Raphael Lemkin, a Polish jurist who lost forty-nine members of his family in the Holocaust, invented the word “genocide” in 1944 because he believed that, in the aftermath of the Turkish “race murder” of the Armenians and of Hitler’s extermination campaign against the Jews, the world’s “civilized” powers needed to band together to outlaw crimes that were said to “shock the conscience.” Prior to Lemkin’s coinage, the systematic targeting of national, ethnic, or religious groups was known as “barbarity,” a word that Lemkin believed failed to convey the unique horror of the crime. “Genocide,” he hoped, would send shudders down the spines of those who heard it and oblige them to prevent, punish, and even suppress the carnage.
An amateur historian of mass slaughter from medieval times to the twentieth century, Lemkin knew that genocide would continue to occur with “biological regularity.” Moreover, he knew from reviewing the recent past that if it were left to political leaders to decide how to respond, they would inevitably privilege their short-term interests over both the moral imperative of stopping genocide and the long-term consequences of ignoring it.
In 1948, largely on Lemkin’s prodding, the UN General Assembly unanimously passed the United Nations’ first-ever human rights treaty, the Genocide Convention, which required signatories “to undertake to prevent and punish” genocide. The Convention’s language was vague on precisely how the UN member states would meet their obligations, making no mention of military intervention and trusting that domestic prosecution of future “genocidists” would deter massacres. Still, the lively debates over ratification that occurred in national legislatures testified to the seriousness with which delegates believed they were committing their country’s resources and prestige to banning targeted slaughter.
More than a half century has passed since the Genocide Convention came into effect, and genocide has proceeded virtually unabated. Press coverage of the atrocities has generated outrage, but it has generally been insufficient to prompt Western action. As the 1990s showed, particularly in the reactions of the United States and Europe to carnage in Yugoslavia and Rwanda (the scene, in 1994, of the fastest and most efficient genocidal campaign of the twentieth century), Western countries replicated the pattern established in their earlier responses to the rise and domination of Hitler—long after they had supposedly internalized the “lessons of the Holocaust.”
In order to understand this pattern—and by extension, put an end to it—we must first confront the grim record of international responses to genocide in the twentieth century. In 1915, the Turkish minister of the interior, Talaat Pasha, and the other Young Turk leaders set out to solve Turkey’s “Armenia problem” by murdering leading Armenian intellectuals and depo...
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