Lemkin extended the term ‘crimes against humanity’ beyond acts of war

Rafał Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent single-handedly created and promoted the concept of genocide culminating with the adoption of the 1948 Genocide Convention by the UN General Assembly. John Cornell of the Centre For Totalitarian Studies of the Witold Pilecki Institute told PolandIN about the entire lead-up to the memorable year of 1948, what set Lemkin on the trailblazing mission and why coining the term of “genocide” was such an important step in the fight for human dignity.

Click here to watch the full interview.

Mr Cornell told PolandIN that Lemkin’s interest in genocide went as far back as to his childhood when “ as a child reading Sienkiewicz’s ‘Quo Vadis’ he was deeply struck by the story of the martyrdom of the Christians by the Romans. This sense of injustice and the terrible fragility of people followed him through the whole of his life.”

“The idea of the legal concept of genocide for him actually goes back to the news of the Armenian genocide, which he would have heard about in the 1920s and 1930s when he was a young lawyer,” said Mr Cornell.

PolandIN’s guest explained that the general idea for Lemkin was to go beyond the misnomers of “barbarity” and “vandalism” that were used when describing an intentional action to destroy a people usually defined as an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group in whole or in part. Go beyond and come up with a new definition that would on the one hand prove more adequate and on the other also include crimes of states against their own people so that the term “crimes against humanity” could be extended beyond the acts and conditions of war.

What influence did the Holocaust and the Great Famine in Ukraine have on Lemkin and his conception of genocide? And how did he manage to succeed in his up-hill-campaign for recognition of the term following his arrival in the US?

Find the answers by watching the full interview here.