Unit III.  Human Rights in International Law
A Case to Consider

Would you vote in favor of a treaty allowing individual prosecution for war crimes if it meant an American citizen might be a defendant?

Raphael Lemkin, 1948
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the crime of genocide had no name, and no international laws prevented it. Raphael Lemkin was a Jewish lawyer born in Poland who fled to the US at the time of the German invasion. Lemkin coined the term genocide in his academic writings. The murder of millions of Jewish people drove Lemkin in his tireless efforts to persuade the UN to adopt a treaty that would prohibit any repetition of what the Nazis perpetrated.

Trial of the Major War Criminals
Before the International Military Tribunal
Nuremberg, Germany, 1945

During World War I, the British government had threatened prosecution for crimes against humanity in response to the Armenian persecution, but Turkey responded by threatening British POWs and the British relented. The idea of crimes against humanity resurfaced after World War II at the Nuremberg trials. Through the efforts of Lemkin and others, the UN General Assembly passed the Genocide Convention in 1948. Lemkin then lobbied the various governments of the world (including the US) to pass the legislation necessary to prohibit genocide in their national laws.

Mass grave of Lakota killed at
Wounded Knee Massacre, 1891

The United States signed the Genocide Convention in 1948, but didn’t ratify the Convention until 40 years later, in 1988. The long delay between signing and ratification was the result of many factors. Some lawmakers felt the Convention’s definition of genocide was unclear. The American Bar Association opposed it. The Convention wasn’t retroactive, but policy-makers feared it would be used to define the nineteenth century US treatment of Native Americans as genocide. Southern lawmakers were concerned genocide charges might result from the region’s history of segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan activities.

There was also longstanding hostility toward anything that might infringe on US sovereignty. This type of opposition has prolonged the ratification process for many treaties. (For example, ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights took 15 years. The process took 28 years for the Treaty on Racial Discrimination. The Convention Against Torture took six years.)

Pres. Reagan with Gen. Ridgeway,
Bitburg Cemetery, Germany, 1985

The Genocide Convention went without ratification through several US administrations. Like many presidents before him, Ronald Reagan was reluctant to sign any treaty that might intrude on US sovereignty. However, controversy arose when Reagan visited WWII graves that included some Nazi SS officers in Bitburg, Germany. As a way to deflect criticism, he asked the Senate to give advice and consent on the Genocide Treaty. The ratification finally took place, and the needed legislation was passed to implement the Convention.

aired 04/09/04 on PBS
“The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer”

Transcript only of this program
with survivors from the Holocaust and Rwanda.

What kinds of treaties should the
US sign and ratify?

In this unit, you’ll learn how states attempt to collaborate to protect human rights at home and internationally.
Domestic Law
International Law
World Court

Genocide: A Word Is a Word Is a Word
Nuremberg Trials
Reagan’s Address on Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987

Unit II. What Are Human Rights
and Where Do They Come From?