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Mark R. Amstutz

Who Is My Neighbor?

The moral responsibility to halt genocide

The term "genocide" was coined in the mid-20th century by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, who first became concerned with ethnic killing when the civilized world failed to hold Turkey accountable for the mass extermination of Armenians during World War I. After Germany invaded his homeland, Lemkin fled to the United States, where he continued his single-minded struggle to combat the deliberate and systematic efforts to destroy national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups of people. Since this crime did not have a name, he developed the concept "genocide," rooted in the Greek geno, meaning "race" or "tribe," and the Latin suffix cide, meaning "killing."

Based upon Lemkin's indefatigable efforts, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in December 1946 condemning genocide "as contrary to moral law and to the aims and spirit of the United Nations." More importantly, the measure called for drafting a treaty that would ban this crime. Two years later the General Assembly approved unanimously the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Since the convention defined genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," it ironically omitted the most destructive source of mass, systematic killing in the 20th century—namely, violence inspired by politics and ideology. The omission of political and ideological violence was deliberate, however, since Lemkin wanted to develop an international legal concept that distinguished violence in war from the deliberate extermination of people groups. In 1967 Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin became convinced that the United States needed to become party to the genocide convention and vowed to address this topic daily until it was ratified—a vow that resulted in 3,211 senate speeches over 19 years! Although the Convention entered into force in 1950, the United States did not formally ratify it until 1988.

While the defense ...

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