United States Ratification of the Genocide Convention

On December 11, 1946, the United Nations General Assembly in its first session unanimously adopted a resolution affirming that “genocide is a crime under international law which the civilized world condemns” and requesting the U.N. Economic and Social Council “to undertake the necessary studies, with a view to drawing up a draft convention [treaty] on the crime of genocide.”

John Maktos
John Maktos

Thereafter that Council established a U.N. Committee on Genocide to prepare a draft of such a treaty. The draft that subsequently was approved by that Committee and other U.N. agencies had been prepared at the U.S. Department of State by a U.S. diplomat, John Maktos, who also served as the Chair of the U.N. Committee.

On December 9, 1948, by unanimous action of the U.N. General Assembly that draft was adopted as the Genocide Convention. Two days later (December 11th) President Harry Truman signed the treaty on behalf of the United States.

President Harry Truman
President Harry Truman

Six months later (June 16, 1949) President Truman transmitted the treaty to the U.S. Senate and requested its advice and consent to ratification. In his transmittal message, President Truman said the General Assembly’s approval of the treaty was “one of the important achievements” of its first session and that the U.S. had played “a leading part” in that accomplishment. The Senate’s approval would demonstrate that the U.S. was “prepared to take effective action on its part to contribute to the establishment of principles of law and justice.”

Such Senate action, however, did not happen until early 1986, and it was not ratified by the U.S. until late 1988 or nearly 40 years after its adoption by the U.N. General Assembly and its signature by the U.S.[1]

Here are some of the highlights or lowlights of the Genocide Convention’s journey to U.S. ratification.

In January and February of 1950 a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the treaty and favorably reported it to the full Committee in May 1950. The full Committee, however, took no action on the treaty, and it did not reach the Senate floor. For the next 20 years the treaty apparently gathered dust in the files of the Foreign Relations Committee.

President Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon

That changed on February 19, 1970, when President Richard Nixon reiterated a presidential request for Senate advice and consent to ratification. His message to the Senate stated that the U.S. had “played a leading role in the negotiation” of the treaty and that “ratification at this time . . . would be in the national interest” of the U.S. and would demonstrate “our country’s desire to participate in the building of international order based on law and justice.”

In response to President Nixon’s request, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1970 held hearings on the treaty and favorably reported the treaty to the entire Senate. The latter, however, took no action.

The Foreign Relations Committee did the same in 1971, 1973, 1976 and 1978, but it was not until February 19, 1986, that the Senate voted, 83 to 11, to give its advice and consent to such ratification.[2]   It did so with two reservations that required specific U.S. consent for the submission of any dispute involving the treaty to the International Court of Justice and that stated the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution over any of the treaty’s provisions. The Senate also imposed five understandings limiting the meaning of certain parts of the treaty. Finally the Senate declared that the instrument of U.S. ratification could not be deposited until after the U.S. adopted implementing legislation required by Article V of the treaty.[3]

President Ronald Reagan
President Ronald Reagan

That implementing legislation was adopted on November 4, 1988, with President Ronald Reagan’s signature of the Genocide Implementation Act of 1987, 18 U.S.C. § 1091. That statue makes genocide a crime for offenses committed within the U.S. or by U.S. nationals. The statute imposes punishment of life imprisonment and a fine of not more than $1 million or both for genocide by killing; imprisonment up to 20 years or a fine of not more than $1 million or both for other acts of genocide; and imprisonment up to five years or a fine up to $500,000 or both for incitement of genocide. There is no statute of limitations for these crimes.

When President Reagan signed the statute, he made a public statement that by this signing the U.S. would “bear witness to the past and learn from its awful example, and to make sure that we’re not condemned to relive its crimes. . . . During the Second World War, mankind witnessed the most heinous of crimes: the Holocaust.” Reagan added that he was “delighted to fulfill the promise made by Harry Truman to all the peoples of the world, and especially the Jewish people. I remember what the Holocaust meant to me as I watched the films of the death camps after the Nazi defeat in World War II. Slavs, Gypsies, and others died in the fires, as well. And we’ve seen other horrors this century — in the Ukraine, in Cambodia, in Ethiopia. They only renew our rage and righteous fury, and make this moment all the more significant for me and all Americans.”

Reagan concluded by saying that the “timing of the enactment is particularly fitting, for we’re commemorating a week of remembrance of the Kristallnacht, the infamous ‘night of broken glass,’ which occurred 50 years ago on November 9, 1938. That night, Nazis in Germany and Austria conducted a pogrom against the Jewish people. By the morning of November 10th, scores of Jews were dead, hundreds bleeding, shops and homes in ruins, and synagogues defiled and debased. And that was the night that began the Holocaust, the night that should have alerted the world of the gruesome design of the Final Solution.”

On November 25, 1988 (three weeks after the adoption of that federal statute), President Ronald Reagan deposited notice of U.S. ratification with the U.N. Secretary-General. This constitutes the actual act of ratification.[4]

The 40 year delay between U.S. signing and ratification apparently was the result of many factors. Many Senators were hostile to approving any treaty that might be deemed to infringe on U.S. sovereignty. Some were concerned, especially during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, that U.S. officials might come under frivolous accusations of genocide. Others worried that if the U.S. ratified, it would be obligated to send military forces to distant countries to enforce it. Others felt the Convention’s definition of genocide was unclear. The American Bar Association opposed it through 1977. Some Southern Senators were concerned that genocide charges might result from the region’s history of segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan activities. In addition, although the treaty was not retroactive, some feared it would be used to define the nineteenth century U.S. treatment of Native Americans as genocide.[5]

The Genocide Convention went into force on January 12, 1951, after 20 states had ratified or acceded to the treaty. Today 142 states are parties thereto.

This tale of the belated U.S. ratification of an important multilateral human rights treaty shows the complexity of the negotiation and adoption of such treaties and of their ratification by the U.S.  There is a similar history of the U.S. ratification of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.


[1] See David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Joan Fitzpatrick, Fran Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 139-40 (4th ed. LexisNexis 2009).

[2] In January and February 1974 the Senate debated the treaty, but there were insufficient votes to stop debate and proceed to vote on the treaty itself.

[3] I have not had the opportunity to research the original historical record regarding the U.S. and this treaty during these years. I ask anyone who has knowledge of the details of this record, to share that knowledge with a comment to this post.

[4] In accordance with Article 20 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 12 states thereafter objected to or commented unfavorably on the U.S. reservation regarding the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution while three states objected to the U.S. reservation regarding submission of disputes to the International Court of Justice.

[5] Perhaps a more complete analysis of the historical record on the ratification of this treaty can be found in Lawrence LeBlanc, The United States and the Genocide Convention (Durham, NC; Duke Univ. Press 1991). Again I ask anyone who has knowledge of the details of this record, to share that knowledge with a comment to this post.

Growing Up in a Small Iowa Town

In 1949 my parents and I moved to my Dad’s home town of Perry, Iowa– 6,000 population only 40 miles northwest of Des Moines. My Dad bought an interest in the Perry Granite Works. My Mother soon thereafter started working as an assistant librarian at the town’s Carnegie Library and later became its Head Librarian.

I finished my last two years of elementary school in Perry followed by six years of junior and senior high school. Although there were not many optional courses in the schools, I did have math through trigonometry, physics, chemistry, speech, American and English literature, world history and social studies. I also took typing and at least one shop class. (The only foreign language was Latin, which I did not take because I was confident I would go to nearby Iowa State University to become an engineer and have no need for the language and because I was scared of Latin.) I had some excellent teachers; the ones I especially recall are Emma Hepker, Charles Bennett, Elsa Hay, Gayle Junkin, David Evans and Leonard Rossman.

I always did well in school and finished as the 4.00 valedictorian of my high school class of 62 members and as a member of the National Honor Society. I was a finalist for a National Merit Scholarship and National Honorary Society Scholarship. (Close, but no cigar.) The local Elks Club named my best friend and me “The Most Valuable Students” of our class, and he and I were the town’s representative at Hawkeye Boys State where I was elected Secretary of the mock Iowa Senate.

I was active in the Speech Club and served as its president my senior year. I won top honors in state contests in radio speaking and extemporaneous speaking. (There was no debate program.)

I lettered in football my junior and senior years. I played offensive and defensive end even though I was not very big (155 lbs.), tall (5’10”), fast or strong. One of my favorite football stories is about tackling the star running back on the team from Winterset (John Wayne’s hometown); I did not tackle low like you are supposed to do; instead I tackled him straight up; he was carried him off the field on a stretcher while I put my helmet back on and continued playing. The captain of the team my senior year was my best friend, who played center at 135 pounds. (A medical problem prevented my playing my freshman and sophomore years.)

I also lettered in track as a member of relay teams, and in the summer I played shortstop or second base on a local town baseball team. The “Perry Wildcats” we were called. After finishing high school, I managed the team one summer.

Another extracurricular activity was concert and marching band. I played the alto saxophone and occasionally was a soloist in concerts and state music contest.

Playing the tenor saxophone with me in the band was Norman Lewiston, who was a year ahead of me and a tall, socially awkward, farm boy. He, however, excelled in the sciences and was the valedictorian of his class. Later he became a respected physician and Professor of Pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. After he died in 1991, each of his three wives discovered the existence of the other two. This real-life drama was made into a movie–The Man with Three Wives–starring Beau Bridges as Norman. The concluding scene in the movie has one of the wives returning to the farm just east of Perry and throwing Norman’s ashes to the wind.[1]

 

Perry Methodist Church

The local Methodist Church was another center of activity. I was in the Youth Choir and a member of Methodist Youth Fellowship, and its president my senior year. I fondly remember when our church was visited by five college students on what they called a Youth Caravan to assist the MYF programming. The senior pastor was Rev. Arlie Krussell, who was reserved in what seemed like an English manner; he urged me to go into the ministry.

In junior high, I had a newspaper route for The Des Moines Register. Later for several summers I detasseled seed corn in the area. I also worked as a sales clerk at a local men’s clothing store and did all sorts of jobs at my Father’s monument store. After I had a driver’s license, I drove the Perry Granite Works truck to local cemeteries to deliver and often install the monuments. I also learned how to sandblast the names and dates of birth and death of the deceased into the granite stones.

On Saturday nights my friends and I frequently would “shoot the drag,” i.e., drive in one of our cars up and down the few main streets of the town. We also had pork tenderloin sandwiches at “Sam and Chuck’s” restaurant at the east end of town or a “Maid-Rite” sloppy-joe hamburger at the town’s only franchise operation. (We had no pizza restaurant. One had to drive to Des Moines to get this delicacy.)

There were many aspects to life in this small town that were enjoyable. I seized the many opportunities it offered.

I was interested in politics back then. For example, The Des Moines Register reported that a high school teacher in northern Iowa had been fired for assigning certain books to his students. My letter to the editor protesting his dismissal was published in the same newspaper. Soon thereafter I started receiving letters and materials from the Young Communist League in the U.S.S.R.

I was growing up during the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. In the Fall of my senior year of high school I moderated a school assembly about the 1956 presidential election between Eisenhower/Nixon and Stevenson/Kefauver. As was true in Iowa and the U.S. as a whole, the Republican candidates won by a large margin in our mock election.

The Cold War overshadowed my high school years. The Korean Conflict ended in 1953 after “Ike” Eisenhower had pledged in his first campaign to go to Korea to end the war. Just before I entered high school, Joseph Stalin died, and Nikita Krushchev became the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for transmitting U.S. atomic secrets to the U.S.S.R. J. Robert Oppenheimer was charged with possible treason. There was open-air testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The Soviets crushed revolts in Poland and Hungary. The first nuclear-powered submarine and the first satellite–Sputnik–were launched.

In the U.S. civil rights issues were prominent. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In 1956 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then 27 years old, organized a boycott of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama while in Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus challenged the Federal Government over school desegregation in Little Rock.

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate now that television was new in these years. I remember when my parents bought our first small, black-and-white TV set. The first World Series I watched was the 1950 Yankees-Phillies match with Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford of the Bronx Bombers and Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts and Jim Konstanty of the Phillies. I also recall watching news of the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954 when the Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch, punctured McCarthy’s big ego.

Elvis Presley burst onto the national stage with such hits as “Love Me Tender,” “Hound Dog,” “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Jailhouse Rock.” I remember watching Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, when the TV cameras were not allowed to focus on his shaking pelvis. Little did we know at the time that we were witnessing the start of an American cultural phenomenon.

In this and other ways, television was just starting to break down the sense of social isolation I felt growing up as an only child in a small town in Iowa, far away from where things were really happening–Washington, D.C. and New York City. Europe and the rest of the world were even farther away, places that I never thought I would visit some day. Iowa, of course, was (and still is) primarily an agricultural state, which did not have much status in the larger world. Nor did my Dad’s business. I did not want to be trapped into taking over this business although this was never mentioned as something expected of me. All of this produced in me a sense of being an outsider. This sense of isolation also helped motivate me to work hard at school as my way to escape this small town and its life.[2]


[1] Paddock, Doctor Led Three Lives with Three Wives: Polygamy: Stanford Professor never divorced and kept households with each of the women. Truth emerged after his death in August, L.A. Times (Oct. 14, 1991); The Man With Three Wives, http://www.fandango.com/themanwiththreewives_v467704/plotsummary.

[2] I already have mentioned my visits to eastern universities in the summer before my senior year of high school to explore the possibility of going there for college before I decided to go to Grinnell College. (Post: Selecting a College (Aug. 10, 2011).)

Questioning President Lyndon Johnson

In March 1966, during my final semester of law school, I was one of 38 national finalists for 16 White House Fellowships. This fellowship program had been started in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson to provide one-year high-level positions in the White House and Executive Branch to future leaders so that afterwards the individuals could take that experience into their regular jobs and be better informed about important public policy issues and the workings of the federal government and, therefore, be better citizen leaders.[1]

 

East Room, White House

The other finalists and I were brought to a Virginia retreat center for interviews by members of the Fellows Commission, including John Gardner (then U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Department) and C. Douglas Dillon (former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Department). Afterwards on March 29th we all were bused to the White House and mid-afternoon were escorted to the East Room where the winners would be announced.

Before the announcement, however, President Johnson unexpectedly entered the Room. He first joined his daughter Luci Baines Johnson, who was substituting for her ill mother, to greet the finalists. The President then walked around, shaking hands and making individual comments. Johnson then called for everyone’s attention. He said that when he was a young man in Washington, he always wondered what it would be like to come to see the president and what the president would say while the young Johnson knew what he hoped the president would say. Johnson then remarked that perhaps the finalists would like to ask him questions rather than hearing him give a dry lecture.[2]

There was an awkward silence. The other finalists and I were hesitant to ask the first question, and Johnson told a few jokes to loosen up the people in the Room.

Finally one of the finalists asked what previous presidents would have been selected as Fellows if there had been such a program in their day. Johnson laughingly replied that Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy undoubtedly would have been selected, but he did not think that Truman and Johnson himself would have made it. Other finalists asked Johnson questions about the Viet Nam war, the current visit to Washington of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Fellowship program itself.[3]

Lyndon Johnson & Bill Moyers

Word of this impromptu presidential question and answer session got back to the White House Press Room, and journalists belatedly arrived and stood at the back of the Room taking notes. Johnson’s Press Secretary, Bill Moyers, was next to Johnson during the session and kept trying to end it, but Johnson was enjoying himself and continued to respond to questions.

During this session I was standing about 10 feet from President Johnson. There was concern at the time about inflation with the February 1966 Consumer Price Index up 0.5%, the highest increase in that month since 1951, and whether the President would ask Congress for a tax increase to fight inflation. So I asked the President if he would be seeking such a tax increase.

Tugging at his big right ear lobe, Johnson responded in a folksy manner in his Texan drawl. He first said that he was more worried about economists than he was about the economy and that he had not made up his mind on the tax increase idea. He added that he did not want to ask for an increase, especially in a midterm election year, but if he decided a tax increase was necessary to cool off the economy, he would ask Congress for a “modest” rise of 5 to 7 per cent in the taxes paid by individuals and corporations. Johnson also said he had ruled out reductions in federal government spending and wage and price controls as other ways to combat inflation.[4]

The President’s Daily Diary for that day says that this answer and his “mention of the Tax Rise to be proposed” was the headline in many newspapers the next day, as indeed it was.[5]

This news the next morning prompted a sharp decline in the stock market–the largest in two weeks. Reacting to this market decline, the President around noon on March 30th told journalists that he “absolutely” had not made up his mind about the need for a tax increase. The market responded with a momentary uptick, but it closed lower that day.[6] Thereafter I joked that I caused the stock market to fall.

At the conclusion of the meeting the prior day in the State Dining Room, the announcement of the 18 new Fellows was made.[7] I was not one of the lucky ones.


[1] White House, White House Fellows, http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/fellows.

[2] Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Daily Diary Collection (March 29, 1966), http://www.lbjlibrary.org/collections/daily-diary.html.

[3]  Id.

[4] Id.; Pomfret, Johnson Favors 5-to-7% Tax Rise If Any Is Needed, N. Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10B12FC3F59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3;  Rossant, Flexibility and Taxes; Johnson’s Hint of Relaxing Opposition To Rise Is Gain for ‘New Economists,’ N.Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10D11FE3E59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3; Wicker, The Inflation Debate, N.Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F1071FFD3F59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3;  Editorial, The Economy’s Pulse, N.Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10617F83F59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3.

[5] Id.

[6]  Abele, Tax Uncertainty Upsets Markets, N.Y. Times, Mar. 31, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10D15F63959177B8EDDA80B94DB405B868AF1D3.

[7] Capital Fellows End a Year at Top, N.Y. Times, Mar. 30, 1966, http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive/pdf?res=F10E1FFD3F59177B8EDDA90B94DB405B868AF1D3.