Monday, November 17, 2014

What's in a Word? Genocide.

There is a famous thought experiment that goes,
"If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it does it still make a sound?"
What about this thought experiment?

"If there is no word to describe the systematic and premeditated extermination of a large group of people of a particular ethnic group or nation, is it still a crime?"

Essentially no. The Nazis prosecuted at the Nuremberg trials were charged with crimes against humanity, exterminating citizens of other countries. At the time, what you did in your own country was not a crime, no matter how many people you killed; so the Nazis could only be indicted for crimes that took place across borders. 

The movie Watchers of the Sky chronicles the emergence of the term genocide. Raphael Lemkin first coined the word genocide in 1944. Naming the crime was the first step to declaring it an international crime.

Lemkin was a Polish Jew who emigrated to the US from Germany in 1941. It was his study as a youth of the Ottomans' persecution of the Armenians and Assyrians that motivated him to dedicate his life to criminalizing genocide so that its perpetrators could be brought to justice. 

Lemkin drafted the UN resolution known as The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. He relentlessly pushed for its adoption, lobbying shamelessly around the corridors of the UN to anyone who would listen, and the convention finally came into force in 1951. Prosecution for genocide is still not easy, but it would be impossible without the pioneering work of Lemkin. His work on genocide shows the power of a word. Naming the evil was the first step in criminalization.

The movie was partially inspired by Samantha Power's book on genocide, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Power appeared several times in the movie; her cool and dispassionate account of truly atrocious events made them even more sinister. The US Ambassador to the UN, Power is one impressive woman. She had me in tears at the 2008 TED conference, when she told the moving story of Sergio de Mello, the UN envoy killed in a terrorist attack in Iraq.

You might wonder where the title Watchers of the Sky came from. We're told at the close of the film. It comes from a comment by Tycho Brahe. Brahe was a Danish astronomer who spent his life meticulously recording observations of the night sky. When asked what value these observations might have since he had broached no new theories, Brahe stated that these observations would save future Watchers of the Sky years of work. Lemkin felt that his life's work in gaining acceptance of genocide as a crime would similarly make it easier for future prosecutors to nail those who commit genocide.

The movie was beautifully wrought. Black and white trees etched against the horizon dissolved into streams of refugees, fleeing from many genocides of history. My friends and I all enjoyed this movie. Well, maybe 'enjoy' isn't the right word. We were engaged, we were enlightened, we were dismayed, we were moved: those are some of the right words.

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