Naming the worst human sin
DavidConway and Simon Rocker consider books that examine fundamental issues of hate, love and devotion
GENOCIDE IS rarely out of the news these days, a sad reflection of the sorry state of the modern world. This makes John Cooper’s book welcome and timely. For, despite his subject, Raphael Lemkin, having coined the term “genocide” and almost singlehandedly forging the legal instrument that made it an international crime, it is still not properly understood outside specialist circles.
Cooper’s absorbing study is intended to set the record straight “by providing thefirstfullbiographicalaccountof [Lemkin’s]lifeandhisstruggletopersuadethe United Nations to adopt and ratify the [Genocide] Convention”.
It is a remarkable story. Born in relatively comfortable circumstances in 1900 on a farm belonging to his parents ineasternPoland,Lemkingrewupdeeplytroubledbythenumerousandvicious acts of antisemitism committed around him, as well as by other, more distant but no less appalling acts of state-sanctioned barbarityof whichthemostnotablewas the massacre by the Turks in 1915 of a million or so Armenians.
The apparent indifference of national authorities to such enormities led the linguistically gifted young Lemkin to abandon his university philological studiesforlawandasubsequentinvolvement in legal endeavours to establish international laws criminalising them.
Kigali 2014: a man is consoled by a woman at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide
Having fled to America and just published there a well-documented exposé of Hitler’s genocidal intent, Lemkin was to find himself at the end of the War with a singularly valuable contribution to make to preparing the prosecutions of leading Nazis at Nuremberg as well as to the subsequent efforts of the international community to prevent a recurrence of the Holocaust, or anything remotely like it, by creating such institutions as the United Nations, and legal instruments like the Genocide Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on successive days in December 1948. Despite seeing the Convention become adopted, Lemkin’s life was nevertheless tragic, not just personally and professionally but also in terms of that same goal.
With practically all family members killed in the Holocaust, Lemkin became — as Cooper shows — a cantankerous and distrusting, if not downright paranoid loner, with an unerring knack of offending and alienating just about everyone with whom he ever entered into close relations. His unfortunate personality led to his ending his days jobless, penniless and friendless, his death in 1959 going unmarked and unmourned despite his earlier acclaim.
Because the Cold War broke out shortly after the Genocide Convention was adopted, even its enforcement was delayed for several decades following Lemkin’s death, partly because of the reluctance of the super powers to compromise their sovereignty by ratifying it at a national level.
Lemkin’s life was tragic even in terms of his life-long goal of developing legal protections for minorities, above all for his fellow Jews. In 1952, Cooper recounts, Lemkin warned of a grave danger in the UN adopting human-rights legislation that would later “be used by unfriendly powers to discredit the USA in world opinion. Soviet propaganda will obtain a legal stranglehold. Moreover… it will beimpossibletochargetheSovietUnion with her crimes against millions of people, because she will then retaliate with discrimination and lynching charges.”
Unnoticed by Lemkin, and unremarked on by Cooper, is that Lemkin’s beloved Genocide Convention suffers from a similar defect.
It, too, eventually would be and has been invoked by Israel’s enemies in attempts to delegitimise the Jewish state, threatening to destroy it by using the very same agencies that created it. David Conway is a visiting professorial research fellow at Civitas