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Philippe Sands Lecture Summary

Philippe Sands (University College London)
"Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity under International Law: A Personal Story"
February 26, 2018

Philippe Sands on Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity under International Law

Language: English

In this lecture, Philippe Sands discusses his most recent book East West Street: On the Origins of 'Genocide' and 'Crimes Against Humanity' — part historical detective story, part family history, part legal thriller — to connect his work on 'crimes against humanity' and 'genocide', the events that overwhelmed his family in Lviv during World War II, and the untold story at the heart of the Nuremberg trial that pits lawyers Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht against Hans Frank, defendant number 7, former Governor General of Nazi-occupied Poland and Adolf Hitler's lawyer.

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Philippe Sands, Professor of Law and Director of the Centre on International Courts and Tribunals at University College London, gave a public lecture at the USC Gould School of Law. The lecture was co-organized by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research and the USC Gould School of Law International Human Rights Clinic. Professor Sands discussed his recently published book East West Street: On the Origins of 'Genocide' and 'Crimes Against Humanity'. The book focuses on the interweaving lives of four men and the way their lives influenced the development of international law and touched on Sands’ own path. The men are Rafael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide”, Hersch Lauterpacht, who crafted the term “crimes against humanity”, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer, and Sands’ own grandfather Leon Buchholz. 

Professor Sands began his lecture by reminiscing about the beginnings of his book project in 2010 when he was invited to give a lecture in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Professor Sands eagerly accepted the invitation because his maternal grandfather, Leon Buchholz, was born in Lviv in 1904. He had never spoken of either his life there or his extensive family, for he believed that he was the only survivor. Leon moved to Vienna in 1914 and later emigrated to Paris, unaccompanied by his wife or daughter (Sands’ mother), who had been born less than a year before. Leon’s wife would remain in Vienna for a few years. Yet their daughter, Sands’ mother, traveled to Paris, at less than a year old. The questions of why and how were mysteries that Professor Sands explored and that he interwove throughout his lecture.

When preparing to give the lecture in Lviv, Professor Sands was surprised to discover that Hersch Lauterpacht, the man behind the concept of ‘crimes against humanity,’ also came from Lviv and studied there at the University Law Faculty in 1915. Professor Sands explained that the British hired Lauterpacht in 1945 to assist the chief prosecutor Robert Jackson in the prosecution in the Nuremberg Trials. Apparently, a private conversation between Lauterpacht and Jackson was the context in which the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’ was born. The term came to cover atrocities against individuals on a large scale, and was incorporated into the Nuremberg Charter in August 1945, as the Article 6(c) of the Statute.

Then Professor Sands learned that Rafael Lemkin also studied at the Lviv University School of Law in 1921, where he obtained his doctorate in criminal law in 1926. In 1944, while already living in the United States, Lemkin published his famous book called Axis Rule of Occupied Europe, in which he introduces for the first time the concept of genocide as the destruction of groups based on their race or religious affiliation. In 1945, the same year Lauterpacht started working for the British, Lemkin was hired by the U.S. government to work with Robert Jackson. However, Lauterpacht and Lemkin never worked together. According to Professor Sands, Lemkin successfully pushed his idea of genocide to be incorporated into the Nuremberg indictment, although the concept was strongly opposed by both the British and the Americans concerned about its effect on their own histories of racial discrimination and colonialism. 

After reflecting on the origins of the two concepts, Professor Sands turned to the fourth man in his book -- Hans Frank, who served as Hitler’s personal lawyer starting in the late 1920s. According to Professor Sands, Frank’s credo that “community takes precedence over . . . the egoism of the individual” led to mass killing. Frank’s grave actions became intertwined with Lauterpecht’s and Lemkin’s fates, and even Sands’, since after Frank’s visit to Lviv in 1942, over 130,000 inhabitants of the city were murdered, including Lauterpacht’s, Lemkin’s, and Sands’ grandfather’s families. In 1945, Frank was tried during the Nuremberg Trials. On the first day of Frank’s trial, the terms ‘genocide’ and crimes against humanity’ were used in open court for the first time. 

In final part of his lecture, Professor Sands discussed the legacy and significance of the two terms of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”. In particular, he focused on the difference in their emphases – the emphasis on the individual with “crimes against humanity” and the emphasis on the group with the term “genocide”. Professor Sands noted that his own experience practicing law made him agree with Lauterpacht who believed that we should focus on the individual, and not the group. However, Professor Sands noted that he also understands the reasoning behind Lemkin’s emphasis on the group, as in most cases mass atrocity is targeted against members of a particular group. Professor Sands also stressed his concern about the hierarchy that has emerged relating to these two concepts, with ‘genocide’ being perceived as the worst crime imaginable, more serious that “crimes against humanity”. He also discussed the way the terms overlap at times. Every genocide is a crime against humanity, noted Professor Sands, but not every crime against humanity is a genocide. He concluded the lecture with a brief discussion of the legacy of these two concepts, especially in relation to post-1945 mass atrocities, as well as in the context of contemporary political developments, namely Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. 

Professor Sands’ lecture was followed by a long and engaging discussion. Some of the questions addressed included the challenges with the term “genocide” in identifying a specific group or including multiple groups; the possible influence of Emmanuel Kant’s work on Lauterpacht and the inclusion of Karl Schmidt’s work in Lemkin’s work; the question of  Lauterpacht’s role, or lack thereof, in the drafting of the human rights declaration; the challenges that the definition of genocide poses for scholars and practitioners of law, especially when it comes to proving the intent of the perpetrator(s); ways to reconcile different kinds of narratives; and the negative effects of the definition of genocide. The discussion was followed by a reception and book signing by Professor Sands.

This lecture was co-organized by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research and the USC Gould School of Law International Human Rights Clinic. It was co-sponsored by the USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, USC Center for Law, History and Culture (USC Gould School of Law), USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, the Jerome H. Louchheim School for Judaic Studies, and the USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics.


Summary by Badema Pitic