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Home » News » Promotion of the first Polish edition of Rafał Lemkin’s “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe”

Promotion of the first Polish edition of Rafał Lemkin’s “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe”

- I often wonder why certain people find it so hard to win a  place in our collective memory. Perhaps the reason is that during their lifetime they attach little importance to fame. However, they often demonstrate – as Raphael Lemkin did – that with sufficient commitment and motivation a single person  can play a fundamental role in shaping the fate of the whole civilized world, said Adam Daniel Rotfeld during a promotional event devoted to Rafał Lemkin’s monograph.  

On 18th  February 2014 the Przeździecki Palace at 6 Foksal Street in Warsaw hosted a promotional meeting devoted to the first Polish edition of Rafał Lemkin’s  “Axis Rule in Occupied Europe”. The debate participants included:

Philippe Kirsch – Canadian lawyer, in 2003-2009 judge and first president of the International Criminal Court. Specialist in international humanitarian law. Kirsch is a member of the Canadian Council on  International Law,  and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1988. He is a member of the Group of International Advisers to the International Committee of the Red Cross and former Chairman of the Canadian  National Committee for Humanitarian Law.

Adam Daniel Rotfeld – Polish international relations scholar, former Minister of Foreign Affairs in the cabinet of Marek Belka (2005) and Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 1990-2002. Member of the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters (2006-2011). Since 2008 – Co-Chair of the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters.

The meeting was moderated by Roman Kuźniar – Polish political scientist, diplomat, professor, former Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, currently -  International Affairs Adviser to the President of the PR.

Rafał Lemkin (b. 24th  June 1900 in Bezwodne near Volkovysk, d. 28 July 1959 in New York) was a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, who authored the term “genocide” and the draft Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted on 9th  December 1948. He majored in law at Jan Kazimierz University in Lvov and in 1925-1926 travelled across Europe, attending social sciences lectures in Heidelberg, Berlin and Paris. In 1927 he obtained his Ph.D., under the tutelage of Juliusz Makarewicz. After completing his studies, he worked as secretary at the Warsaw appeals court and served as section head at the General Secretariat of the Codifying Commission, which was tasked with drafting the penal code. In 1927 Lemkin became a  correspondent member of the International Bureau for the Unification of Penal Law. As member of the Polish delegation he attended the  Paris, Madrid and Copenhagen Conferences for the Unification of Penal Law.  In the 1930s Lemkin served as  deputy prosecutor for fiscal offences at the district court in Brzeżany and later – at the district court in Warsaw. In 1934 he set up a  legal practice in Warsaw.

In 1933, in a presentation to the International Conference for the Unification of Penal Law in Madrid -  and also in an article for the “Internationales Anwaltsblatt” - Rafał  Lemkin distinguished crimes of a new kind, directed against the interests of all humanity. These included “the crime of barbarity” – defined as acts against human life, undertaken for the purpose of destroying a specific racial, religious or social group, and “acts of vandalism”  - comprising actions against the cultural heritage of national groups. In his book The Axis Rule in Occupied Europe , published in 1944,  Lemkin presented his views on the new type of crimes against humanity, coining the term “genocide”, which he understood as “…coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups”.  He also proposed the adoption of an international convention for the prevention of genocide.

The Polish translation of Rafał Lemkin’s fundamental work was published by Wydawnictwo Naukowe SCHOLAR, under the auspices of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Radosław Sikorski. The edition was subsidized by the Prof. Bronisław Geremek Centre Foundation and the Warsaw University Institute of International Relations.

The meeting was opened by Henryka Mościcka-Dendys, Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Jolanta Kurska, President of the Prof. Bronisław Geremek Centre Foundation.

In his introduction to Rafał Lemkin’s book, Roman Kuźniar  wrote: “ The pioneering significance of the work lies in the identification and definition of a problem that has become one of the scourges of humanity. That phenomenon was named here for the first time as genocide – a term quickly adopted in international language. In essence it means the murder or annihilation of great groups of people because of their dissimilarity, or the creation for them of conditions, the prolonged maintenance of which leads to the same result.”

The participants in the meeting debated whether the threat from the crimes described and documented by Rafał Lemkin still existed and what  role the Polish lawyer’s concepts played in international protection of human rights. Philippe Kirsch underlined that despite the enormous progress made in the development of legal instruments,   the International Criminal Court  had no possibility of  preventing crimes against humanity. The primary problem consisted in the complicated structure of   international judicial bodies and the issue of jurisdiction –hindering effective yet acceptable action. Adam Daniel Rotfeld  noted that, in a sense, Rafał Lemkin had been ahead of his time by suggesting the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court, the introduction of a ban on wars of aggression and  adoption of a definition of international aggression.  The participants further reviewed the state of legal and institutional infrastructure dedicated to the international protection of human rights.