Lemkin and Trifka: memory and justice

Winston Churchill called it ''the crime without a name.'' He was referring to the mass slaughter of a racial, religious, or ethnic group, a phenomenon that reached a climax during the Holocaust.

Raphael Lemkin, a transplanted Polish-Jewish lawyer, gave the crime a name - genocide - he stirred mankind to create international law that would deter and punish perpetrators of such crimes. The Genocide Convention, adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly in December of 1948, was largely his handiwork.

His extraordinary achievement merits noting this week, the 25th anniversary of his passing. Lemkin died on Aug. 28, 1959, a disappointed man, his hopes for US ratification of the genocide treaty unfulfilled.

Genocide may have entered the lexicon of international discourse, and 92 countries may have ratified the treaty, but strangely, Lemkin is all but forgotten. The name is inscribed nowhere at the UN, not on the walls or in the cases that adorn its corridors or in special UN documents.

Even more distressing is the failure of the United States to give expression to Lemkin's heritage by becoming a contracting party to the genocide treaty. Not surprisingly, Lemkin looked to US ratification as ''an inspiration to the world.'' He was deeply fearful that people would forget the Holocaust. In his own time, he observed that not a few ''already believe that Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, are manufactured war propaganda.''

The US, his adopted homeland, could make the difference, he thought. It had already done so at the UN. Warren R. Austin, the American ambassador, assumed the leadership in winning adoption of a resolution that declared ''that genocide is a crime under international law which the civilized world condemns and for the commission of which principals and accomplices are punishable.''

And the US championed the fight for the treaty in the General Assembly and, once adopted, was the first to sign it. Soon afterward, on June 16, 1949, President Harry Truman sent it to the Senate, seeking its advice and consent.

Opposition at the time came from the American Bar Association, which questioned the constitutional appropriateness of human rights treaties. That view no longer obtains, and the ABA is in the forefront of the effort to win ratification.

For more than 35 years, the US has failed to act. Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin has observed that ''there is not a single proposal that has been before the Senate as long.'' The consequence has been embarrassment in international forums, most recently at the Madrid conference of the Helsinki accord signatories, where the Kremlin exploits US failure to accede to human rights treaties.

Nonratification weakens America's leadership role in advancing human rights even as it raises a question about the administration's commitment to commemorating the Holocaust. Indeed, the official US Holocaust Commission has urged accession to the genocide treaty.

For Raphael Lemkin, adoption of the Genocide Convention would constitute ''an epitaph on my mother's grave.'' She and 46 members of his family had been exterminated in the Holocaust. The ''epitaph'' has remained unfinished.

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