This exercise contains a factsheet about the establishment of a legal framework that defined genocide. By the end of this activity you will have developed your ability to reflect on the relevance of historical events in our lives and on the necessity to protect and uphold democratic values and human rights.
Before and during the time of the Holocaust there was no legal difference between killing one person and murdering an entire people. One man that found this unreasonable was Raphaël Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who fled his home country ahead of the Holocaust. From his refuge in Sweden and later the United States he put all his efforts into creating international legislation against genocide.
The term genocide comes from the Greek word for race; genos, and the Latin word for murder; caedere. Learning from the events of the Armenian genocide, Lemkin even prior to the outbreak of the Second World War had asked why the murder of an entire population with intent was not an international crime.
Lemkin's efforts gave results and, after the Second World War, ended with the framework of the newly-established United Nations. The UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which came into force in January 1951 and defined genocide as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group by different means.
At the same meeting of the UN General Assembly another important legal instrument was adopted: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which aimed at protecting individuals and societies from violations of their basic rights.
These documents could not be applied retroactively on the perpetrators of the Holocaust. However, just a few years after the destruction of the Jewish population in Europe took place there was now a legal framework and an international ban on genocide.
5.1.a What is the difference between the crimes of murder and genocide?
5.1.b Use the Internet to find examples where the Genocide Convention has been used to prosecute perpetrators.
5.1.c How do you think the world of today is protected from the crime of genocide?