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UN salutes human rights champion
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UN salutes human rights champion

A Plainsboro girl and two of her cousins were guests at a United Nations ceremony marking a relative’s central role in creating the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The Dec. 9 ceremony marked the 65th anniversary of the convention, which was inspired in large part by the work of the Polish-born legal scholar Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin coined the term “genocide” and lobbied the world body to adopt its first human rights treaty.

“Raphael was the key advocate of the UN convention against genocide, and he went banging on everyone’s doors to get it passed,” said Joseph Lemkin, the father of Lara Lemkin, 12, and uncle of Olivia, nine, and Danielle Mimeles, 12, of Huntington Park.

Raphael Lemkin was a first cousin of Joseph’s late father.

The girls received VIP treatment before the ceremony at the organization’s New York headquarters. They were saluted and presented with flowers by Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson. (Secretary General Ban ki-Moon was in South Africa for the funeral of Nelson Mandela.)

Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish student at John Casimir University in Lviv, Poland, created the term “genocide” while studying the wholesale slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks.

In 1933, he presented an essay on what he first called “the crime of barbarity” to the Legal Council of the League of Nations. Fifteen years later, on Dec. 9, 1948, he was present when UN member nations adopted the genocide convention, its first human rights treaty.

During the first year of the war, Raphael Lemkin was wounded fighting with the Polish Army in defense of Warsaw. He escaped Poland and gained permission to enter the United States in 1941. He lost some 50 relatives in the Holocaust, among them the parents of Joseph Lemkin’s father, who survived after being conscripted into the Russian army and whose three brothers were killed as partisan fighters.

More than a half-century after his death in 1959, Raphael Lemkin has a Facebook page dedicated to his battles against genocide.

“It’s amazing how the modern world works,” said Joseph. “Someone who saw a link on Facebook to the event at the UN told us about it. When I saw the link I said, ‘Man, I would love to take my daughter so I can educate her about our family.’ So I sent an e-mail to the UN. They were happy to have us,” he told NJJN.

Lara and her cousins were also happy to be at the ceremony. They wore headphones to hear translations of diplomats from three continents discussing human rights and genocide.

“It was very exciting,” said Lara a day after the meeting.

The seventh-grader at Grover Middle School in West Windsor Township is preparing to become bat mitzva in June at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor.

“I was excited to see all of the representatives from other countries and learn more about what he contributed to the world,” she told NJJN. “Raphael helped save people’s lives. I think he impacted a lot of people and it makes me proud of my heritage.”

Asked how she would convey what she has learned to other young people, Lara said, “Speak up for yourself and help others when you know that something is wrong.”

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