Continuing Lemkin's Legacy: What Can We Do to Prevent and Stop Genocide? | Facing History & Ourselves
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 1950 --- International lawyer Raphael Lemkin helped draft the Genocide Convention, which maps out prevention and punishment for the crime of genocide

Continuing Lemkin's Legacy: What Can We Do to Prevent and Stop Genocide?

Focusing on the crisis in Darfur, students examine what it means to pursue Lemkin’s mission to stop and prevent genocide in today's world.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • Genocide


About This Lesson

Raphael Lemkin was instrumental in the drafting and the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. With the ratification of this treaty, Raphael Lemkin's original goal was realized. Now there was an international law that nations could draw on to prosecute and punish perpetrators of genocide; now leaders like Mehmed Talaat could be brought to trial in International Criminal Court and men like Soghomon Tehlirian might not feel compelled to take justice into their own hands. 

Yet, since the Genocide Convention was adopted in 1948, genocides have continued around the world. Activists, such as Rebecca Hamilton, continue the struggle for genocide prevention that Lemkin began in the 1920s. While Lemkin worked to create a law when one did not exist, today's activists focus on pressuring politicians to use this law as a means and prevent genocide.

  • If we have a Genocide Convention, why does genocide still happen?
  • What can individuals and nations do to prevent and stop genocide?

Students will:

  • Expand their knowledge of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide;
  • Understand the limits of the Genocide Convention in stopping and preventing genocide;
  • Explore the politics of making change;
  • Gain basic background information about the genocide in Darfur;
  • Identify actions that can be taken to prevent and stop genocide;
  • Gather information from primary source documents (a United Nations treaty and a speech).

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 1 video
  • 3 readings
  • 4 extension activities

Preparing to Teach

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Lesson Plan


Students ended lesson two by looking at the definition of genocide contained in Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the "Genocide Convention"). This lesson continues students' exploration of the Genocide Convention. There are several ways students can learn more about this treaty. Students could read “Negotiating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” as well as the text of the Genocide Convention.

If time is limited, you might just have students read the convention, a fairly short document, either on their own or by assigning pairs of students to paraphrase particular articles. Of special importance are Articles I-VI. Below are examples of comprehension questions you might use to assess students' understanding of the Genocide Convention or to guide their reading of this text. Before reading the document, you may wish to review the concept of the United Nations. Here is a simple description you can use: 

United Nations [UN]: An international organization made up of 192 countries whose purpose is to help countries work together to solve problems related to human rights, military conflicts, and economic development. The United Nations adopts treaties, resolutions, and conventions, and in doing so, establishes international law.


Genocide Convention Comprehension Questions

  1. Where in the Genocide Convention does it say that genocide is a crime under international law?
  2. True or False: Genocide is not against international law if it is committed in time of war.
  3. This treaty refers to "Contracting Parties." What does this mean?
  4. Which groups are protected under the Genocide Convention? Extension question: Which groups are not protected under the Genocide Convention?
  5. If a government killed members of an ethnic group accidentally-for example, if a state-sponsored nuclear reactor leaked and killed or maimed the community surrounding the reactor, which happen to be largely people of one ethnic group-would that constitute genocide according to this definition?
  6. Why do you think the drafters of this treaty include "forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" in the definition of genocide?
  7. If someone plans a genocide, but the plan fails, could this person still be punished under the terms of this treaty?
  8. True or False: The Genocide Convention only concerns the crimes committed by public officials, not private individuals.
  9. According to Article V, what must nations do as part of adopting this treaty? What does it mean "to enact, in accordance with their respective Constitutions, the necessary legislation to give effect to the provisions of the present Convention, and, in particular, to provide effective penalties for persons guilt of genocide..."?
  10. According to this treaty, who will judge cases involving crimes of genocide?
  11. Why might some countries be reluctant to sign the convention?

After students have a basic understanding of the Genocide Convention, you might ask them what they know about its effectiveness in preventing and stopping genocide. You might refer students to the reading, “International Law in the Age of Genocide”, which addresses this issue. 

The purpose of the rest of this lesson is to help students consider why genocides have continued to occur-in Cambodia, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, and now in Sudan-despite having an international treaty designed to prevent it.

Next, students will watch the 10-minute Rebecca Hamilton: Building a Permanent Anti-genocide Constituency. In this video, Rebecca Hamilton, one of the founders of the Harvard Darfur Action Group, speaks about what people today can do to stop and prevent genocide. Before viewing this clip, it is important that students have some background on the situation in Darfur. You might begin by asking students what they know about Sudan. Do they know where it is? Have they heard about it on the news? What have they heard?

For information about the crisis in Darfur visit the following website: Genocide Watch

You might even ask students to preview this websites on their own. When speaking about activist strategies, Rebecca Hamilton draws on the following terms: divestment, political, domestic policy, constituency, and lobbying group. You might want to review these terms before students view the clip. There are comprehension questions to go along with the video. You might decide to stop the video at various points to go over these questions.

Video Comprehension Questions

  • What did then Secretary of State Colin Powell say?
  • What are some steps Rebecca Hamilton and the Harvard Darfur Action Group took to educate Harvard students about the situation in Darfur?
  • Why does Hamilton think that divestment campaigns might help stop the genocide in Darfur?
  • What is the Genocide Intervention Network?
  • What does Hamilton mean by the phrase "politically relevant noise"?
  • What does Hamilton mean by the phrase "domestic political priority"?
  • What does Hamilton think might convince elected officials to take more action to stop genocide?
  • What does Hamilton mean by the phrase "anti-genocide constituency"?
  • According to Hamilton, what actions might prevent genocide?

After viewing the clip, you might want to focus a class discussion on one of the following quotations from the video. You could also ask students to write about any of these questions in their journals.

  • "We realized that getting people to care about genocide is actually the easy part. The difficult part is directing them on what to do with that care once they made that discovery." Do you agree with Rebecca Hamilton? Why might it be difficult to turn caring, or even outrage, into action? Consider times when you have cared about an issue in your community or in the world. What have you done about it?
  • Raphael Lemkin said, "If women, children, and old people were to be murdered one hundred miles from here, wouldn't you run to help? Then why do you stop this decision of your heart when the distance is three thousand miles instead of one hundred miles?" Who is responsible for preventing genocide? When we know genocide is occurring, does geographic proximity make a difference?
  • The late Senator Paul Simon said, "If every member of the House and Senate had received a hundred letters from people back home saying that we have to do something about Rwanda when the crisis was first developing, then the response might have been different." To what extent do you agree with Senator Simon? What are the implications of his statement for the current situation in Darfur?

As a final activity, students can connect the material from this lesson to their own role as activists. One way to do this is to have students do a think, pair, share around the questions: "What could students at this school do to prevent and stop genocide?" 

Consider the strategies Rebecca Hamilton suggests. Which ones might be appropriate and why? What else might students do to help prevent future genocide and/or stop current acts of genocide?


Any of the discussion questions included in this plan could be used as an essay question in which students could use material from the past few classes to explain and defend their position.

Rebecca Hamilton presented her speech at a conference for scholars, educators, and activists. Students can prepare a speech on the topic of genocide prevention, but for a different audience, such as students or parents.

You can use the comprehension questions included in this plan as a quiz to evaluate students' understanding of this material.

Extension Activities

Students can find out more about what others are doing to stop the genocide in Darfur. Groups might have the task of researching specific organizations on the web (i.e. Save Darfur, Genocide Watch, Committee on Conscience, International Crisis Group, etc.) and then presenting a report on their organization to the class.

In groups or individually, students can identify something about which they are morally outraged. How could they turn this outrage into action, in the tradition of Rebecca Hamilton and Raphael Lemkin? Students might prepare an action plan that they can present to the class.

This lesson may make students curious about how the United Nations works. So, you might follow this lesson or even introduce this lesson with a brief exploration of the United Nations. For example, you might ask students to list what they know about the United Nations. Then have them make a list of what they would want to know. Students can go to the United Nations general information website to find answers to their questions.

Students can research the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted one day after the Genocide Convention, and the role of former United States first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in creating it. Compare the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Genocide Convention. What is similar about the documents and what is different? What can you learn about leadership by studying Lemkin's and Roosevelt's efforts to get these landmark human rights proposals accepted?

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