Perry Bechky

Document Type



Legal debate about genocide revolves around the definition set forth in the 1948 Genocide Convention, but often critically and with prescriptions for amendment. Many other definitions compete in public discourse. Often lost in all the discussion about what genocide does or should mean is the original intent of Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the word and convinced the United Nations to denounce and outlaw the “odious scourge” of genocide. This Article contributes to genocide discourse by conceiving of Lemkin’s coinage as rhetoric – that is, as part of his strategy to persuade the nations of the world to change international law and, indeed, the nature of international society. Accordingly, this Article applies lessons from rhetorical scholarship to a reading of nine of Lemkin’s published works. In particular, it draws on Lloyd Bitzer’s idea of the “rhetorical situation” to uncover “Lemkin’s situation” and thereby reveal the work he expected his word to perform. It also provides an example of how the Lemkinian understanding developed here can improve our construction of the Genocide Convention, and points the way toward further use of the Bitzer method to assess genocide’s ongoing value in public discourse.