Raphael Lemkin and his struggle for the recognition of genocide by international law

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

13 Pages, Grade: 10



What has motivated Lemkin to start struggle for the term genocide
How Lemkin defines the term ``genocide`` and what are the techniques used of enforcing genocide
How Lemkin has influenced the adoption and ratification of the Genocide Convention




Raphael Lemkin is a man who coined the word ‘’genocide’’ in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. By this term of ‘’genocide’’ he wanted to point out the systematic evil acts committed with the intention to destroy national, racial, ethnic or religious groups. Lemkin focused on the crime against humanity committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. When the Great Powers decided to prosecute the Nazi leaders for the atrocities they did during the war, Lemkin made effort to insert the word ‘genocide’ into the indictment. Furthermore, during his work at the United Nations in December 1946 the General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning genocide as a crime under international law. After this great step he achieved, on the 9th December 1948 the Genocide Convention is being adopted. In order to make this Convention part of the international law, Lemkin lobby a lot to receive the support of minimum 20 states. He tried to persuade states to ratify the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Finally, after the sufficient ratifications were accomplished the Convention entered into force in 1951

Thus, in this paper I will analyze Lemkin`s approach to genocide and how has he influenced the recognition of this crime by the international law?

What has motivated Lemkin to start struggle for the term Genocide ?

During Lemkin`s childhood he came across a copy of the novel Quo Vadis, written by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz. This book was about the Roman Emperor Nero who had intention to exterminate the Christians that were under his rule. Though it was a novel, imagining the horror described in this piece Lemkin has felt the weight of evil of depicted event. He was simply unable to imagine how it was that human beings could engage in such massively destructive behavior towards other human beings. As every child, Lemkin was also curious and asked his mother, why did the Christians permit themselves to be thrown to the lions without calling the police? His mother answered with question; do you think the police could help them? The horror from this fiction and answer given by his mother made him to search later on more about similar events that are happening in reality (Bartrop and Jackobs 2011: 181-182)

Lemkin was growing up in a Jewish family in Wolkowysk in Poland; he was growing up in a contested borderland over which different armies clashed. This made Lemkin sensitive to the concerns of the diverse nationalities living there and their anxiety about self preservation. Therefore, he started researching about mass killings that happened in the history and that are happening in the contemporary world. During his lifelong researching on this issue he was appalled by the frequency of that evil and by the impunity coldly relied upon by the guilty. While he was studying law at the University of Lvov the new cases started happening. Namely, in 1921 an Armenian avenger of the Ottoman destruction of Christian minorities was arrested for murder because he killed one of the genocide`s architects named Talat Pasha. In the same year some planners and perpetrators of the genocide were freed by the British from custody in Malta. After this event Lemkin was shocked stating a nation was killed and the guilty people were set free. He asked why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual? (Jones 2011: 8-9)

This injustice and crime motivated him to try prevent this practice of mass killing and to make it punishable in the future. In order to succeed with this intention Lemkin became one of the pioneers of a campaign for international justice. He was recognized specialist in a range of issues involving cooperation among States in the enforcement of a number of internationalized crimes such as piracy, counterfeiting currency and trafficking in person. The existing internationalized terms could not describe other crimes that were appearing in the past and in the present. Therefore, Lemkin understood the importance of internationalizing another category of crimes. This new crimes were totally different of other crimes, they were not crimes committed by the gangsters or pirates but by the States or their agents acting with encouragement of the State. During his study at Lvov University, Lemkin`s main focus was on the crime committed by Turkey against Armenians where a hundreds of thousands people perished in 1915, this massacres influenced his further struggle for internationalization of the new crimes. As a Polish representative, Lemkin attended the International Conference for the Unification of Penal Law organized by the League of Nations. On this Conference he proposed the recognition of two new international crimes ``vandalism – attacks on the culture of such groups`` and ``barbarism – the physical destruction of individuals as members of national, religious and racial groups``. Moreover, he explained `that an international treaty should be negotiated declaring that attacks upon national, religious and ethnic groups should be made international crimes and perpetrators of such crimes should not only be liable to trial in their own country but, in the event of escape, could also be tried in the place of refuge, or else extradited to the country where the crime was committed`. But, with this proposal he didn’t succeed and soon Lemkin himself would become a victim of `barmarism` when Nazi invaded Poland (Lemkin 2005: Schabas 2008: xvi)

After Hitler invaded Poland, Lemkin warned the Jews of the dangers that is coming and tried to convince them to left the country. He argued that Hitler wanted to destroy the Jews completely, but many of them were not aware of the seriousness of his warning. Soon after invasion Lemkin fled the country. In the exile he wrote a book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe in which he described the Nazi horrors against groups and devised the new term `Genocide` which will label new crimes against humanity (Lemkin 2005: Power 2004: xvii – xxiii)

How Lemkin defines the term ``genocide`` and what are the techniques used of enforcing genocidal policy?

Lemkin created the term `genocide` from two words, the Greek word genos what means race, tribe and the Latin word caedere meaning to kill. As an alternative, he considered the ancient Greek term ethnos, which denotes essentially the same concept as genos (Schabas 2000: 25)

In book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe Lemkin defines Genocide as `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


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Raphael Lemkin and his struggle for the recognition of genocide by international law
İzmir University of Economics
Contemporary Debates in Global Politics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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486 KB
Genocide, History, Raphael Lemkin, World War II, Holocaust, International law, Genocide Convention
Quote paper
Esmir Music (Author), 2017, Raphael Lemkin and his struggle for the recognition of genocide by international law, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/353589


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