by the Nazis at Treblinka during World War II.
These experiences led Lemkin to dedicate his life to making the world aware of genocide and to obtaining international commitments to oppose future manifestations.
Lemkin’s 1944 book, “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe,” described Nazi actions during WWII and set forth, as the subtitle indicates, “Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress.”
A collection of Nazi law directives, which he had acquired during a brief stay in Sweden during the war, served as the basis for his book.
“Genocide” was the title of chapter nine of the book, and it was the first time the term was used in print.
Lemkin had coined the term the year before in describing what he had first called crimes of barbarity and vandalism at a 1933 League of Nations’ conference on international criminal law.
“New conceptions require new terms,” Lemkin wrote. “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group … 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.”
“The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups,” he explained.
Lemkin’s suggestions in the book about preventing genocide were prophetic in light of present-day events.
For example, he noted that inadequate protection of minority groups “would result in international disturbances, especially in the form of disorganized emigration of the persecuted, who would look for refuge elsewhere.”
His writings would influence future legislative proposals, including the U.N. Resolution 96 (1946) and the Genocide Convention (1948), both of which condemned genocide and declared it a crime under international law.
Following the convention, Lemkin spent the remainder of his life lobbying the U.S. to ratify the treaty.
Jacob Blaustein, former president of the American Jewish Committee, joined him in this endeavor.
In a 1950 speech, Blaustein stated that the “eyes of the world are watching” to see what the U.S. would do in response to the convention, and he lamented that “even in our century, on every occasion genocide has been committed, other countries have done nothing more than send notes of protest.”
This observation tragically has remained true in the 67 years since, as the U.S. wouldn’t ratify the treaty until 1988, 29 years after Lemkin’s death.
In addition, the global response to new instances of genocide since the convention has been woefully inadequate.
The anemic global response to at least six instances of genocide since 1948 reveals that proclamations and conventions without concrete action are futile.
Global leaders must be forthright in their condemnation of such atrocities, but words must translate into deeds.
Greater resolve to intervene whenever and wherever genocide happens – not only when it is in a nation’s best interest – is vital. Human lives hang in the balance.