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Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada

Jerry Fowler and Raphael Lemkin – Eyewitness Testimony

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: July 11, 2009  

Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), a Polish Jewish lawyer, dedicated his life to creating legal protections for ethnic, national, religious, and cultural groups. In his memoirs, Lemkin stated that learning about “contemporary examples of genocide … such as the slaughter of the Armenians” made him understand “that the diversity of nations, religious groups, and races is essential to civilization.”

In 1933, he unsuccessfully proposed that the League of Nations create international laws to protect groups. When the Nazi German army invaded Poland in 1939, he fled to the United States.

Writing that “new conceptions require new terms,” Lemkin introduced the word genocide in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944). After World War II, he learned that some 40 members of his family, including his parents, had been killed in the Holocaust.

Thereafter, Lemkin focused all his efforts on lobbying for the creation of a convention against genocide at the United Nations.

His efforts culminated in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Lemkin committed the rest of his life to urging nations to pass legislation supporting the Convention.


Jerry Fowler (President, Save Darfur Coalition) − Lemkin was a Polish Jew and a lawyer, who grew up in eastern Polan. He ended up in the United States and he was speaking about what he believed was happeneing in Nazi-occupied Europe — this apttern of destruction.

He sensed that people didn’t get it, and I think he had this idea that if he could just put a name to it, if he could crystallize in one word this campaign of destruction, that then people would understand what it was that he was trying to say.

Raphael Lemkin (Holocaust survivor, coined the word Genocide) − Until now, a government could essentially do with its citizens whatever it wanted.

Muslims and Jews, Armenians and Slavs, Greeks and Russians, dark-skinned Hereros in Africa, and white-skinned Poles perished by millions or hundreds of thousands from this crime.

Jerry Fowler − The United Nations was a new creation at the end of the war. It was created in 1945 and it was intended to be the guardian of international peace and security in the post-war world.

And so Lemkin, who was a lawyer and who saw this problem of genocide as a legal problem, felt there needed to be international law that prohibited genocide and that committed nations to preventing and punishing the crime of genocide.

He saw it as a crime. And it was natural for him to think that the body that would pass such a law would be the United Nations. And so he became a one-man lobbying machine.

Raphael Lemkin − The world decided that genocide is a crime under international law and that a treaty should be signed by member states in order to prevent and punish this “crime of crimes.”

Jerry Fowler − I think that if Lemkin came back and saw the history of the last sixty years, in part his heart would break over and over again that people have still been targeted and been attacked with impunity.

But I think, at the same time, he would look at progress that has been made. I think he would look at students who are agitating on behalf of people at risk in Darfur or people at risk in Congo. He would look at people of faith who are meeting in their synagogues and their churches and their mosques to demand action by their governments. He would look at this worldwide outcry with regard to Darfur, and I think he would — he would have hope.

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada