Winston Churchill called the Nazi Holocaust a ``crime without a name.'' Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who lost 49 family members, gave it one. ``Genocide,'' from the Latin root ``gens'' meaning race, and ``cide,'' meaning to kill. The year was 1944.
This week the United States Senate is slated to vote on legislation that would make genocide a federal crime. The action will clear the way for the United States to finally ratify an international genocide treaty drafted by the United Nations after World War II.
The treaty was first sent to the Senate for approval by President Harry Truman in 1948. Conservatives, fearing infringement on US sovereignty and worried that the Soviet Union could use the treaty to make mischief, blocked action for 40 years.
The international treaty defines genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. The UN General Assembly approved it on Dec. 9, 1948, with the US representative voting yes but not taking a strong advocacy position.
Every President with the exception of Dwight Eisenhower pushed for ratification of the treaty. Resistance was argued on the basis that the US would be brought up on charges at the International Court of Justice for domestic treatment of native Americans and black Americans under the segregation laws.
The American Bar Association (ABA) argued strongly against ratification on constitutional grounds, saying that making murder a federal crime would upset the delicate balance between federal and state rights.
``After the assassination of President Kennedy,'' says Dr. William Korey, director of policy research for B'nai B'rith, ``certain murders became federal crimes'' and the question of ratifying the genocide treaty was reopened. He adds that 1960s civil rights legislation weakened the states' rights infringement argument and gave a ``shot in the arm'' to the ratification drive. But US involvement in Vietnam kept alive conservative fears of the country being charged with violating the treaty. Ratification was returned to the back burner.
In 1976, however, the ABA House of Delegates did a complete turn around and endorsed ratification. But another bottleneck developed when other opponents blocked progress using the same finely tuned constitutional arguments fashioned by the bar association.
Ironically, conservative President Ronald Reagan broke the stalemate by calling for the treaty's ratification in 1984. Dr. Korey says the President gets the credit for effectively ``neutralizing the conservatives.''
The Senate has already approved the treaty itself. But because no international tribunal is empowered to bring to trial persons who are guilty of genocide, each country must enact laws through its normal processes ``to provide effective penalties.''
The House of Representatives has already passed a bill making genocide punishable by life imprisonment and fines up to $1 million. in addition, 20-year prison sentences and up to $1 million in fines can be levied for attempting to cause serious bodily harm, causing permanent mental impairment through torture or drugs, destroying a group of people or preventing reproduction by members of an ethnic or other group.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is writing its final report, and committee staff aides say the matter is ``on a fast track'' to the Senate floor.
Conservatives, this time around, want to stiffen the penalty for genocide by making it a capital crime. The death penalty initiative was defeated in committee but could be reintroduced on the Senate floor.
Although staff members say ``there is no overt sign of the treaty being opposed,'' a press spokesman for Sen. Strom Thurmond, who has been a leading opponent in the past, says the senator is ``keeping his options open.''
Proponents see ratification as particularly important in the current world political climate.
``For too long the Soviet Union, cynically and hypocritically, has questioned our right to champion human rights everywhere precisely because we have not ratified the treaty,'' says Seymour D. Reich, international president of B'nai B'irth. ``Ratification would mean that the United States could blow the whistle. ... The danger of such episodes [mass killings] is by no means at an end.''
Proponents of ratifications note that since 1965 there have been many occurrences that could have come under the provisions of the genocide treaty, but which provoked only minimal response in the international community. Among them were massacres of Chinese in Indonesia, Ibos in Nigeria, Bengalis in East Pakistan, and Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge regime in that country.
But proponents also admit that ratification is largely symbolic - that the ability to call attention to an atrocity may be the only substantial enforcement mechanism to come out of ratifying the treaty.
The US has ``reserved'' the right to try its own nationals and refused to acknowledge jurisdiction of any potential international tribunal. Gregory H. Stanton, an international law professor at Washington and Lee University, says the reservation was made to prevent other countries from dragging the US before the court for groundless reasons.
Dr. Stanton takes strong exception to the reservation because, he explains, it makes it impossible to have an international trial without the consent of the accused country.
``The best way to disprove an allegation is to go to court and lay out the facts. This country certainly has enough lawyers to defend us,'' he says.