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Sixty-Five Years Later: The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide

Raphael Lemkin, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, coined the word genocide in 1944 and made it his mission to compel nations to prevent it from occurring in the future. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, gift of United Nations

Sixty-five years ago today, in the wake of the Holocaust, the UN General Assembly adopted its first-ever human rights treaty. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide obliges signatories to prevent genocide—defined as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group—and to punish the perpetrators when it occurs. Among the initial signatories was a diverse set of countries from all over the globe, reflecting widely different cultures and histories, including Bolivia, Cuba, Ethiopia, Finland, Pakistan, and the Philippines. The great powers, such as China, the Soviet Union, and the United States, also signed the convention (though it took nearly 40 years for the US Senate to ratify it).

It was a remarkable achievement, reflecting outrage at Nazi Germany’s attempts to annihilate European Jewry. Outrage alone would have been insufficient, however, without the singular determination of a Holocaust survivor from Poland, Raphael Lemkin. After fleeing the Nazi invasion in 1939 for safe haven in Sweden, Lemkin ultimately reached the United States in 1941 and immediately began warning whoever would listen about Nazi Germany’s plans for the “Final Solution.” He coined the word genocide in his 1944 book, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, giving a name to an act that Winston Churchill had once called the “crime with no name.” After World War II ended, Lemkin made it his mission to compel nations to act to prevent such crimes in the future.

Lemkin believed, perhaps quaintly, that the convention’s legal strictures would change the behavior of states and serve as a rallying point for nations to work together to prevent genocide from occurring in the future. The convention’s efficacy has been obviously uneven. The failure of the international community to prevent genocide or state-led mass murder in places such as Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Darfur has generated cynicism about the possibility of making Never Again a reality. Today, we witness atrocities on a massive scale in Syria, where more than 120,000 civilians have been killed in a murderous civil war that has included war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, which, if unchecked, may well lead to acts of genocide.

Still, the genocide convention has led, albeit slowly, to a shift in how nations consider their moral responsibilities toward those threatened with destruction, as well as a  realization that our strategic and security interests are best served by preventing the instability that inevitably follows genocide. 

Three consequences loom large from the convention:

The first is moral. The convention has contributed to the healthy erosion of the notion that national sovereignty is absolute and that nations should turn a blind eye to egregious acts of violence perpetrated by countries against their own civilian populations. That the international community sometimes lacks the means or will to stop such atrocities should not detract from the development of a new international norm that has been immeasurably strengthened by the genocide convention.  

The second is legal. Since the convention came into force, perpetrators of genocide and other mass atrocities have been brought to justice in Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Admittedly, these efforts have been incomplete and have often taken place many years after the crimes were committed. Nevertheless, even heads of state now know they may face prosecution if they perpetrate mass violence against their own people; they know they may be apprehended and at the very least face restrictions on movement if they are to avoid arrest. That realization is likely to have a deterrent effect on would-be perpetrators in the future.

Third and perhaps most important, nations have begun at long last to put in place policies to implement the preventive portion of the genocide convention, successes that are too often obscured by the obvious failures. In countries such as Ivory Coast, Kenya, Kosovo, Libya, and South Sudan, nations have worked together to prevent genocide or other forms of mass atrocity in recent years—sometimes with collective military action, as in Kosovo, and other times with civic education, diplomacy, and other peaceful means, as in Kenya. 

There is certainly much unfinished business if we are to achieve the full ambitions of the genocide convention. Given the obvious difficulty today of marshaling support for military intervention after the killing starts, it is more essential than ever to invest in the diplomatic and development tools necessary to prevent genocide from beginning in the first place. While that can be a hard sell in these budget-strapped times when every poll suggests America is turning inward, preventive policies are critical to avoiding massive refugee flows and other destabilizing conditions, let alone wholesale slaughter. Just think of Syria today and the rippling effect the catastrophe there will have for generations in the Middle East.

Americans never think twice about devoting the resources necessary to respond to a hurricane or flood. A new investment in preventing man-made disasters seems a small price to pay, given the potential rewards—not only in saving large numbers of lives but also in creating a more stable world.