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On This Day: U.N. Adopts Genocide Convention

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On This Day: U.N. Adopts Genocide Convention

Posted by Emily Backes on December 9, 2010

On This Day: U.N. Adopts Genocide Convention

On this day in 1948, 62 years ago today, the United Nations’ General Assembly made a historic statement and took an unprecedented stand against genocide. The U.N.’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide identified genocide as an international crime and deemed it “contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations.”

Stemming from the world’s experience of the Holocaust, the U.N. General Assembly worked to create a document that would encompass the fervor of the ‘never again’ mantra and “liberate mankind from such an odious scourge.” The term genocide, created by Raphael Lemkin, literally means race (from the Greek genos) killing (from the Latin cide). As defined in the convention, genocide constitutes “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” It further outlines that the “conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempt to commit genocide, and complicity in genocide” are punishable acts under international law. The 1948 convention urged that countries continually work to “prevent and punish” genocide.

The U.N. General Assembly adopted the convention by a unanimous vote, and two days later the United States was one of the first nations to sign the convention, though it would take 40 more years for the Senate to ratify and fully adopt the treaty. Today, 140 nations have signed the treaty and pledged to uphold its mandate to prevent and punish the gravest of human rights violations.

Despite this resolve, genocide persists. In the years since the historic passing of the convention genocide has taken place in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. After each incident the world looks back in horror at the crimes committed and once again renews its vow to never allow genocide again.

Now, with exactly one month remaining before the scheduled referendum in southern Sudan – the region where genocide is most likely to occur in the world, according to the U.S. director of national intelligence – the international community once again has the opportunity to uphold the mandate of the Genocide Convention. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called Sudan a “ticking time-bomb.” It is indeed a fragile moment as we mark just one month until the referendum, so the time for vigilance and action is now. As George Clooney recently said, “We can’t afford to be late again. This is our chance to actually stop a war before its starts.”

We have the historic opportunity to finally see the Genocide Convention enacted to prevent genocide. During this national “Week of Action for Sudan,” we can raise our voices to ensure that the United States and the international community at-large continues to work for peace in Sudan. We can continue to press the Obama administration to ensure that civilians throughout Sudan are protected. Genocide is not inevitable in Sudan. As a signatory of the U.N. Genocide Convention, the U.S. government – empowered by its citizens – should uphold its obligation to work to prevent such a tragedy.

Photo: Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word ‘genocide’ (Audiovisual Library of International Law)