When World War II ended, Lemkin returned to Europe and served as an advisor to Justice Robert H. Jackson, the lead prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials (see reading, The First Trial at Nuremberg in Chapter 10). Lemkin considered the Nuremberg trials only a partial success, for while they did punish some of those who were guilty of genocide against European Jews, Nazi leaders were indicted on the broader charge of “crimes against humanity” and the Jewish identity of victims was not emphasized. Genocide still was not recognized in law as a crime. Lemkin wrote, “In brief, the Allies decided a case in Nuremberg against a past Hitler—but refused to envisage future Hitlers.”
Therefore, after the trials, Lemkin devoted himself to persuading the newly formed United Nations to “enter into an international treaty which would formulate genocide as an international crime, providing for its prevention and punishment in time of peace and war.”
Lemkin successfully persuaded the UN to act. On December 9, 1948, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, often called the Genocide Convention, which classified genocide as a crime under international law and incorporated many, though not all, of Lemkin’s ideas. (It did not offer protection for political groups, for example, as he had recommended.) The convention states, in part:
The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The following acts shall be punishable:
(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
(d) Attempt to commit genocide;
(e) Complicity in genocide.
Persons committing genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III shall be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.
By the 1950s, a sufficient number of countries had ratified the convention, and it entered into force (although the United States did not ratify it until 1986). In 1998, a permanent International Criminal Court was established, with jurisdiction over the most important international crimes, including genocide (see reading, The International Criminal Court). Lemkin’s contribution was enormous, though he died before he could witness a conviction for the crime he was the first to name.