Raphael Lemkin was the man behind the first UN human rights treaty, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Profession: Author of UN Genocide Convention, Lawyer
Country of Origin: Poland
Country of Asylum: United States of America
Country of Transit: Sweden
Date of birth: 24 June 1901
Raphael Lemkin coined the word “genocide” before the world knew the horrors of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau. A Polish Jewish refugee, he was the man behind the first UN human rights treaty, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Lemkin studied philology and law at Lwow and Heidelberg universities and was a prominent international jurist in pre-war Poland. As early as 1933, he appeared before the Legal Council of the League of Nations in Madrid with a proposal to outlaw acts of “barbarism and vandalism”. He helped draft the criminal code of a newly-independent Poland after World War I and served as the state prosecutor in Warsaw until 1934, when anti-Semitic slurs forced him to withdraw into private practice.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Lemkin joined the resistance and was wounded in fighting. He hid in the forest for months before fleeing to Sweden.
As a visiting lecturer of law at the University of Sweden, Stockholm, Lemkin was the first academic to study Nazism from the standpoint of jurisprudence. He analysed the legal decrees of the New Order in Europe that allowed the Nazi occupation, and wrote “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe”.
Lemkin identified Hitler’s abominable intention, and labelled it “genocide”, a hybrid word consisting of the Greek prefix genos, meaning race, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing. In Lemkin’s view, genocide is a premeditated crime with clearly defined goals, rather than just an aberration.
In 1941, he moved to the United States, having been offered a post at Duke University. During the summer of 1942, Lemkin lectured at the US War Department and served as chief consultant of the US board of Economic Warfare and the Foreign Economic Administration. Appointed in 1945 as a consultant on international law to the Judge Advocate of the US Army, he also served as legal advisor to the US Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg. At international legal meetings, he began to outline ideas for a change in international law. He had hoped to have an international genocide convention approved at the Paris peace conference in 1945, but was unsuccessful. On December 9, 1948, the convention was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly.
Having lost over 40 members of his family to the Nazis, Lemkin sought to develop international legal instruments that would prevent any further instances of genocide. Giving up his academic career, he decided to concentrate all his efforts on defining and denouncing genocide and establishing it as crime under international law. He continued to lobby for the ratification of the Convention on behalf of its member states and he lectured at Yale, Rutgers and Princeton universities. In 1950 and 1952, he was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Lemkin died on August 28, 1959. He had written 11 books, including a volume on art criticism, another about rose cultivation and others dealing mainly with international law. Eight chapters of an uncompleted history of genocide are currently held by the New York Public Library, together with unpublished diaries of Lemkin’s earlier life.
More than 90 countries are signatories to the convention, although the United States, the country that had given him succour, did not ratify the treaty until 1988.