George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Foreword: ‘The Four-Pronged Attack’ — Raphael Lemkin’s Theory of Genocide and the Destruction of the Ukrainian Nation

by Douglas Irvin-Erickson

Publication Details MORE LESS

  • Display Date: October 2, 2017
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
  • ISBN: 978-0812248647


Raphaël Lemkin coined the word "genocide" in the winter of 1942 and inspired a movement in the United Nations to outlaw the crime. Together with figures such as René Cassin, John Humphrey, Hersch Lauterpacht, Jacob Robinson, Vespasian Pella, Henri Donnedieu de Vabres, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Lemkin set his sights on reimagining human rights institutions and humanitarian law after the Second World War. Lemkin described the UN Paris Assembly of 1948 as "the end of the golden age for humanitarian treaties at the U.N." After the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, Lemkin slipped into obscurity. Within a few short years, many of the same governments that had agreed to outlaw genocide and draft a Universal Declaration of Human Rights tried to undermine these principles.

By the last years of his life, Lemkin was living in poverty in a New York apartment. When he died of heart failure in 1959, it had been two years since he last taught at Rutgers University and his life work seemed for naught. The United States, Lemkin's adopted country, did not ratify the Genocide Convention during his lifetime. If they were familiar with the word "genocide" at all, leaders in governments around the world either thought genocide was inevitable or believed states had a right to commit genocide against people within their borders. In the context of the Cold War, during which real and existential danger lurked in the specter of nuclear annihilation and the struggle between capitalism and communism, genocide was seen as grave but not a threat to world peace. Except for a few scholars who took Lemkin seriously, decades passed before his accomplishments were recognized.