When Soghomon Tehlirian was put on trial for assassinating the leader of the Armenian genocide, a 22-year-old Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin formulated his now-famous question, Why is killing a million people a lesser crime than killing one individual? Overwhelmed by the implications of his question, Lemkin immediately switched his profession from linguistics to law; for the rest of his life, he fought to establish an international legal system to outlaw genocide, the word he coined to describe mass killings based on race or religion. Lemkin failed to convince his parents to leave Europe in 1939—he lost 47 family members to the Holocaust—but he succeeded in incorporating genocide into indictments against Nazi leadership at the Nuremberg trials. On the basis of Lemkin’s lobbying, the UN passed the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, but, unable to convince the United States to support the convention, Lemkin died exhausted, alone, an object of scorn. Today, Lemkin’s work forms the foundation of the ICC and has inspired a number of humanitarian efforts around the world. In Watchers of the Sky, filmmaker Edet Belzberg recounts Lemkin’s life and legacy, as well as the work of four men and women who have followed in Lemkin’s footsteps: Samantha Power, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations and author of A Problem From Hell; Luis Moreno-Ocampo, first prosecutor of the International Criminal Court; Ben Ferencz, Chief Prosecutor for the US in The Einsatzgruppen Case at Nuremberg; and Emmanuel Uwurukundo, head of the field office of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Iriba. •Availability: Opens in New York, California, and Toronto October 17. Click here for local theater listings. •Thanks to Emma Myers, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview.•
DT: It’s a tragic irony that Lemkin, who was so focused on preventing genocide, was unable to convince his parents to leave Europe in 1939. People just seem to think, “I don’t believe it’s going to happen” or “It can’t happen to me.”
EB: We see that both historically and to this day. When Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a Rwandan genocide survivor, tried to convince people in his own village to go with him to the UN headquarters, even his wife didn’t want to go at first; she thought everything would be OK. Historically, we see that people at first think they’ll be assisted, or that it won’t get that bad, or that their neighbors couldn’t do such a thing, but what we see over and over again is that often people don’t come to your aid and that neighbors are the ones who often take up arms.
Samantha Power spoke about this. It’s not in the film, but she said, “We wouldn’t want to live in a world where we could believe it every day.” If we did believe that this could happen every day, what would that do to our makeup? We build this safety, we build this community, and it’s hard to deconstruct that when things get very bad.
DT: Before becoming a lawyer, Lemkin was a linguist. Can you talk about his coining the word genocide and some of the other options that he came up with and rejected?
EB: He thought that he would be a linguist, and he only changed his profession after he read about the Armenian genocide. He came up with a few options: Magyarization, Hungariazation, and he rightly cast those aside knowing they wouldn’t really capture people’s imagination.
DT: He proposed the term ethnocide?
EB: Yes. This was brewing in him for many, many years, then clearly his lingusitic background helped him come up with the word genocide, which is a Greek/Latin hybrid. When he came upon that word, he really felt he had something. And he not only felt that he had something but he also really believed that it would be enough to get people involved, to unite people, to bind people, to have them see how grave this crime was and to have them treat the perpetrators and also the victims of these crimes differently. I think he really believed the word was enough. And sadly, as we know, it wasn’t, and it still isn’t, but after he created the word, he went on and worked on the Genocide Convention, understanding that the word was not enough; he would need a law.
DT: Let’s talk briefly about the Nuremberg trials. Lemkin believed that criminals should be punished not by their victims but by international law, which was similar to the approach taken by Robert Jackson, the chief US prosecutor at Nuremberg, who used Nazi documents rather than Jewish testimonials in his prosecution of the case. Lemkin’s insistence on international law, rather than survivors’ revenge, was really the basis of Lemkin’s own work.
EB: Too often victims are left to their own devices to try and stop the crimes—as we see in the film, it was the Tutsi rebels who finally brought the massacres to an end. What this contributes to is a cycle of violence, because once you become a victim of this crime, your identity changes and your belief in the world changes; it’s no longer a feeling of coexistence but a stronger one of self-defense, and I think that Lemkin grappled with this. You mentioned Jackson; it influenced his work, and I think it’s something we need to continue working on, because victims are still being held responsible to fight these atrocities. To get to that place where we hope to get—where law is the order—we have to work for there to be an automatic system.
Luis Moreno-Ocampo would often say that international laws should be as automatic as the laws within our own societies. Leaders should feel the same influence of law in their lives as we do in our daily lives. They need to know that they will be held accountable for these crimes in the same way that citizens are held accountable for the laws that govern driving, for instance. We’re in a slightly better place than we were fifty or a hundred years ago, but still we see over and over again that leaders can continue these crimes with impunity.
DT: There are a number of impediments to international law. One is differing jurisprudence in different countries, and there’s also the question of sovereignty.
EB: Yes, difference in jurisprudence, of course. I think the question of sovereignty in terms of international law is the biggest impediment, but we are moving more and more toward a global community. We’re no longer in a place where the actions of one country don’t affect us globally. That was something that Lemkin thought, and something that I hope emerges from this film: We need to treat the UN and the delegates and the ambassadors at the UN as our ambassadors the same way we treat our US Representatives. What happens in the UN affects all of us. The decisions that are taken by the Security Council affect all of us. It no longer affects just one country or two countries. We’re moving further and further away from the nation-state idea to a global world citizen idea, and the question of sovereignty has to evolve.
DT: One of the things that led to our being able to do that goes back to Nuremberg. Lemkin managed to get genocide included in the indictment against Nazi leadership, but at that point genocide was not yet a legal crime. I know you’re not a lawyer, but can you talk about the legal aspects of linking crimes against humanity with crimes against peace?
EB: In terms of being able to kill people within your own country and not be held accountable?
EB: Lemkin saw that there was a fundamental flaw—that a leader could kill his own people and not be held accountable, but once he crossed the border, that’s when international laws kicked in. He saw a fundamental flaw with that, and that’s really what he was trying to address with the genocide law; that any time a leader or a group kills another group based on their race, ethnicity, or religion, they will be held accountable.
What Ben Ferencz is doing today is very interesting, because he’s trying to resurrect the Nuremberg laws but take them to a new level. He sees that crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide are laws that take effect once the killings have happened. In his view, that’s too late. This is what he’s working for: with a crime of aggression, it doesn’t matter if one person is killed. If an aggressive act has been made, that’s enough to prosecute. So if a leader crosses a border or launches one missile—even if that missile doesn’t kill anyone—the act of aggression, the act of war-making, is enough to require that leader or group to face charges. That would change things dramatically. It’s not about the deaths, it’s not about the killings, because Ben really believes by then it’s too late. Any aggressive act should immediately be prosecutable.
DT: That gives me goosebumps.
EB: That’s the next step, and unfortunately it’s taking a long time for that to happen because nations want the right to wage war.
DT: Let’s talk about the title of your film. In an interview with NPR, you said, “Change takes time.” This brought me in mind of Ben Ferencz’s story about the astronomer Tycho Brahe, which is also the thread that unites the humanitarians in your film, who are carrying on Lemkin’s work.
EB: The idea of the Tycho Brahe story is that it could take generations for someone to see the fruits of his or her own labors. Lemkin was …if not the first, then one of the first lobbyists. Before that term even existed, he was lobbying. He was there day in, day out at the United Nations holding people accountable, and I often wonder to myself, If we had ten or a hundred Lemkins at the UN every day, what would that do? How would that accelerate this process? So the Tycho Brahe story is about picking up the torch—that we might not see it in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean our work is in vain. In simple terms, it means we’re all responsible for picking up the torch of people who have labored so hard to make this world a better place.
DT: In the Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of Our Fathers, it says, “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
EB: That’s beautiful. That’s exactly right.
DT: Why is Raphael Lemkin so little known today?
EB: He died thinking he was a failure. He died unknown, he died impoverished. Toward the end of his life, in the late ’40s, he was much more well known and well received. The Genocide Convention was passed [by the UN in December 1948]. Even though he only got the small countries to pass it, he really believed that once it passed, it would be enforced. He thought that the large countries would follow suit afterwards, but when he realized they weren’t coming on board, in particular the US, he understood that he had a problem. So after the Genocide Convention was passed, he turned his attention to the US. That was an even more difficult challenge, a challenge he never anticipated facing, and that was a difficult turn for him. He was unhealthy, he wasn’t taking care of himself, he was hospitalized numerous times for various heart conditions, and he died unknown. That has continued to this day. I think Samantha Power’s book [A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide] was a first step to bringing his story to life, and hopefully this film will be the next step.
DT: One of the most painful apects of the film, oddly enough, was when Emmanuel said, “When you’re in a genocide, you start to question yourself.” Suddenly the psychological impact of genocide took on an aspect that I could relate to.
EB: It was very important to me for that to resonate, so it means so much to me that you’re bringing that up. That’s something we don’t think about. Emmanuel said that his loss made him question himself as a human being. One thing that’s not in the film but that I hope to be somewhat intuited is that his work helps him repair not only himself but also this world in some way. Helping people enables him to have hope in humanity and hope in himself, that it’s possible that the horrors are not the norm but really an aberration, and that we can work to stop that from happening again. His role as a survivor is to do that. It’s so critical that we understand what it does to people psychologically and how that would affect us as well.
DT: You have a website for the film, which includes a Get Involved section. What can people do to get involved?
EB: We have a huge outreach campaign right now to bring the film to middle schools, high schools, colleges, and law schools in order to create awareness and change. And I also advocate more involvement with the United Nations. We can contact our delegates at the UN, and we can also contact delegates from other countries. We need to start contacting the representatives at the UN the same way we would contact our own representatives, hopefully with better results. The UN is still this institution that we see as dysfunctional and outside our daily work and existence, and I think it needs to become a bigger part of our lives. We need to demand more transparency, and I think we need to take greater interest in the votes that are taking place there every day. They affect us, and that could be one huge step toward seeing ourselves more and more as global citizens.
Copyright © Director Talk 2014