Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Behind the Headlines an ‘epitaph’ for the Holocaust Victims

February 26, 1986
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Raphael Lemkin, the great Polish-Jewish legal scholar, would have been pleased by the Senate 83 to II vote last Wednesday ratifying the Genocide Convention. “An epitaph on my mother’s grave” — that is how he had described the treaty for which he was largely responsible.

If Winston Churchill called the mass destruction of a people because of their race or religion or ethnic origin “a crime without a name,” Lemkin gave it a name: “genocide.” He fervently hoped that America would be the first to ratify the treaty. But at his death in 1959, the U.S. Senate had still not given it its approval.

For Lemkin, it was not only an international juridical matter. It was also deeply personal. Forty-seven members of his family, including his beloved mother, had been massacred by the Nazis. He was determined to prevent its recurrence, whether against Jews or Christians or Armenians or dozens of others who, in his unfinished history of genocide, he had closely surveyed.

As the “unofficial man” at the UN during 1946-48, Lemkin lobbied mightily until the General Assembly adopted on December 9, 1948 the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”


Appropriately, if today somewhat ironically, Lemkin’s biggest backer was the U.S. Its delegation demanded a strong and unanimous vote before the UN General Assembly ended its 1948 session. And the U.S. was the first to sign the Convention two days after it was approved.

President Harry Truman sent it to the Senate for its “consent” in June, 1949. The Administration urged early Senate action to “demonstrate to the rest of the world that the United States is determined to maintain its moral leadership in international affairs.”

But a combination of factors halted the early drive toward ratification: resistance from the American Bar Association (which was completely reversed in 1976); a growing isolationism and xenophobia flowing from the Korean War and a rampaging McCarthyism; anxieties of segregationists from the Deep South; and the Bricker movement to limit the treaty-making authority of the Executive. Later, only inertia and a vague fear that ratification would threaten U.S. sovereignty prevented Senate action.

Sen. William Proxmire (D. Wisc.), who delivered 3,000 pro-ratification speeches from the Senate floor since 1967, observed that “there is not a single proposal that has been before the Senate as long.” The inertia was ended when President Reagan in September, 1984, just prior to his speech to the B’nai B’rith convention, demanded Senate action in order to assist “our efforts to expand human freedom and fight human rights abuses around the world.”

The State Department human rights specialist, Elliott Abrams, told the Senate, “We have all delayed too long” in adding “America’s moral and political prestige to this landmark in international law.”

Now that the U.S. has joined 95 other countries which have ratified the genocide treaty, what can be expected? Certainly, to anticipate a significant reduction in the number of instances of genocide would be overly sanguine. Since 1965, there have taken place nearly a dozen instances of genocide and the international response has been negligible.

These include the massacres of Chinese in Indonesia (1965), Ibos in Nigeria (1968), Bengalis in East Pakistan (1971), and Hutus in Burundi (1972). Especially shocking was the massive slaughter of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970’s, which went unnoticed.

The reality is that no effective international machinery exists for coping with genocide. The treaty largely depends upon national legislation and, where the determination to prevent genocide is absent, little can be accomplished. If the treaty does provide that “any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs” of the UN to take action under the Charter “appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide,” such section has never been invoked.

The genocide treaty is, thus, largely symbolic. Still, it establishes a moral standard to which the threatened and their friends can appeal. The invocation of moral standards, at times, might arouse international consciousness. Thus, by joining the Contracting Parties to the genocide treaty, the U.S. is in a position to “blow the whistle” on practitioners or advocates of genocide.

Even more significantly, U.S. ratification removes a source of endless embarrassment which has hindered the U.S. from effectively championing human rights. Frequently, when U.S. delegates at international forums, most recently at Helsinki accord conferences, have raised human rights violations in various parts of the world, it has been challenged by the Soviet Union on grounds of hypocrisy since it had failed to ratify even the treaty barring the slaughter of minorities. The Kremlin has now been deprived of a strong propaganda weapon aimed at America’s moral “Achilles’ heel.”


In the same way, the valuable American government role in providing the Holocaust with appropriate ceremonial recognition so that its trauma will never be forgotten was inconsistent was inconsistent with the failure to ratify the genocide treaty.

The treaty, after all, was the only international accord which emerged from the war that expressed mankind’s conscience about the Holocaust. Non-ratification gave off a whiff of insincerity on the occasion of official remembrances of the martyred victims of Nazi savagery.

“We have waited long enough,” said Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R. Kans.) when he finally called for a vote on February 11. “As a nation which enshrines human dignity and freedom … we must correct our anomalous position on this basic rights issue.”

Raphael Lemkin began his lonely journey to make genocide an “international crime” exactly 40 years ago. He would have welcomed the Senate vote.

Recommended from JTA