Raphael Lemkin was, by all accounts, obsessed with genocide long before he invented a name for it. It began when he was a teenager in Poland, as he read about the Ottoman Empire crushing its Armenian population in 1915—what is now thought to be the 20th century’s first genocide. He was shocked not just by the killing, but by the brazen way it was conducted, as if there was no concern about outside intervention or repercussion.
Lemkin went to his law professor, and was told that the Turks were the rulers, and therefore had absolute sovereignty within their borders. The citizens of each country, the professor said, were just like chickens, and the ruler was like a farmer, and he could do with them what he liked.
“Sovereignty, I argued, cannot be conceived as the right to kill millions of innocent people,” Lemkin wrote in his notebooks.
Many years later, in 1943, he’d construct a word—scratching out many others (ethnocide, vandalism)—to properly convey the most heinous act of human evil. The equation for “Genocide” was half “genos,” Greek for people tribe or race, and half a derivative of “caedere,” Latin for killing or destroying.
“Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?” he wondered. He decided this word would be the catalyst in which the international community would be forced to make massacres into a crime, and then use law to prosecute such acts. It would inject a threat of accountability into power, and upend the impunity wartime leaders had operated under for years. By doing so, nothing like what happened to the Armenians, and later to him and his family during World War II, could happen to anyone else.
“He really believed this word could bring people together, could bind humanity in order to stop these crimes,” says Edet Belzberg, whose recent documentary, Watchers of the Sky, looks at the legacy of a man who succeeded in making genocide an international crime.
Belzberg first read about Lemkin in A Problem From Hell, Samantha Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning account of America’s inaction in the face of genocide, and came up with the film’s concept two years later.
“I was taken by this man who had no country to call his own, he barely spoke English, had very little money, and didn't have an address—yet he was able to achieve this,” recalls Belzberg.
Belzberg had grown up learning about WWII and visiting Holocaust museums since she was a young girl. When she learned of Lemkin’s story she was impressed that his battle to criminalize genocide began far before the killing reached his family, and continued far beyond a personal scope after.
“I think what I really loved about Lemkin and what spoke to me,” she says, “was that he wasn’t saying, ‘I have to figure out how to protect my people.’ He was thinking, ‘My God if this happened to me it happened to others, we have to find a way to prevent it.’”
The film traces Lemkin’s journey in haunting animation and follows four characters trying today to uphold his legacy. His success was revolutionary, but what would the crusader think if he saw the massacres that have gone unstopped today? The testimony is damning: the world has not learned its lesson. The newsreel footage in Watchers of the Sky follows columns of refugees fleeing war, suitcases and small children in their arms. These formations streamed from Rwanda with the same hopeless shuffle as they did from Bosnia and now as they do from Syria.
"If today is Darfur, tomorrow it's somewhere else," says one of the film’s characters, Emmanuel Uwurukundo, who runs UN refugee camps for 60,000 Sudanese in Chad. Uwurukundo, himself a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda that claimed his parents and six sisters, takes the film on the ground of a long-running war that once gripped the international community, but today only simmers in the back pages of newspapers.
Also featured are journalist and current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power; Luis Moreno Ocampo, the determined first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; and Ben Ferencz, who was just a young lawyer and soldier when he became the chief prosecutor of the largest murder trial in history: Nuremberg.
By WWII, Lemkin had been peddling his ideas on genocide for more than a decade. He’d moved to the United States in the early ‘40s and watched the country stand by as a mass slaughter played out across the ocean. President Roosevelt, who was eager to halt Hitler’s military advances, wasn’t going to justify a war just to stop an ethnic cleansing.
“So he has a word, now what? What do you do with a word?” asks Samantha Power in the film. Lemkin needed a place to test his concept, and decided on Nuremberg, where law was converging with the most horrific crimes yet recorded. Lemkin hung around the proceedings, disheveled and unkempt, but determined.
By that time his theories had been disseminated enough that Ferencz, when he addressed the court, threw in a tribute to Lemkin, calling the war crimes of the 22 Nazis being tried genocide, though it had no legal implication at the time.
When he returned to New York, Lemkin became a one-man lobbying machine. The United Nations had recently been created and he decided to push his new crime into the books. He’d often be waiting outside ambassadors’ residences and offices, and trailing journalists, ready to launch into his spiel at any moment. Someone called him a hermit crab lurking in the halls of the United Nations.
To get a resolution about genocide passed, he devised a letter-writing campaign. His strategy was to target the smallest of UN member states, writing to Haiti, Burma and others as a way to make the powers take note.
"This law shall not die, because so many human beings died to make it live," Lemkin wrote.
Then, in 1948, it happened. Country representatives spanning the earth’s corners raised their hands to support a convention that would prevent and punish mass slaughter as a crime. “Genocide Now a World Crime,” the headlines screamed. The refugee from Eastern Europe had made his first entry into international law books.
Three years later, in 1951, it was entered officially. Today, a number of world leaders have already been charged with the crime of genocide, but more questions have surfaced: How can genocide be prevented? And how should it be stopped?
“I think he would have been disheartened, but knowing Lemkin he would not have lost faith,” says Belzberg. “The United Nations is only as good as we demand it to be, and I think we all have to demand more of it…[Lemkin] would work harder.”
The name of the film refers to a story of an old man who watched and recorded the movements of the stars for 25 years. When asked why he was doing such a hapless task, he replied that though there was no gain for him, future generations could spare themselves 25 years of research and move scientific study forward.
Lemkin died penniless at a bus stop in 1959, on his way to another day lobbying at the United Nations. Since then, he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize seven times, and though his name is still little known, others have taken up his cause.
For half a century, Ferencz, a tenacious 95-year-old, has been on his own Lemkin-esque campaign. He’s petitioning the world’s powers to recognize an act of aggression by a state against another as a war crime—because once the charge is genocide or crimes against humanity, it’s too late. He wanders through the halls of the United Nations, passing out pamphlets and extolling his cause.
"I am watching the sky,” Ferencz says of his seemingly eternal campaign. "That's it."