Genocide and crimes against humanity 

This may sound a brutal heading, but it is what this post is about.

I’ve just finished reading Philippe Sands’ East West Street, his remarkable, moving and very personal exploration of the concepts of individual human rights and genocide, and their two great advocates and protagonists, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin.

The theme is human rights, in their broadest context. For too long, down the ages, the state overrode individual rights in the service of its own interests. On the one hand western European states developed social welfare programmes, on the other, when it came to war, they tyrannised populations, their own and others.

At the level of individual human rights – think of Erdogan’s Turkey, and China, where the interests of the party are paramount.

It begins with the very personal story of Lauterpacht and Lemkin, and takes us from the home city they both shared, Lemberg (also known as Lvov and Lviv), to Vienna, Paris, the USA, Cambridge, and ultimately Nuremberg.

Lemberg, at the time both men were born, was in Galicia, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire – and later in Poland, in Russia, in Germany, and now in Ukraine. Sands’ grandfather, Leon Buchholz, on his mother’s side was also from Lemberg.

Lauterpacht and Lemberg both became international lawyers of repute and the great stage to which Sands story leads is the Nuremberg trials of 1945-6, when twenty-four leading Nazis were put in trial, including the governor-general of Poland, Hans Frank, who oversaw the destruction of the Jewish population of Poland, and of Austrian Jews sent to the deaths at Treblinka and elsewhere.

Lauterpacht and Lemkin both saw their families who had remained behind wiped out. So too Sands’ family.

The Nuremberg trial gave form and substance to the concepts of individual human rights and crimes against humanity. The British attorney-general Hartley Shawcross’s final statement for the prosecution relied extensively on the work on Lauterpacht, by that time a Cambridge academic of many years standing. Sands captured the intensity of the trial with great skill. Shawcross, basing himself of Lauterpacht, emphasised the individual as the ‘ultimate unit of all law’. There are limits to the omnipotence of the state… ‘the individual human being, the ultimate impunity of all law, is not disentitled to the protection of mankind’.

Both Lemkin and Lauterpacht ‘agreed on the value of a single human life, and the importance of being part of a community’. But genocide, the idea behind genocide, the reality of genocide, gaining acceptance for which was Lemkin’s passion and obsession, was never accepted by Lauterpacht.

The two men never met. But Nuremberg was in a very real sense a stage they both shared. And where they in a sense competed.

Lauterpacht argued that a focus on groups would take the focus off the individual victim, and encourage a sense of group identity in the perpetrator as well as the victim.

Sands sees the merit in both arguments. How could one not see the carefully planned and stage-by- stage reduction of the Jewish people to people without rights, without work, to forced labour, to ghettos, to starvation, to extermination, as actions against a race? As genocide. Likewise the Armenian massacres of 1915.

On other side of the argument, Sands quotes the biologist, Edward O. Wilson, writing in our own time, on ‘group-versus-group’ being ‘a principal driving force that made us what we are … people feel compelled to belong to groups and, having joined, consider themselves superior to competing groups’.

We may talk, some of us, of being citizens of the world, but that sense of competing groups, defined in modern terms as identity politics, is still very much with us. Nonetheless the framework of an individual and group-rights based international order is in place, as it never has been in human history. Sands lays out the sequence.

On 9 December 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ‘the first human rights treaty of the modern era’. A day later, the assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document inspired by Lauterpacht’s work.

1998 saw the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

In 2015 the UN’s international law commission started to work actively on the subject of crimes against humanity, opening the way to a possible companion to the convention on genocide.

So we come right up against all the trials and evils of the present. Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Darfur. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen. So much of it targeting groups, tribes, nations within nations. The latest UN report (February 2017) states that over 65 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the UNHCR a refugee is ‘someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence’. There are just under 16 million refugees.

And at the individual level, we have Turkey, China, Russia, and many another. We have a long lon way to go. Eternal vigilance, and engagement, is the only way forward.

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