The mass killings of minority groups, which have occurred time and time again throughout history, are often beyond comprehension. How can humans be capable of such evil?
But even more inexplicable and troubling is the fact that many of these atrocities have gone largely unnoticed. They have not received due recognition and response either from heads of states or the public at large.
Fortunately, these tragic historical events have not eluded all. The new documentary, Watchers of the Sky, scheduled for release on DVD this year, details the story of Raphael Lemkin, the largely unknown Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the word “genocide” and almost single-handedly lobbied the United Nations to adopt a convention in 1948, making it a crime under international law.
The film, directed by Edet Belzberg, is inspired by Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Power currently serves as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Lemkin, the documentary’s main protagonist, studied mass atrocities from a young age and possessed a unique empathy for distant victims of suffering, while recognizing humans’ universal capacity to impose great harm on each other. As Power explains in Watchers of the Sky, he often said that a “line of blood ran from the Roman Empire up to the present.”
Lemkin knew that mass killings were not just a problem of the past, but a prevailing atrocity that could affect people of any culture. By sharing his experience, the documentary serves to remind us of this reality, an important wake-up call for all that believe they are safe from tyranny.
With artful animation and archival video footage, Watchers of the Sky weaves Lemkin’s fascination with persecution as a youth, to his tragic experience as a refugee in World War II, to his work to combat the greatest crime against humanity. By studying countless “ethnic cleansings” throughout history, Lemkin discovered an alarming trend: government leaders were able to carry out murderous campaigns within their borders, without interference or punishment from other states.
After asking his law professor why, for example, 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. The professor said, “Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens. He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.”
The idea that state sovereignty effectively enabled a leader to exterminate his own people, without recourse, troubled Lemkin greatly, and led him to question, “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?”
Though a seemingly basic concept, prosecution of mass atrocities was still an infant idea within the international sphere. Watchers of the Sky embellishes this point with scenes from the Nuremberg Trial and the scramble of young and mature lawyers to develop a method for trying Holocaust perpetrators. Though an important step towards justice, the greatest murder trial in human history still failed on some levels, condemning mass killing only in times of war, but not in times of peace. In addition, Nuremberg’s jurisdiction only included some types of genocide. For a perpetrator’s actions to be considered illegal, he needed to cross an international border; killing minorities within his country was still permitted under the law. Lemkin believed these missing legal pieces were a great disservice to people victimized by their own government.
Depicting both the professional and personal aspects of Lemkin’s life, the documentary allows the viewer to more fully enter into his struggle and uncover why he considered creating and improving human rights law such a necessary cause. For example, we learn that 49 of his family members, including his parents, perished in the Holocaust, a tragedy that only reinforced his commitment to the campaign.
Creating a word to describe the crime, “genocide,” was an important first step, but Lemkin’s real challenge lay in eliciting concern for mass killings and proving that criminalizing them would be a worthwhile legal advancement.
Through great persistence and exhaustive lobbying efforts, Lemkin convinced the newly formed United Nations to unanimously adopt his Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948. But Lemkin did not stop here. Watchers of the Sky details his tireless efforts to make the convention the most heavily supported in United Nations history. He wanted to ensure that country leaders understood that their actions, no matter how grievous, would not go unnoticed.
Yet throughout this process, Lemkin’s efforts were not necessary admired by his colleagues. The documentary expresses the sentiment shared by many political figures at the time: Lemkin was an annoyance. A man without a formal title, he would lurk around the UN headquarters trying to gain support for the convention from anyone he could. Many diplomats didn’t consider genocide to be a top national interest, or were afraid that condemning it, under the approach offered by the convention, would infringe on the rights of other states, or even their own.
However eventually, in the years following Lemkin’s death in 1959, the United States and most other UN members signed the convention. In essence, Lemkin’s contributions catalyzed the process of building a foundation for international human rights law, an impressive achievement, especially for one man. To this day, the convention remains the hallmark legislative piece for condemning genocidal acts.
Yet, as Watchers of the Sky makes clear, this tool for criminalizing and deterring such offenses against humanity has been shamefully underutilized. Since the adoption of the convention, the world has witnessed numerous instances of genocide – in Cambodia, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Darfur – just to name a few. Very few of their perpetrators have undergone examination and prosecution under the international community’s jurisdiction.
Even with the sound legal framework Lemkin created, garnering universal compliance has proven difficult. As Luis Moreno Ocampo, former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and feature interviewee in the documentary reminds us, “the global community is very primitive.” It took nearly 60 years to move from the United Nations’ adoption of Lemkin’s genocide convention to creation of the ICC, the international body in charge of adjudicating charges of genocide. And since its creation in 2002, the body has encountered roadblocks in condemning crimes against humanity. Not all countries are signatories to the ICC, rendering their leaders immune from punishment.
Nonetheless, Moreno Ocampo and others featured in the documentary – Samantha Power, Benjamin Ferencz, a former Nuremberg prosecutor who still tenaciously lobbies the UN for peace, and Rwandan Emmanuel Uwurukundo, UN Refugee Agency Field Director in Chad – courageously continue to stand up against present acts of inhumanity, even if the broader international community does not listen and treats perpetrators with impunity. Even if a particular mandate does not offer a direct solution to the problem, this does not mean condemnation should cease.
The documentary provides a prime example of this. In 2009, Moreno Ocampo issued the first ever ICC arrest warrant against a currently serving head of state, Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan. Al-Bashir’s regime had been committing acts of genocide against the people of Darfur for nearly ten years. Despite significant pushback from members of the international community and the fact that Sudan is not a signatory to the ICC, making it difficult to arrest al-Bashir, Moreno Ocampo urged UN Security Council members and diplomats to take action. He reinforced that in the face of evil, silence never helps the victims; it only aids the criminals.
Though seen as idealistic and mostly ineffective at intervening and punishing crimes against humanity, international bodies like the United Nations and ICC are depicted in the documentary as playing a vital role: upholding a moral conscience within the international community. For when states do not protect their own people, some form of external accountability is needed.
Watchers of the Sky’s portrayal of Lemkin’s life and the arduous work of others featured, demonstrates that building universal consensus around international law is a gradual process, not to be accomplished overnight. But the film brings a small glimmer of hope, through the great work of Lemkin, who to this day is not known or revered in many circles. Despite his impressive contributions, he was largely ignored during his life, before dying in poverty and obscurity, with less than a dozen people attending his funeral. Thanks to this documentary, many more people will have the privilege of learning about Lemkin’s story, and thus save it from becoming lost in the pages of history.
In a world full of so much evil and hurt, some, such as Power and others featured in the film are carrying on Lemkin’s legacy with the understanding that their efforts may not yield transformative results in their lifetime. Nonetheless, they move forward knowing that their contributions will add to the hopefully one-day comprehensive and effective framework to prosecute genocide perpetrators.
Their efforts also serve to remind that all human lives, no matter how distant from our own, are valuable and deserving of protection. As Lemkin stated, “The main thing is to make the nations of the world feel that minorities are not chickens to be slaughtered, but people of great value to themselves and to the world.”
Bringing such genocidal atrocities to peoples’ attention and exposing the harsh realities they entail is a vital service, especially considering the widespread pattern of inaction that has been established. Watchers of the Sky provides this value, offering people from all walks of life a comprehensive snapshot into the horrors of the past centuries.
The documentary’s invitation for us to visualize and learn of others’ suffering is not ill-founded, however. Rather, it is essential for connecting with those in distress, and then working, through whatever means possible, to mitigate the damage and deter future tragic events. For if we avert our eyes from the suffering, we cannot begin to understand global atrocities and then propose actions to curb their recurrence.
The ongoing conflicts in Darfur, Syria, and other regions of the world, remind us that genocide is a problem of our time. The struggle that Lemkin faced is now our own. While we benefit from the legal framework he provided, international law still requires advancement, and universal consensus around moral absolutes has not been reached. How will we contribute to the cause?