International Law in the Age of Genocide | Facing History & Ourselves

International Law in the Age of Genocide

While Lemkin was able to convince diplomats at the United Nations to pass the Genocide Convention, his work was not complete upon his death. The job of lobbying governments across the world to ratify the convention was left to ordinary people.
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English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Genocide

By October 14, 1950, twenty countries—the minimum needed—had ratified the Genocide Convention; ninety days later it went into effect. But serious problems lay ahead. As years stretched into decades, the nations whose support was needed for enforcement of the convention showed little interest in ratifying it. Among these, most notably, was the United States, which was focused on its fear of Communism in the 1950s and then caught up in internal conflict over civil rights in the 1960s.

Why did these issues make many Americans think that their government should not support the convention? On June 16, 1949, President Truman transmitted the Genocide Convention for the Senate’s approval (where such treaties are ratified). But soon a small group of senators blocked the process. Among them were Southern segregationists who believed in strict separation of Blacks and whites (or segregation). According to legal historian Lawrence LeBlanc, these Southern representatives asked, “[C]ould the convention be considered applicable to racial lynching?” 1 And if “mental harm” were considered genocide, segregation laws might also be considered genocidal. 

Indeed, in 1951 the singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson joined labor and civil rights activist William L. Patterson in a petition that accused America of genocidal treatment of its Black population. “We maintain,” the petition read, “that the oppressed Negro citizens of the United States, segregated, discriminated against and long the target of violence, suffer from genocide as the result of consistent, conscious, unified policies of every branch of government.” 2 In response, Lemkin claimed that segregation and genocide were separate crimes. Blurring the differences between the two, he added, played into the hands of those who were against American ratification of the convention. 3 In fact, opponents of the civil rights movement did use Robeson and Patterson’s petition as “evidence” that the Genocide Convention would inflame the debate on civil rights in America. 4  

Other Americans feared that ratifying the convention would expose soldiers who had fought in the Korean War (and, later, the Vietnam War) to charges of genocide. The most outspoken critics of the convention felt that national sovereignty would be fatally weakened if American politicians, soldiers, and diplomats became subject to prosecution for genocidal acts. 

Elements of antisemitism also crept into the statements made by those who opposed the treaty. Some directed hateful remarks against Lemkin, while others attacked the treaty precisely because it was designed (in their minds) to protect Jews and other minorities. 5 Many scholars say that while the vast majority of Americans supported the Genocide Convention, a handful of groups raised countless obstacles and managed to delay the ratification process. 6 Sadly, a small number of representatives in the Senate (where international treaties required a two-thirds majority to pass) were able to block the ratification of the Genocide Convention for decades. 7

In the meantime, Lemkin died. His longtime friend, New York Times editor A. M. Rosenthal, wrote that Lemkin died alone in a New York hotel “without medals or prizes.” Only a handful of friends attended his funeral. Throughout his life, Rosenthal said, Lemkin “had no money, no office, no assistants. . . . He would bluff a little sometimes about pulling political levers, but he had none. All he had was himself, his briefcase, and the conviction burning in him.” 8 Lemkin, in his own words, was a “totally unofficial man.” Despite being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, his achievements were hardly recognized during his lifetime. 

American ratification of the Genocide Convention had been a dead issue for almost a decade when William Proxmire, a senator from Wisconsin, got involved. Stunned by America’s inaction on what he saw as a crucial issue, Proxmire made a remarkable decision. On January 11, 1967, he declared that “the Senate’s failure to act [to ratify the Genocide Convention] has become a national shame. . . . I serve notice today that from now on I intend to speak day after day in this body to remind the Senate of our failure to act.” 9 So whenever the Senate convened, there stood Wisconsin’s senior senator, lecturing his colleagues. 

But Proxmire underestimated the indifference of his fellow legislators; he also did not foresee how easily extremist groups would create widespread fear that under the convention, patriotic Americans would be tried for crimes of genocide. It took another 19 years and 3,211 speeches to persuade the Senate to adopt a resolution (with ample qualifications) ratifying the Genocide Convention. Two years later, in 1988, Congress confirmed the resolution. 10

After the convention was ratified by the United States, however, not much else happened. Author and activist Samantha Power claims that many countries today continue to ignore the treaty’s requirements. She says that in the 1990s, the United States ratification made “politicians ever more reluctant to use Lemkin’s word, the ‘g-word,’ because the feeling was, in the US government, that it would oblige the United States to do things it was otherwise ill inclined to do.” 11

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Despite the horrifying lessons of the Holocaust and the widespread, enthusiastic support for the convention around the world, human beings have continued to kill other human beings in numbers inconceivable to earlier generations. Tens of millions have died since 1948, many of them victims of genocide. Examples include the Cambodian Genocide, Iraq’s attacks on its Kurdish minority communities, the genocide in Bosnia, the Rwandan Genocide, and the genocide in western Sudan. The Genocide Convention was invoked for the first time in 2004, when the United States grew concerned enough about massive violence in Sudan, but to this date (early 2007), little has been done to stop the killings.

  • 1Lawrence J. LeBlanc, The United States and the Genocide Convention (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 236.
  • 2William Patterson, We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People (New York: Civil Rights Congress, 1951), xi.
  • 3Raphael Lemkin, “Nature of Genocide,” New York Times, June 14, 1953. See also “U.S. Accused in U.N. of Negro Genocide,” New York Times, December 18, 1951; LeBlanc, Genocide Convention, 45.
  • 4Le Blanc, Genocide Convention, 35-49, William Korey, An Epitaph for Raphael Lemkin (New York: The Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, 2001), 60-2.
  • 5Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 68, 72. Korey, An Epitaph for Raphael Lemkin, 67.
  • 6LeBlanc, Genocide Convention, 110.
  • 7William Korey, interview by Facing History and Ourselves, December 19, 2006.
  • 8A. M. Rosenthal, “A Man Called Lemkin,” New York Times, October 18, 1988.
  • 9Power, A Problem from Hell, 79.
  • 10Ibid., 166.
  • 11Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell: A Conversation with Samantha Power,” Facing History and Ourselves. This is a talk that Power gave on February 11, 2003 at an event sponsored by the Chicago Public Library and Facing History and Ourselves.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "International Law in the Age of Genocide," last updated March 16, 2008,

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History & Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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