MONDAY WILL see the launch of the activities of the 20thanniversary of the Genocide Against the Tutsi.
April 7 April will also mark the 10th year since the UN General Assembly designated the day as the “International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda”.
Between the “commemoration” and “reflection”, and the United Nations stands Raphael Lemkin – the man who coined the term “genocide”, yet little known to many.
I first heard of him sometime in the late 1990s in my quest to understand the murderous phenomenon that would be the Rwandan tragedy and its place in the global scheme of things.
It, however, was not until I read the harrowing depiction of Lemkin’s passionate life in Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, that my imagination of the man really caught.
Lemkin has been with me since.
Here was a man, among a very select few in the history of mankind, “who by their own solitary efforts, with an obsessive devotion to a private cause, changed the moral climate of their times.”
He literally single-handedly drafted and, to his personal detriment, pushed for what came to be the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
First, about what made the man in as much as this space will allow.
Raphael Lemkin was born in 1900 in Poland of Jewish parents at a time when, under the rule of the Russian czar, Jews were forbidden to own farm land, or study in Russian cities.
When he was nearly six, pogroms broke out in Białystok, several miles away from where he was born in the village of Wołkowysk.
From the horrid stories he heard at that tender age of what was done to the Jews in pogroms. Lemkin would hold a peculiar fascination and obsession with human cruelty that gave him the raison d’être of his life.
Though he would grow up to be a lawyer, perceiving himself as a Polish national opposed to being a Jew, Lemkin would nevertheless be shaped by the Jewish fate.
Not only did he witness the horrors of the Holocaust, but also lost every member of his family – 49 of them – except his brother.
Still, in his writings on the “crime without a name”, as the then British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had called it, Lemkin never isolated the Jews from the fate of others.
As proof of this, it has been observed that when other Jews who survived the Holocaust became Zionists and put their faith in the creation of the Israeli state, Lemkin put his faith instead in international law, and in a convention that would proscribe the crime forever for every victim group.
For him, “the religious, ethnic, and national group was the bearer of the individual’s language, culture, and self-understanding. To destroy the group was to destroy the individual.”
In 1943, he coined the now well known term for the “crime without a name” by combining the Greek word “genos” (race or tribe) with the Latin word “cide” (to kill).
Over the next few years he argued and cajoled the diplomats at the UN into the inclusion of the new word (genocide) in the Nuremberg indictments for the Nazi criminals after the Second World War.
On December 9, 1948, the UN General Assembly passed the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Lemkin died a pauper in 1959, of which there remains a final irony: While the term genocide probably would never have been without him, it was not until the Rwanda tragedy 50 years down the road that an international tribunal was able to secure the first conviction – that of Akayezu in 1998 – under the Convention on Genocide.
Lemkin would, however, posthumously receive many international recognitions of which he will endure as humanity’s icon, more so as we commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Genocide Against the Tutsi next week. May God continue to strengthen Genocide survivors and all Rwandans during this Kwibuka20 (Remembrance20) period.
The writer is a commentator on local and regional issues.