Responding to Genocide

Jewish perspectives on the responsibility to protect.

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In December 1946, the first session of the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that made genocide a prosecutable crime under international law. Two years later they adopted the Genocide Convention, which offered a precise legal definition of genocide and outlined the mechanisms for punishing its perpetrators.

International Responses to Genocide

These developments grew out of the international community’s collective guilt about the Holocaust and were inspired, particularly, by the efforts of a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin was interested in establishing genocide codes even before World War II. He had been outraged by the absence of a legal framework under which to prosecute the Turkish perpetrators of the Armenian genocide (1915-1918). After escaping from the Nazis, Lemkin dedicated his life to establishing a legal framework for considering genocide. In fact, he coined the term “genocide” and was pivotal in ensuring the adoption of the Genocide Convention in 1948.auschwitz

Lemkin’s work built on the precedent established at the Nuremberg Tribunal and laid the foundation for the ex post facto prosecution of genocide as a crime against humanity. It was hoped that the criminalization of genocide, and the denial of immunity to government officials, would be a sufficient deterrent. But the Genocide Convention failed to articulate clear criteria for preemptive action to prevent genocide or mechanisms for reactive intervention to respond to ongoing genocide.

It was not until September 2005 that the United Nations took another significant step on this matter. In its comprehensive post-plenary document, the UN adopted language committing each member state to protect its citizens from war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. It further binds the international community to “help protect populations…[by taking] collective action, in a timely and decisive manner…[should] national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from” these atrocities.

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Aaron Dorfman is the Director of Jewish Education at American Jewish World Service. Before joining AJWS, Aaron completed a three-year Wexner Graduate Fellowship with a Masters Degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a year of study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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