Raphael Lemkin: the man who coined the word genocide

Lemkin lobbied tirelessly for the United Nations to adopt a definition of the word genocide

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(Troy Media) I recently asked my Grade 12 students if Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide”, was a great man.

What I got in response from my students was quite thought provoking. Everyone seemed to agree that Lemkin was a noble man with a noble cause. He was a Polish Jew, born in 1900. He was a brilliant linguist and became a lawyer. He was also a man of great compassion. As he studied the world he saw tremendous injustices. In particular, he was impacted by the extermination of one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire under the cover of the First World War.

As the Nazis took control of Europe, he could see the same type of systematic killing being planned. This time, he watched as his own people were being targeted. He urged his relatives to flee, but few believed that the Holocaust would happen.

Lemkin himself escaped from Europe and taught at Duke University in the United States. It was during these years that he coined the term “genocide”. “Genos” coming from the Greek word for a group of people, and “cide” coming from the Latin word meaning to kill.

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Having lost many loved ones in the Holocaust, Lemkin saw how important it was for international laws to protect the lives of the innocent. After the Second World War, he lobbied tirelessly for the United Nations to adopt a definition of the word genocide, with the intention to use international courts to prosecute those who were guilty of the crime.

It is interesting to note that Lemkin had a much broader definition for genocide than what was adopted by the UN in 1948. He wanted to include, for example, “cultural genocide”, but this was opposed by several countries, including Canada.

In many ways, Lemkin was a man far ahead of his time. He continued to lecture and to lobby the global community, but the world was still reeling from the devastation of war, and the isolationism of the Cold War was coming into force. Lemkin died of a heart attack in 1959, and it would be decades until his ideas were used to protect the rights of innocent people. Even today, we are only beginning to scratch the surface.

Yes, what Lemkin did was noble. He dedicated his life to defining and enforcing just laws, despite the fact that this required him to make sacrifices in his personal life. A man with his training and intellectual brilliance could have easily lived in comfort. But this is not what Lemkin chose to do.

Whether or not we consider Lemkin great is essentially determined by our definition of greatness. Is it wealth that makes one great? Is greatness within the grasp of all of us, or is it only achieved if we gain great power?

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Jamaican writer, musician and philosopher Bob Marley says, “The greatness of a man is not how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.”

If this is indeed the case, we need to examine the character and the impact of Raphael Lemkin. He was certainly a man of integrity.

Looking back nearly 60 years after his death, we see the impact that he had on the world. He gave us a word that defines the worst that humans are capable of, and a framework to protect the rights of the innocent.

In this sense, Lemkin is not only great, he inspires the rest of us to the same greatness. If we can learn what he tried to teach us and follow in his path, we will indeed create a better world, a world where “never again” is not just an idea, it is a reality.

Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. 

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