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Unofficial men, efficient civil servants: Raphael Lemkin in the history of international law

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This article examines Raphael Lemkin's campaign for the Genocide Convention in the context of other internationalist projects pursued at the UN in the postwar era. Lemkin's papers at the American Jewish Historical Society, as well as at the New York Public Library, testify to his concern that his ambition to establish genocide as a particularly criminal act would be disrupted either by advocates of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or by international lawyers and civil servants working at the UN Legal Commission, prioritizing the concept of crimes against humanity and the Nuremberg Judgment. While his project to create an internationally recognized law to make genocide a crime was legalistic in its implicit faith in the power of lawmaking, Lemkin cannily sought to distance the Convention from those promoting the renewal of international law in a period defined more by realist skepticism about interwar approaches. Instead, he rooted genocide in a religiously inflected moral idiom that could distance his project from those pursuing a broader agenda of international legal codification, which met with scorn especially from those journalists whom Lemkin successfully recruited to the cause of prohibiting genocide. In order to demonstrate this claim, this article first establishes that Lemkin's concern to preserve the basic idea behind the minority protection treaties set him apart from other international jurists of the period working towards the establishment of binding legal enforcement for the protection of individual human rights. It then contextualizes Lemkin's rivalry with the legalists by examining the effort by UN civil servants and international lawyers to revive the prewar project to expand international law, arguing that it compels a reconsideration of Lemkin's, and the Genocide Convention's, place in the history of international law and legal order more broadly.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: September 1, 2013

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