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The Armenian Genocide: Lessons from Raphael Lemkin

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This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide – a systematic, murderous campaign carried out by the Ottoman Empire against its Armenian population, killing 1.5 million and leaving millions more displaced.

Though these atrocities have been verified through survivor accounts and historical records, to this day, not all countries have recognized the atrocities as “genocide” – the foremost being Turkey, along with others, including the United States.

In a Huffington Post article, “The United States Should Remember Raphael Lemkin’s Words and Formally Recognize the Armenian Genocide,” H.A. Goodman draws particular focus to Turkey’s animosity toward the genocide label, even threatening other countries that recognize the tragedy as genocide.

Most recently, Turkey’s resistance was displayed when Pope Francis referred to the slaughter as the “first genocide of the 20th century.” The Turkish government responded by recalling its ambassador to the Holy See.

But perhaps an even more shocking reality surrounding the Armenian Genocide is this: at the time the Ottoman Empire began exterminating the Armenians in 1915, its actions were not considered illegal. It would be another 33 years before genocide was named a crime under international law, through the United Nations’ adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, after which the word “genocide” was created and used for the first time, only 4 years prior. For these two significant actions we have one man to thank, a largely unknown Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin.

The Armenian Genocide was a turning point for Lemkin, who took a unique interest in mass atrocities from a young age. While a linguistics student at the University of Lvov, he asked his professor why the Armenians did not have Turkey’s interior minister arrested after his government’s targeted murder of Turkish Armenians from 1915-1918. Lemkin learned that there was no law under which he could be arrested, a reality that troubled him greatly. It was after this event that his conviction to condemn and deter such crimes against humanity was born. Along these lines, he believed having a word to describe them would be crucial.

In this television appearance, he describes his desire to create this new word, “genocide”:

As Goodman states in his article:

Lemkin was always the most vocal figure of his era regarding the issue of genocide, and the slaughter of the Armenians was always at the forefront of his memory. Those who advocate a ‘debate’ in regards to the legitimacy of the Armenian genocide ignore the fact that there was never a debate in Lemkin’s mind. He created the word ‘genocide’ because of the Armenians and the many others who were victims of humanity’s greatest crime.

Because of Lemkin, countries now have the ability to label genocidal acts and bring them under jurisdiction of an international court of law. But as Goodman makes clear in his article, we have a long way to go in this regard. The legal framework Lemkin created has been shamefully underutilized. We would do well to follow Lemkin’s example, in first observing and duly recognizing affronts to human life and dignity. The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide presents us with an opportunity to immerse ourselves in, and fully recognize the extent of the tragedy.

A more comprehensive look at Lemkin’s work is provided in the recently-released documentary, Watchers of the Sky, which the Acton Institute featured in its latest edition of Religion & Liberty.

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Matthea Brandenburg Matthea works on the Acton Institute's PovertyCure initiative. She graduated from Aquinas College (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2012 with a B.A. in Political Science and German.

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