‘Genocide’ coiner gains recognition


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Photo by Courtesy of Alex Hinton |

Raphael Lemkin, a former Rutgers professor, has been recognized for coining the term ‘genocide.’


“Genocide” is a word almost everyone has heard, said Jeff Benvenuto, a part-time lecturer in the Department of History. What most people have not heard of is the person who coined the term.

Raphael Lemkin, whose name was largely forgotten for decades, has been recognized as the father of genocide studies and for coining the term “genocide.” He first used it in his 1944 book “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation - Analysis of Government - Proposals for Redress.”

CBS News Commentator Quincy Howe said in an interview with Lemkin that his word was derived from the Greek word “genos,” meaning race or group, and the Latin root, “-cide,” meaning to kill.

“I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times,” Lemkin said in the interview. “It happened to the Armenians, and after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”

Lemkin, who fled the Holocaust, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice and urged the United Nations to outlaw genocide.

He died suddenly on 42nd street in New York at the age of 59 after living in poverty and sickness, said Alex Hinton, director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, or CGHR.

The Raphael Lemkin International Award was recently established by the U.N. in honor of Lemkin’s work and for his contributions in criminal international law.

Lemkin taught at Duke and Yale University, but also taught international law at the Rutgers School of Law-Newark from 1955 to 1956.

Hinton, who is also the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Chair on Genocide Prevention, has been trying to find details about Lemkin’s time at Rutgers, but it has been difficult because the archives do not have enough information.

Hinton said the Genocide Program of CGHR established the Raphael Lemkin Project. The project allows students to research Lemkin’s work and present their research at a symposium.

He restructured the way he teaches his courses, which now begin with Lemkin’s life.

“He combined both the desire to prevent genocide, so he had this activist side of him, but he also was a rigorous scholar,” Hinton said. “Our center tries to do rigorous scholarship but we also have a desire to have a critical engagement with issues like genocide prevention, mass atrocities and human rights issues more broadly.”

Hinton believes it was the renewed interest in human rights — which was elevated in the events that took place in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur — and Samantha Power’s book that thrust Lemkin into the limelight.

It was around the time when high school and college groups mobilized to raise awareness to prevent genocide in Darfur when Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., published her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” in which Lemkin is mentioned.

But to Lemkin, the word “genocide” has a broader reference than what was included in the U.N. Hinton said Lemkin’s definition included cultural genocide, which is the destruction of a cultural heritage.

Benvenuto, a graduate student at Rutgers-Newark in the Division of Global Affairs Program, said the secretary-general of the U.N. commissioned Lemkin and two other experts to write the first draft of the law calling for the international convention to punish the crime of genocide.

Benvenuto, who helped create the webpage for the Raphael Lemkin Project, said the more he learned about Lemkin, the more he was fascinated.

“He’s got an amazing life story, which frankly would make an incredible feature film,” Benvenuto said. “This guy basically traveled around the world, escaped from Nazis and changed the world.”

Hudson McFann, a Ph.D. student in geography at Rutgers-New Brunswick, works closely with Hinton on research focusing on genocide and the Khmer Rouge, the organization responsible for the Cambodian genocide.

When McFann was researching at the New York Public Library and looked through the Raphael Lemkin papers, he took notice to the role of myth that Lemkin focused on, specifically how myths about groups of people can contribute to the rationalization of acts of genocide.

His experience researching about Lemkin was extraordinary.

“You really realize when you look at the [the Raphael Lemkin papers] on microfilm, how much different of an experience it is and in fact in many instances, how much is lost.”


Julian Chokkattu

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