70 Years Since the UN Genocide Convention: What Happened to Never Again?

Hannah King, Contributing Writer

This December marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Before the Holocaust, the term “genocide” did not exist. However, one man had already dedicated his life to ensuring that the world recognize and punish crimes committed against a group of people based on their identity. After the Armenian Genocide, young Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, questioned his mother: “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?”


After escaping the Nazis in 1941, Lemkin moved to the United States and continued his work on this concept. Encouraged by Winston Churchill’s 1941 assertion that “we are in the presence of a crime without a name”, Lemkin believed clarifying the conceptual framework surrounding mass atrocity would assist future prevention and punishment efforts. Lemkin created the term “genocide” by connecting the Greek word “genos”, meaning race or tribe, and the Latin “cide”, or killing. He assisted in the writing of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide and worked tirelessly to get it adopted by the United Nations in 1948. He died 11 years later, after continuing his efforts to get countries to pass legislation in support of the Convention.


Despite Lemkin’s hard work, the United States did not ratify the Convention until November 1988, 40 years later. It has furthermore taken another 30 years to introduce legislation into Congress to ensure our commitment to genocide prevention. Despite the constant commitment to “never again,” genocides and mass atrocities continue to occur despite our power to help prevent them.


The Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was recently passed by the House of Representatives and waits to be brought to a vote by the Senate. This bill supports the existence of the Complex Crises Fund, which has money set aside for emerging conflicts and other emergencies around the world, meaning Congress will not need to wait until the yearly budget decisions. It also supports the Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency group working to monitor risks of genocide and mass atrocities and improve policy in affected areas. Lastly, the bill will require mass atrocity prevention training for Foreign Service Officers so they are able to recognize early warning signs and know how to respond. This bill passed in the House over the summer, but still needs to pass in the Senate.


The Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act is another crucial piece of legislation that was just introduced in congress this summer. If passed, it would be the first comprehensive violence reduction legislation. It takes a PEPFAR-like approach by selecting 10 pilot countries, studying them, and enacting programming and policy for them over the course of ten years. Because we do not yet have violence reduction legislation, those involved would spend the ten years learning how best to prevent conflicts and reduce violence. As has been proven, it is much cheaper to prevent conflict than to respond to it once it has broken out, and it saves a lot more lives.


I would like to thank Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Representative McGovern for their continued support of the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act and would like to ask them to sponsor the Global Fragility and Violence Reduction Act and help as much as possible to pass the bill. For the last 70 years, the United States and the rest of the world have said “never again” to genocide, and yet has stood by and watched genocide after genocide occur. Right now, we have the opportunity to ensure that never again becomes a reality, by championing these two pieces of legislation and working to prevent future genocides and mass atrocities. Let’s not wait another 70 years to finally have genocide and mass atrocity prevention legislation in the United States.


Hannah King is a senior at Clark University studying Sociology, Political Science, and Holocaust and Genocide Studies. She spent last spring in Rwanda studying post-genocide peacebuilding and reconciliation and now serves as the campaigns coordinator for STAND: the student-led movement to end mass atrocities.