Human Rights Photographs Formatted title of Duke Human Rights Center Formatted quote about Human Rights

Lemkin at Duke

    By Morel Jones, Duke Senior

"He infused the battle against genocide with new insights and passion, almost single-handedly drafted an international multilateral treaty declaring genocide an international crime, and then turned to the United Nations in its earliest days and implored Member States to adopt it."
- Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations

"It falls now to us, not just governments but also the non-governmental organizations that have been so active in this cause, to carry on in his spirit."
- Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations

"We have had many war heroes; we are in desperate need of peace heroes, and Lemkin is one such."
- Robert S. Rifkind, Chair of the Jacob Blaustein Institute and Honorary President of the American Jewish Committee

"Our effort to revive Lemkin's legacy will be made meaningful only through renewed commitment to prevent and punish the crime of genocide manifested by universal ratification of the Genocide Convention and the International Criminal Court before the end of this decade."
- Robert S. Rifkind, Chair of the Jacob Blaustein Institute and Honorary President of the American Jewish Committee

"The career of Raphael Lemkin testifies to an extraordinary degree how the efforts of a single individual can produce a revolutionary change. The very first UN Human Rights treaty, preceding by a day the adoption of the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was largely his doing. From the very name of the crime to the text of the treaty to the lobbying that brought it into reality - it was all Lemkin."
- Dr. William Korey, biographer


Raphael Lemkin has been described by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as "one of the unsung heroes of the international human rights movement." In a little-known chapter in his life, Lemkin spent time at the Duke University School of Law during World War II.

Lemkin was born in 1901 to a large Jewish family in Bezwodene, Poland. After law school, he worked as the Public Prosecutor for the district court of Warsaw and as secretary of the Committee on Codification of the Laws of the Polish Republic. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the entire Lemkin family was killed, save Raphael and his brother Elias. He fled to Sweden, where he lectured at the University of Stockholm for two years. In Sweden, he began collecting documents on Nazi rule in occupied Europe. In a 1941 escape, Lemkin traveled across Siberian Russia, through Japan, and across the Pacific to finally arrive in the United States.

Malcolm McDermott, a member of the Duke Law faculty at the time, was Lemkin's good friend and brought him to North Carolina in 1941. At the time, Lemkin held a degree of Doctor Juris from the University of Lwow in Poland.

With McDermott, Lemkin translated The Polish Penal Code of 1932 into English. Lemkin served as a "special lecturer" on Comparative Law and Roman Law at Duke between 1941 and 1942. During the Summer Session, he gave a series of lectures on Comparative Government.

Lemkin spoke at many engagements while in Durham, such as the opening session of the North Carolina Bar Association's 44th annual convention, where he discussed "Law and Lawyers in European Subjugated Countries." While at Duke, Lemkin published the article "The treatment of young offenders in continental Europe" in the periodical Law and Contemporary Problems in 1942.

Also during his time at Duke University, Lemkin began writing his major work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944), which analyzed Axis authority and policies in occupied Europe. "Genocide," a term coined by Lemkin, appears for the first time in print in this book.

In 1942, Lemkin left Duke to serve as chief consultant on the U.S. Board of Economic Warfare and Foreign Economic Administration, and he was subsequently appointed as a special advisor on foreign affairs to the U.S. Department of War. In 1945-46 Lemkin worked as an advisor to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg Trial Chief Justice, Robert Jackson.

Although he fought unsuccessfully to have the word genocide introduced in the trial, he later drafted and lobbied for the passage of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that eventually took place in 1948. His work is described as "a counterintuitive leap of the imagination beyond the realm of what common sense deemed possible" by Michael Ignatieff of Harvard University.

Lemkin was nominated in 1950 and 1952 for the Nobel Peace Prize. He died in 1959 in New York.

More information on the life and work of Raphael Lemkin can be found on the following websites:

More information on the Genocide Convention can be found at: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


Duke Human Rights Center - rights@duke.edu
235 John Hope Franklin Center, Franklin Humanities Institute
2204 Erwin Rd., Box 90403, Duke University
Durham, NC 27708-0403
Voice: 1-919-668-6511 Fax: 1-919-668-1919

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