June 2, 2001

The 100th birth anniversary of the creator of the word genocide

July is the month of birth of Rafael Lemkin and, besides, 2001 is the year of the 50th anniversary of the Convention for the Prevention and Sanction of the Crime of Genocide.

In the two first articles of the Convention it is stated:

‘the parties to the contract confirm that the genocide, committed either during peacetime or wartime, is a crime of international law that said parties compromise to prevent and sanction.’ And: ‘In this convention, it is understood by genocide any of the acts mentioned hereinafter, perpetrated with the intention of destroying, totally or partially a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such:’

  1. Slaughter of members of a group.
  2. Serious injuries to personal or moral safety of the members of the group.
  3. Intentional subjection of the group to conditions of existence that have produced their total or partial physical destruction.
  4. Measures with the aim of preventing births in the group.
  5. Transfer by force of children of the group to another group.

These two very important dates produce in the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation a reflection about the Holocaust phenomenon as a singular act which marks history in an indelible way.

Lemkin, of Polish origin and attorney in law of profession, has requested to the League of the Nations (precursor of the UN) to declare as ‘acts of barbarism’ any way of mass extermination of people. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 Lemkin joined other Jews like him to create resistance guerrillas against the occupying forces. He survives the slaughtering by running away to Sweden and then to the United States but forty seven of his relatives perished in the extermination camps.

In 1943 he invented the word genocide to, as Kofi Annan said, Secretary General of the UN, ‘give an old crime a new name’.

In 1944 the word -today so broadly used that looks eternal- appeared printed for the first time in the book ‘Axis Rule in Occupied Europe’ work of Lemkin himself.

In 1946 he managed that the recently created UN recognized the genocide as an international crime. In 1959, year of Lemkin’s death, almost sixty countries had ratified the Convention of Genocide . Nowadays 132 nations have joined its membership whereas sixty still have its ratification pending, among others: Japan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Sudan, Angola and Sierra Leona.

‘Lemkin’s work gives us an example of moral commitment not only to governments but also to non-governmental organizations that are themselves so active in this cause.’, pointed out Annan during the homage paid to Lemkin in the UN. His wife, Nane, who participated in the ceremony, is Raoul Wallenberg’s niece, the Swedish diplomat who between 1944 an 1945 saved thousands of lives during his mission in Budapest. The personal commitment adopted by Annan in relation to this issue is not a surprise. It is the continuity of a position always adopted and which was clearly exposed to our foundation in two private interviews kept in Buenos Aires and New York in 1998.

To think of Lemkin is to remember thousands of men and women of different nationalities who, as himself, fought against the ruling of the Nazi barbarism. They offer the lights in a period ruled by shadows. Among many others, Jan Karski, Catholic and militant of the Polish underground; the first reliable witness who informed the allies about the Holocaust.

In the first anniversary of his death the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and the Embassy of the Republic Poland will pay tribute to Karski in Buenos Aires next June 20.

* Baruch Tenembaum is Founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation