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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  The lawyers of Lviv

The lawyers of Lviv

In a remarkable coincidence, a small city in Ukraine gave birth to not one but two giants of the international legal system

A file photo of Zamarstynivska Street in Lviv, Ukraine. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPremium
A file photo of Zamarstynivska Street in Lviv, Ukraine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On Zamarstynivska Street in Lviv, Ukraine, there is a shiny new plaque outside house number 21. The plaque features a black and white image of a man gazing straight into the camera, his tie askew, a sheaf of papers in front of him. This man is Raphael Lemkin who lived in this building in 1923 and who, the plaque reminds us, was the “inventor of the term ‘genocide’ in international law." 

About two-and-a-half kilometres from Lemkin’s former home, there is a similar new plaque outside 6 Teatralna Street. The photo on this one features a bespectacled man in lawyer's robes, looking into the distance. This second man is Hersch Lauterpacht, another former Lviv resident. He, the plaque notes, had “the idea… to put the concept of ‘crimes against humanity’ into international law." 

Lemkin and Lauterpacht both received their law degrees from the same university—what is now the University of Lviv, studied under the same professor of criminal law, and walked the same streets within just years of each other in the early 20th century. A remarkable coincidence. 

The plaques went up last November as a tribute to these two prominent lawyers, to honour their lives, their legacies, and their connection with Lviv. 

Among those at the plaque ceremony was the legal scholar and author Philippe Sands. In 2010 Sands was preparing to give a lecture in Lviv when he stumbled upon an unlikely coincidence. The city where he was to speak about the international legal system had in fact produced two men who had developed fundamental concepts for that very system. 

“They came from the same city, and I thought, that’s really weird, what was going on there?" said Sands. “So it made me interested in the city and made me want to know more about the place and my own connection with the place." Lviv also happened to be the city that Sands’ own Jewish grandparents had left during the Second World War. 

Last year Sands, a UK-based lawyer, published East West Street, a memoir and legal history that documents both his family story, and how these two lawyers each coined a phrase that has inhered. The book brought the story to new audiences and uncovered a forgotten vein of Lviv’s history. 

“After the book, their stories became more well-known, as did their connection to the city," says Sofia Dyak, director of the Centre for Urban History of East Central Europe, over email. “And we hope installing the plaques will trigger new ways of looking at the city’s past." 

Five years ago, Sands and the Centre began discussing ways to honor Lemkin and Lauterpacht’s legacies. Later they secured the assistance of the city government to create plaques in honour of the lawyers’ accomplishments. 

Lviv is Ukraine’s seventh largest city, lying about 70 kilometres from the Polish border. It changed hands at least eight times between 1914 and 1945 and has been variously known as Lvov, Lwów, and Lemberg, depending on who controlled it. 

The years when Lemkin and Lauterpacht lived there were unusually turbulent, covering the period of the First World War and its aftermath. Conflicts between ethnic groups and discrimination against minorities were rising, while questions of national identity and a nascent Zionist movement were also front and centre. 

Lauterpacht studied at the university’s law faculty from 1915 until 1919. In 1923, he got married and moved to the U.K., first teaching at the London School of Economics and then Cambridge University. He eventually became part of the British prosecution team in the post-war Nuremberg Trials, set up to bring the Nazis to justice. For Lauterpacht, the mass brutality of the German state against its people amounted to “a crime against humanity," and he believed there needed to be something that protected individual rights, especially against the aggression of the state. 

In 1921, Lemkin arrived at the same academic department where Lauterpacht had studied. He earned a criminal law degree there in 1926. In 1941, he moved to the U.S. after being offered refuge by Duke University. In Axis Rule, a book he published in 1944, he came up with the word “genocide," combining the Greek word “genos" and the Latin word for killing “cide." When he later joined in the American prosecution’s efforts at Nuremberg, he successfully pushed for the use of his new term to describe the systematic, large-scale targeting of Jewish people mainly, but also other groups. 

Though the two men never worked together, the concepts they coined were born in the same terrible aftermath of the Holocaust and the war. They both wanted the perpetrators brought to justice, only in different ways. 

On 9 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, deriving from Lemkin’s work. A day later, they also adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, developed in part from Lauterpacht’s ideas. 

“The debate between the focus on the individual and the group never was decided, so both were embraced," said Sands, during a public lecture in Mumbai last year. “The legacies of Lauterpacht and Lemkin have been far-reaching. 'crimes against humanity' and 'genocide' live side by side." 

In addition to these two men, Lviv also installed a plaque in honour of a third legal giant from the city: Louis B. Sohn, who went on to teach at Harvard and help draft the UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

City officials weren’t involved from the outset in the memorializing project, but their participation helped add heft to the efforts. “This kind of official support is meaningful and crucial," said Dyak. “… to recognise and legitimise [these men] and their importance. But to also send a message that the city has not only recognised famous people but made an effort to confront its past, part of which has been very dark."

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Published: 17 Mar 2018, 11:27 PM IST
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