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Reagan Signs Anti-genocide Act into Law at Chicago Ceremony

November 7, 1988
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In a brief ceremony here Friday, President Reagan signed legislation implementing a 40-year-old international treaty that bans acts of genocide, making the United States the 98th country to support the pact.

The Genocide Convention Implementation Act amends the federal criminal code to make genocide a federal offense. It defines genocide as “the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

Roughly two dozen politicians and representatives of the Jewish and Armenian communities looked on as Reagan signed the act at a military facility near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

“We gather today to bear witness to the past and learn from its awful example, and to make sure that we’re not condemned to relive its crimes,” Reagan said in his brief remarks.

“I remember what the Holocaust meant to me as I watched the films of the death camps after the Nazi defeat in World War II,” the president said. “Slavs, Gypsies and others died in the fires as well. And we’ve seen other horrors this century — in the Ukraine, in Cambodia, in Ethiopia.”

In 1948, the United Nations drafted and approved the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in response to the systematic killing of 6 million Jews by the Nazis.

Though President Harry Truman submitted the bill ratifying the accord to the Senate in June 1949, it did not pass that house until February 1986. The legislation implementing the treaty cleared Congress last month.


A small number of conservatives had stalled the bill in the Senate since 1949, arguing that the law would undermine the constitutional rights of Americans and would infringe on U.S. sovereignty.

“I am delighted to fulfill a promise made by Harry Truman and to all the peoples of the world — and especially the Jewish people,” Reagan told those attending the signing ceremony.

The new law specifies several acts committed against members of a specific group that would fall under the definition of genocide.

They include: killing; inflicting bodily injury; permanently impairing mental faculties through use of drugs, torture or other techniques; creating conditions of life intended to cause physical destruction; attempting to prevent births; using force to transfer children of one group to another group.

The act provides that persons convicted of committing genocide face a maximum penalty of $1 million in fines and life imprisonment. Anyone who directly or publicly incites another to commit genocide is subject to as much as $500,000 in fines and five years in prison.

In his remarks, President Reagan said that while he “would have preferred that Congress had adopted the administration’s proposal to permit the death penalty for those convicted of genocidal murders, this legislation still represents a strong and clear statement by the United States that it will punish acts of genocide with the force of law and the righteousness of justice.”

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