INTERNATIONAL LAW SINCE THE HOLOCAUST
Only in recent history has international law evolved to define and punish mass violence against civilians. Now well established as the legal foundation for civilian protection against mass atrocities, two categories of international law that seek to criminalize genocide and crimes against humanity were developed in response to World War II and the Holocaust.
At the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Nuremberg (1945–46), legal teams from Allied nations prosecuted Nazi German leaders for attacks on civilians under the rubric of crimes against humanity, a formerly undefined general principle that became codified into enforceable law for the very first time. The IMT limited it in scope, however, to crimes committed in the context of international armed conflict.
Due in large part to the efforts of Holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was unanimously adopted on December 9, 1948. The Convention established genocide as an international crime in times of both war and peace. The Convention’s definition of genocide is, however, strictly limited by the perpetrator’s “intent to destroy in whole or in part”; the characterization of the victim group; and the acts committed.
Although mass atrocities occurred in the decades following ratification, the Genocide Convention went unused and therefore untested. Not until the 1990s did the obligations of the Convention gain potency, spurred on by several international developments: the growth of professional human rights organizations with experience using international legal tools to combat human rights abuses; the end of the Cold War, which enabled greater consensus on the UN Security Council; and the persistence of extreme violence targeted against entire civilian groups, most notably in the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda.
In response, new mechanisms were created to hold individuals criminally responsible for violations of international laws of war, crimes against humanity, and genocide. The United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994. On July 17, 1998, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was permanently established through treaty, which no longer limited crimes against humanity to the context of armed conflict. And, for the first time, an established forum for disputes between states, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), addressed countries’ obligations to prevent genocide.
Law grows through the setting of precedents. In other words, how judges apply the law helps determine what the law means. Through the judgments of these tribunals and courts, international law on genocide and crimes against humanity evolves, deepening our understanding of the crimes and our capacity to respond.
Watch a video and learn more about Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who fled Poland in 1939 and arrived in the US, where he introduced the word genocide and lobbied tirelessly for the creation of a United Nations convention against genocide.