Source: Donna-Lee Frieze (2013) New approaches to Raphael Lemkin, Journal of Genocide Research, 15:3, 247-252, DOI: 10.1080/14623528.2013.821219
Writing in 1948 before the adoption of the Genocide Convention, Toby Shafter argued that ‘if the Genocide law is adopted, Raphael Lemkin’s name will go down in history as a great lawgiver’.
While ‘the group is endowed with a historical existence. . . its members enjoy only physical existence’, so biological destruction was added by delegates to the UN as an act of genocide to include the intention to destroy through sterilizations, castrations, prevention of births and mass restrictions of marriage.
Thomas M. Butcher reengages with the notion of cultural destruction by arguing that Lemkin conceived it as a component of genocide, not as a separate act. The concept of a genocidal synchronized attack for Lemkin is
pertinent because genocide attacks all ‘aspects of life’. The crime, as articulated in Axis rule is a foreign occupation, and as such, an attack on territory, space, and topography. Butcher highlights the relevance of space and place in a genocidal attack, because, he argues, Lemkin utilized the concept of physical space to sharpen his propositions regarding cultural genocide. Lemkin drew on the works of the Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski to emphasize the interrelation between the form and function of cultural symbols, claiming that culture is holistic. Thus, ‘a genocidal attack on one aspect of a culture will tend to undermine the other aspects as well’.
Using Lemkin’s archival notes on Native Americans, Butcher demonstrates Lemkin’s nuanced understanding of the differences between cultural assimilation and cultural genocide. The concept of ‘genos’, so closely related to Lemkin’s ideas on culture, is the core of a group’s existence and precisely what perpetrators want to destroy. But, asks, Butcher, is the ‘genos’ defined by the perpetrators or victim group? On this, Lemkin is silent. Viewing
cultural groups as holistic for Butcher poses more problems than understanding genocide as holistic. It is important that as scholars we understand how perpetrators perceive the genos of the victim, and not how the victims perceive their own group, which is usually varied and complicated. Perpetrators, usually simplify their views of the victim group. This uncomplicated view of the genos aids the process of dehumanization and the perpetration of synchronized attacks.