Start of Main Content

The Promise of a World without Genocide

US Senator William Proxmire —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of Wisconsin Historical Society.

Twenty five years ago, on February 19, 1986, the US Senate ratified the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. But this ratification was not easily accomplished. Nor was it a foregone conclusion.

On back-to-back days in early December 1948, the still-new United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With the world reeling from World War II, these instruments were an effort to inoculate future generations against a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust and other wartime atrocities visited on civilians. Under the convention, the world’s signatory nations were required to punish and prevent acts of genocide, defined as acts intended to destroy “in whole or in part” national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups.

However, the legally binding convention, the brainchild of Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who had fled Europe and gave a name to the crime of genocide, did not find support in the United States. In fact, early efforts to ratify the convention failed in the US Senate because of concerns that acceding to the pact could threaten US sovereignty, and that its provisions could be used against the United States by hostile nations.

And so, even as some 70 other countries moved swiftly to ratify the genocide convention, the treaty languished without a vote in the Senate until the mid-1960s, when US Senator William Proxmire, of Wisconsin, took up the cause of ratification—a cause that became one of the hallmarks of his 32-year tenure. With allies in Senators Jacob Javits of New York and Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Proxmire launched a tenacious campaign in 1967 to persuade the Senate to adopt the genocide convention.

For 19 long years, even as new horrors unfolded in Biafra, in Bangladesh, and in Cambodia, Proxmire began every day the Senate was in session with a speech during “Morning Hour.” Each speech was different, although the theme was always the same: the US is morally bound to use its power to prevent future genocides and ratifying the convention would serve America’s best interests. “This is one senator who believes that ratification is not only patriotic, but also good foreign policy and a moral imperative,” he wrote in the Milwaukee Journal.

Frequently speaking to an empty chamber, the senator from Wisconsin made a total of 3,211 speeches—an average of 168 each year—until a presidential controversy in 1985 provided the breakthrough he needed to help get the convention heard by a key Senate committee and on to the Senate floor for a vote.

President Ronald Reagan, about to leave for Germany to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, announced his intention to visit Bitburg cemetery, which turned out also to be the burial place of 49 Nazi officers. In the outcry that followed, Reagan made every effort to make amends, but the damage had been done. Upon his return, he threw his full support behind the convention.

Finally, on February 19, 1986, the treaty came to the Senate floor and, by an 83-to-11 vote, achieved the two-thirds majority necessary for ratification. By then, almost 100 other countries had done the same. Unfortunately, in the process of ratification, the Senate had added a number of legal disclaimers that weakened US power to invoke the convention, but Proxmire reluctantly agreed to accept them on the grounds that it was better for the United States to be a signatory with reservations than not at all. Yet it still took another two years for the passage of legislation that would enable the convention to come fully into force in the United States. That legislation was named after the forceful and patient man who had brought it to reality, Senator William Proxmire.

This extraordinary tale of perseverance—an inside Washington story if ever there was one—demonstrates that sometimes political change is only possible through a serendipitous marriage of diligence and opportunity. And it certainly shows that one person, with determination, passion, and patience, can move the seemingly immovable object known as the US Senate. And it shows that ultimately, no good cause—even preventing genocide—is a lost one.

Even though the promise of the convention remains unfulfilled, its aspiration to a world without genocide would be that much further away without the international consensus that has been forged on the unique horrors of the crime it outlaws.

Watch a short video about the role Senator Proxmire played in the US ratification of the genocide convention.